Approaching Gun Violence As A Public Health Problem

"Non-Violence sculpture by  Carl Fredrik Reuterswärd )Wikimedia Commons)

“Non-Violence sculpture by Carl Fredrik Reuterswärd (Wikimedia Commons)

I would certainly describe something that kills 30,000 Americans before their time every year as a public health problem, wouldn’t you?

So would three Harvard experts who argue in the Journal of the American Medical Association today that the best way to curb gun violence is to treat it as a public health challenge not unlike smoking or car accidents.

From the press release:

They offer more than a dozen recommendations, based on successful strategies used in other public health crises. For example, they suggest a new, substantial national tax on all firearms and ammunition, to more accurately reflect the true societal costs of gun ownership and to provide a stable revenue source to target gun violence prevention. Such a tax would function like the tobacco tax, which provides crucial funding for smoking prevention efforts.

Other “off-the-shelf” approaches to preventing gun violence can be borrowed from efforts used in the 1970s to prevent accidental poisonings, the authors say. In the case of potentially harmful drugs, child safety packaging was introduced. In the case of guns, a similar strategy would be the manufacture of “smart guns” with security codes or locking devices. Also, routine education and counseling by physicians and national networks for education and prevention helped significantly reduce childhood poisoning deaths; similar efforts could help curb gun-related deaths.

Public health efforts to reduce motor vehicle deaths also offer ideas that could help prevent gun violence. Strategies included systematic safety standards for the driver (like driver education and licensing and drunk-driving legislation) and the vehicle (like safety glass and air bags). Similarly, strategies to reduce gun violence might include things like mandatory gun safety classes, penalties for violators of gun safety laws, reduced magazine clip sizes, and restrictions on rapid-fire firearms.

“Changing social norms is a fundamental public health strategy,” said Hemenway. “For common products like cigarettes, cars, and guns, many individuals, groups, and institutions need to become involved. As ‘friends don’t let friends drive drunk,’ similarly friends should help ensure that a friend going through a psychological crisis doesn’t have ready access to a firearm until the crisis is over.”

The authors also propose “de-glorifying” guns. “In much the same way that media, celebrities, peers, teachers, and physicians worked together in the latter decades of the 20th century to “de-glorify” cigarettes — previously seen as symbols of power, modernity, and sexuality — an analogous campaign ‘could justifiably equate gun violence with weakness, irrationality, and cowardice’ and reduce its glorification in movies, television, and video games.”

Listen to WBUR’s All Things Considered today for an interview with one of the JAMA piece’s authors, David Hemenway. And for further background that may make your blood boil, check out this other recent JAMA piece: Silencing The Science On Gun Research.

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