Researcher Treats Gun Violence as Public Health Issue

Article excerpt

Boston researcher David Hemenway recommends we regard gun violence as a public health threat and tackle it like we tackled the hazards of motor vehicles, cigarettes and poisons. All three products continue to circulate in society but we have found ways to make them safer.

Hemenway, director of the Harvard Injury Control Research Center at the Harvard School of Public Health, said that applying public health strategies to the uniquely American ailment of gun violence sidesteps the contentious issue of gun ownership and focuses on injury prevention instead.

When trying to reduce the hazards of a consumer product, public health practitioners think it is more useful to look at what caused the injury rather than who, Hemenway explained during a recent interview on a Boston public radio program. Asking those questions has often led to product redesign.

In some ways, he said, Americans "are in the same place with guns today as we were with motor vehicles in the 1950s, because then car manufacturers tried to say it was really all the driver's fault. 'Cars don't kill people: people kill people' was the implicit mantra."

It wasn't until public health physicians began inquiring into the causes of car injuries that we realized people were being speared with steering columns and having their faces ripped apart by shattered glass, Hemenway said. Today, car manufacturers can't make cars without seat belts, collapsible steering columns, and windows made of safety glass.

Hemenway hopes for a similar evolution with gun manufacturers.

Hemenway spoke at a Jan. 8 panel discussion on gun violence at Harvard co-sponsored by the school and the Reuters news agency.

The U.S. has a "horrific gun problem," Hemenway said. Guns kill 85 Americans a day and wound several hundred. Firearms are the second leading killer of American youth after automobiles.

The high tally is not because American society is unusually bloodthirsty. When compared to other developed countries, the U.S. rate for crimes like assault, robbery, or sexual attack is about average. But the United States has "by far, the most guns, the weakest gun laws and the most homicides," he said.

In other words, what distinguishes American violence is its lethality. The abundance of guns in U.S. households, coupled with lax gun laws and a lack of safety measures, means that crime, acts of passion, domestic disputes, and attempts at suicide often end in fatalities.

In an online essay for The Journal of the American Medical Association Jan.7 Hemenway and two co-authors made a dozen recommendations for reducing gun harm based on successful public health strategies. These included:

* A national tax on guns and ammunition (similar to a tobacco tax) "to better represent societal costs and provide funding for gun safety and violence reduction programs";

* Requiring guns to have childproof locking devices, an idea inspired by the childproof packaging of poisons and medicine;

* Physician counseling on storage and safe use comparable to what is provided for poisons;.

* Requiring gun users, like drivers of automobiles, to be licensed and to attend gun safety courses like driver's education.

Hemenway's co-authors were epidemiologist Dariush Mozaffarian and pediatrician David Ludwig. …