To protect the public, we regulate cars and toys, medicines and mutual funds. So, simply as a public health matter, shouldn’t we take steps to reduce the toll from our domestic arms industry?
Look, I’m an Oregon farm boy who was given a .22 rifle for my 12th birthday. I still shoot occasionally when visiting the family farm, and I understand one appeal of guns: they’re fun.
It’s also true that city slickers sometimes exaggerate the risk of any one gun. The authors of Freakonomics noted that a home with a swimming pool is considerably more dangerous for small children than a home with a gun. They said that 1 child drowns annually for every 11,000 residential pools, but 1 child is shot dead for every 1 million-plus guns.
All that said, guns are far more deadly in America, not least because there are so many of them. There are about 85 guns per 100 people in the United States, and we are particularly awash in handguns.
(The only country I’ve seen that is more armed than America is Yemen. Near the town of Sadah, I dropped by a gun market where I was offered grenade launchers, machine guns, antitank mines, and even an anti-aircraft weapon. Yep, an N.R.A. dream! No pesky regulators. Just terrorism and a minor civil war.)
Just since the killings in Tucson, another 320 or so Americans have been killed by guns — anonymously, with barely a whisker of attention. By tomorrow it’ll be 400 deaths. Every day, about 80 people die from guns, and several times as many are injured.
Handgun sales in Arizona soared by 60 percent on Monday, according to Bloomberg News, as buyers sought to beat any beefing up of gun laws. People also often buy guns in hopes of being safer. But the evidence is overwhelming that firearms actually endanger those who own them. One scholar, John Lott Jr., published a book suggesting that more guns lead to less crime, but many studies have now debunked that finding (although it’s also true that a boom in concealed weapons didn’t lead to the bloodbath that liberals had forecast).
A careful article forthcoming in the American Journal of Lifestyle Medicine by David Hemenway, a Harvard professor who wrote a brilliant book a few years ago reframing the gun debate as a public health challenge, makes clear that a gun in the home makes you much more likely to be shot — by accident, by suicide or by homicide.
The chances that a gun will be used to deter a home invasion are unbelievably remote, and dialing 911 is more effective in reducing injury than brandishing a weapon, the journal article says. But it adds that American children are 11 times more likely to die in a gun accident than in other developed countries, because of the prevalence of guns.
Likewise, suicide rates are higher in states with more guns, simply because there are more gun suicides. Other kinds of suicide rates are no higher. And because most homicides in the home are by family members or acquaintances — not by an intruder — the presence of a gun in the home increases the risk of a gun murder in that home.
So what can be done? I asked Professor Hemenway how he would oversee a public health approach to reducing gun deaths and injuries. He suggested:
• Limit gun purchases to one per month per person, to reduce gun trafficking. And just as the government has cracked down on retailers who sell cigarettes to minors, get tough on gun dealers who sell to traffickers.
• Push for more gun safes, and make serial numbers harder to erase.
• Improve background checks and follow Canada in requiring a 28-day waiting period to buy a handgun. And ban oversize magazines, such as the 33-bullet magazine allegedly used in Tucson. If the shooter had had to reload after firing 10 bullets, he might have been tackled earlier. And invest in new technologies such as “smart guns,” which can be fired only when near a separate wristband or after a fingerprint scan.
We can also learn from Australia, which in 1996 banned assault weapons and began buying back 650,000 of them. The impact is controversial and has sometimes been distorted. But the Journal of Public Health Policy notes that after the ban, the firearm suicide rate dropped by half in Australia over the next seven years, and the firearm homicide rate was almost halved.
Congress on Wednesday echoed with speeches honoring those shot in Tucson. That’s great — but hollow. The best memorial would be to regulate firearms every bit as seriously as we regulate automobiles or toys.
Should logic finally prevail? The NRA should be ashamed of their damn-the-facts lobbying effort to put more guns into circulation every day. You’d think that they were representing gun manufacturers instead of the constitutional rights they use as a shield to cover their perfidious and self aggrandizing goal of making money for the international arms’ industry.
Like Kristoff, I grew up on a farm and learned to shoot a revolver, a shotgun and a rifle before I was 16. I wore the revolver at my hip as I rode the fence line on my horse Colonell. I learned to throw knives, dig postholes and muck out stalls. The guns were exciting because of their power and the obvious consequences of screwing up. To be taught to shoot — especially as a girl — was a gift from my father, and I knew that he would take pride in my shooting well. But I never went beyond the basics because even then I knew that guns were not just used to hunt squirrels or deer. And I knew that riding the fence with a gun strapped to my thigh was an idealized scene from my father’s childhood or perhaps his grandfather’s world. In my world boys not too much older than me were forced into the army by the government, and the larger world they saw was full of jungle and blood. Some didn’t come home.