Gun safety: A public health approach

April 12, 2013 by Ken Ward Jr.

The Washington Monument stands behind thousands of grave markers erected in a mock cemetery on the National Mall in Washington, Thursday, April 11, 2013, to honor the victims of gun violence . (AP Photo/Kevin Wolf)

As this week ends, there’s a new and important commentary in the New England Journal of Medicine in which Harvard professors David Hemenway and Matthew Miller discuss a “Public Health Approach to the Prevention of Gun Violence.”

They describe the scope of the problem:

Guns kill an average of 85 Americans per day. Compared with all other First-World countries, we have average rates of assault, burglary, and robbery, but we have the most guns, the weakest gun laws, and by far the highest rates of gun homicide, gun suicide, and accidental gun death.

And, they explain that a wide variety of policies and actions could be taken to tackle the problem from different fronts:

— Manufacturers can reduce gun accidents if they stop making guns that can go off when dropped. Guns should be childproof (as are aspirin bottles).

Many firearms are currently obtained without a background check. Universal background checks are the rule in virtually every other developed nation and should be required in the United States.

— All developed countries require that drivers be licensed, like all other developed nations (and some U.S. states), we should require that gun owners be licensed. Other high-income countries (and some U.S. states) require that gun owners be trained and store their guns safely. We should follow their lead.

— A public health approach also involves changing social norms. As the norm about the propriety of social drinking and driving has changed over time, so should norms about guns. For example, the norm should be that all gun owners, not just some, store their guns safely. Hundreds of thousands of guns are stolen every year, and many are subsequently used in violent crimes.

 The paper concludes:

Since the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy, more U.S. civilians have been killed with guns that all U.S. soldiers who have ever been killed in war — from the Revolution to the present day … Currently, far too many of us are dying. We believe the public health approach provides a blueprint for success.

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