Gun violence. How do we curb it? And is it our role, as public health professionals, to intervene?
On Wednesday, APHA Executive Director Georges Benjamin moderated a webinar that explored the link between guns and violence. Roughly 32,000 people die in the U.S. each year from gun violence.
“It is in fact a preventable problem,” said Deborah Prothrow-Stith, adjunct professor at the Harvard School of Public Health. “People do believe indeed that there’s a variety of opportunity for intervention.”
Addressing the high rates of gun violence in the U.S. requires an understanding of how unique the epidemic is, according to Harvard School of Public Health professor David Hemenway. Using a variety of data, Hemenway found that the U.S. has similar rates of crime, violence, bullying and depression compared to other developed nations.
The one overwhelming difference is gun policy. Compared to 13 economically similar countries in Australia, Asia, North America and Europe, the U.S. is the only one with no gun license system or storage regulations. Additionally:
- three out of every 100,000 U.S. people die by firearm homicides per year, which is between 500 and 3,000 percent more than in England, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. However, U.S. non-firearm homicide rates are similar to these nations;
- the U.S. rate of firearm suicide and homicide for children 5-14 years old is eight and 13 times higher than in 25 developed nations, respectively, while non-firearm suicide and homicide rates are both similar to these nations; and
- in high-gun U.S. states compared to low-gun states, women are 600 percent more likely to commit suicide with firearms and nearly 200 percent more likely to be killed in a firearm homicide. Suicide and homicide rates without guns are negligibly different between low- and high-gun states.
“What we’ve found is — more guns equal more death,” Hemenway said. “Since Newtown, people are talking about this problem a lot more. Other developed nations respond to their mass killings. It’s the time when people focus on this issue and say, ‘Gee, it’s not only mass shooting that’s the problem.’”
Commonsense solutions — even with regard to the Second Amendment right to keep and bear arms — are very possible, according to Stephen Teret, director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Law and the Public’s Health. Teret argued that the best way to reduce gun violence is to focus on its design and manufacture.
For example, by making a gun operable only by authorized users — or a “smart gun” — teenage suicide rates and accidental shootings by children would likely decline, while stolen guns would be rendered unusable.
“I’m optimistic about the future,” Teret said. “The technology exists to change the design of guns. What we need now is the political will to regulate the change and market forces.”