Full disclosure: I own and possess firearms — had them for decades. No background checks, even somewhat more recently when I purchased “exotic” ammunition. No matter; I’m not dangerous, except to the occasional rabbit or junked car body.
Seriously, I learned responsible use of firearms as a kid, and taught it to my kids as well. Guns were a family tradition, but not an obsession.
The NRA and others maintain there isn’t a “gun problem,” just a people problem. Society is permeated by “sickos and wackos.” All we have to do is deny them access to firearms, and then the rest of us, responsible citizens all, can safely accumulate guns by the gazillions. You can’t have too many guns.
Gun-violence stats arise from disparate sources. Study methodologies can differ enough to qualify as “apples versus oranges;” any figure can be disputed using other figures. This ambiguity is promoted by the NRA in much the same way as Big Tobacco created “junk science” to ensure that the deadly effects of tobacco would remain “debatable.”
The CDC can characterize the problem, though, if not the solutions to it.
Five years of CDC stats indicate that 96 Americans die every day from gun violence, more than 33,000 deaths per year. Guns injure another 79,000 people annually, and account for more than two-thirds of US homicides. In 2013, American gun-related deaths included 21,175 suicides, 11,208 homicides and 505 deaths caused by an accidental discharge.
Since a landmark 1999 study at UC-Berkeley, available data repeatedly confirm: Overall the U.S. is not actually more prone to crime than other developed countries. American crime is simply more lethal.
A New Yorker is no more likely than a Londoner to be robbed, but 54 times more likely to be killed during the crime. Americans’ guns explain the difference.
In 2010, compared to other developed countries, while the U.S. homicide rate was seven times higher, gun homicide rates were 25.2 times higher. The unintentional firearm death rate was 6.2 times higher, but the overall firearm death rate was ten times higher.
Gun owners’ suicide efforts “succeed” more often than all other suicides combined. Likewise, domestic violence is more deadly when guns are present in the home. U.S. women are 16 times more prone to death-by-gun than women in any other developed nation.
Since 2013 there have been 300 school shootings; the Parkland shooting was 2018’s eighteenth school shooting. Newsworthy mass shootings occur relatively infrequently. Most school shootings involve fewer than four victims, and thus don’t qualify as “mass.”
School shootings garner press, but kids face great risk in other venues. In 2016 alone, according to the Gun Violence Archive, 446 American children ages 0 to12, and 2,072 teenagers were hurt or killed by guns, mostly outside of school. Eighty-nine percent of accidental gun-related injuries to kids happen in homes. Curiosity kills cats — and kids.
The NRA has a solution: Don’t fix the situation, just fix the figures. The 1996 Dickey Amendment, a “poison pill” ideological rider added to a must-pass federal spending bill, stipulated that “none of the funds made available for injury prevention and control at the CDC may be used to advocate or promote gun control.”
When CDC studies the patterns and characteristics of gun violence, any resulting hard data could potentially inform future gun policies, indirectly “promoting gun control.” Dickey sought to eliminate important research at one of our most reliable health-and-safety institutions.
NRA-driven policy effectively froze federal funds to study causes of gun violence. Since then we’ve generated little data linking specific gun policies to changes in specific gun violence outcomes. We do a lot of guessing.
In 2011, Florida passed the Privacy of Firearm Owners act. The law prohibited doctors from discussing guns with patients. The excuse was that counseling patients about guns would “infringe on their Second Amendment rights.”
The NRA claimed “physicians interrogating and lecturing parents and children about guns is not about gun safety. It is a political agenda to ban guns. Parents do not take their children to physicians for a political lecture against the ownership of firearms.”
Never mind that good docs don’t “interrogate and lecture” during clinical encounters. At “well-child” check-ups, for example, we routinely advise parents to cover electrical outlets, keep toilet-bowl cleaners secure and inaccessible, store medications out of kids’ reach. By advising patients to keep Clorox out of kids’ reach, we are not “delivering a political lecture against the ownership” of bleach.
A few years back, I was treating a severely depressed man at risk for suicide. I asked him if he had firearms at home; he did. Did he know someone who could “hold onto” his guns until he felt better? He called his son to stop by and remove the weapons.
Much later, after his disease had remitted, he thanked me for thinking of those guns. He said it saved his life. We never discussed his politics, or mine. Despite a history of “mental illness,” he’s never going to become a mass shooter.
Fortunately the Florida law has been overturned, citing among other things physicians’ First Amendment right to free speech.
Let’s say we decide not to continue addressing — and dismissing — gun violence with “thoughts and prayers.” (More thought couldn’t hurt; prayers only reassure the ones who submit them.) Must we settle for band-aids and faith-based platitudes? Stay tuned.
Jon Hauxwell, MD, is a retired family physician who grew up in Stockton and lives outside Hays.