"Private Guns, Public Health"

Over the holidays I had the opportunity to read David Hemenway's excellent book "Private Guns, Public Health," published by the University of Michigan Press in 2004. After I started as President of the Brady Campaign/Center to Prevent Gun Violence six months ago, this book was recommended highly as one of the best summaries of the issue of gun violence in the United States. After meeting with Dr. Hemenway at his office at the Harvard School of Public Health last October, I was even more interested in reading this book.

Hemenway starts by making it clear that taking a "public health" approach to the issue of gun violence is no more "anti-gun" than efforts to deal with other areas of injury are "anti-stairs, anti-swimming pools, [or] anti-cars." He also makes it clear that "[p]ublic health is not anti-gun owner." The goal of Hemenway's book is "injury prevention" by focusing on the "public health effects of firearms."

He "summarizes the scientific literature on the public health effects of firearm availability and firearm policies" and "emphasizes the need for better data." An Appendix outlines the methodology needed in analyzing this issue, and raises serious questions about the fairness and accuracy of "one widely cited gun proponent, John Lott, Jr."

A "public health" approach is important to the gun violence debate because it "emphasizes prevention rather than fault-finding, blame, or revenge." It also focuses on all firearm injuries, including accidents and self-inflicted injuries.

The statistics are sobering: every day in this country, two or three people die from accidental firearms shootings and some thirty are injured; about fifty die each day by suicide with a gun; and, between 1991 and 2000, about forty Americans were murdered with guns on an average day. Hemenway points out that "more guns in a community lead to more homicide" and that a gun in homes "increases the risk of murder for family members" as well as "the risk of suicide and unintentional firearm injury."

Hemenway goes on the discuss self-defense ("No credible evidence exists for a general deterrent effect of firearms"); location ("Based on all available evidence, arming citizens to reduce crime - in the home, in schools, or on the streets - seems likely to increase rather than reduce the level of lethal violence"); demography ("Across U.S. regions and states, where there are more guns, children are at a significantly greater risk of dying... [and] women are more likely to die violent deaths..."); supply ("the safety of guns is less regulated than virtually any other commodity...New laws are needed to reduce the flow of guns to criminals through the secondary market"); and policy background, policy lessons, and policy actions ("We should no longer accept our high levels of lethal violence as an inevitable by-product of a free American society.")

The "public health" approach advanced by Hemenway recognizes that efforts to prevent gun violence should be based on good facts with a focus on the manufacturers, distribution, and environment of product use as well as the individual product users. As Hemenway states in his "Conclusion" chapter:

The public health approach is not about banning guns. It is about creating policies that will prevent violence and injuries.

Hemenway calls for action at the federal level: licensing of gun owners and registration of hand guns; one-gun-per-month laws to reduce gunrunning; all gun transfers to go through licensed dealers with background checks; greater scrutiny of licensed dealers; and a federal agency (similar to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration) with the power to regulate firearms as a consumer product.

If more of the debate and discussion about guns and gun violence were handled with the clear, studious, and fact-based approach of David Hemenway, we'd be a lot more likely to reach agreement on common-sense steps to make all our communities safer. If you haven't done so already, read "Private Guns, Public Health" and use it as a starting point in considering the issue of gun violence prevention.

(Note to readers: this blog entry, as well as past blog entrees, are co-posted on www.bradycampaign.org)