Gun Violence Needs A Public Health Remedy

January 1, 2013
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After the Newtown school shooting that left 20 children and six adults dead, President Obama said, “These tragedies must end. And to end them, we must change.’’

Dr. Georges Benjamin, executive director of the American Public Health Association, agreed, writing a letter to the President urging that the nation take a public health approach to reduce gun violence.health logo

“For too long,” Dr. Benjamin wrote, “we as a nation have failed to take on this devastating problem in our communities, and we can wait no longer.”

This is not simply a matter of semantics. Labeling something a public health issue is a game-changer. It brings together researchers and policy-makers across all sectors. It also brings money for research, and the kind of attention and effort that in the past has reduced the incidences of societal ills such as smoking or teen pregnancy.

Gun violence is one of the leading causes of injury and death in this country. Dr. Benjamin called for the expansion of “the collection and analysis of data” so that we can understand the causes behind firearms violence and death. If the doctor gets what he wants, he’ll end what has effectively been a nearly two-decade-long moratorium on federally-funded firearms research.

The gun lobby has been skilled at stifling science. In 1996, the 4-million-member National Rifle Association successfully lobbied Congress to remove $2.6 million from the budget of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention – the exact amount the CDC had spent researching firearms injury the year before.

The Senate eventually restored the money, but it was mostly earmarked traumatic brain injury studies. And, to avoid confusion, legislators added the following to the appropriations act: “None of the funds made available for injury prevention and control at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention may be used to advocate or promote gun control.”

Whatever gun control means to you, the effect on research has been chilling. These days, firearms research is mostly privately funded — and fairly damning. An October report from Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research, “The Case for Gun Policy Reforms in America,” said that the homicide rate in the U.S. is seven times higher than the combined rate of 22 other high-income countries like Canada, France, and Israel, because the firearm homicide rate is 20 times greater than in those countries. Why so many gun deaths? The report pointed to the U.S.’s “much less restrictive gun laws,” and our “high prevalence of gun ownership” as reasons.

Firearms and ammunition is a $4 billion industry, according to the National Shooting Sports Foundation, and it keeps growing. The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives said that 6.4 million guns were manufactured in the United States in 2011, up 16 percent from 2010.

Since the Newtown school shootings, gun shop owners in Connecticut and elsewhere have reported brisk business. The lines are forming out of a phantom fear of increased restrictions on gun ownership and access – “phantom” because so far no mass shooting – of a U.S. representative,of 70 movie-goers in Colorado, or, 16 days later, of six Sikhs in Wisconsin – has resulted in more than roadside memorials and public pronouncements that “We Must Do Something.’’

Now is our chance. Connecticut legislators return to Hartford next week, and some – Sen. Beth Bye (D-West Hartford), Sen. Gary LeBeau (D-East Hartford), and Rep. Gary Holder-Winfield (D-New Haven), among  them – have gun legislation ready. That’s part of the answer, but in order to stem this tide, we need to take Dr. Benjamin’s suggestion and approach gun violence as we’ve approached other societal scourges in the past, as a public health issue.

We need everyone in on this, and we need to devote money to data-driven research, gun lobby be damned.

To read Dr. Benjamin’s letter click here.

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