There has been on average one mass shooting (involving at least 4 people) for every day this year. In the wake of the San Bernardino shooting – the most recent widely-covered mass shooting, America has reopened the debate over gun control, pitting a bereaved public beckoning for gun reform against rifle-thumping, strict-Constitutionalists. Yet, in this polarizing debate filled with a seemingly binomial future, there are other options: namely those that focus on common-sense public health measures, like repealing the federal ban on gun research and physician gag laws.
Guns kill more than 33,000 people a year. Guns kill more than double the number of Americans compared to AIDS each year. With such a heavy toll, gun-related deaths are epidemic in America. As with any other epidemic, one would expect the federal government to fund research on the causes and treatments of such a scourge on society – except with the case of guns. Since 1997, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has been explicitly prohibited by Congress from using taxpayer dollars to study something that kills more than 90 people a day. As described in an article in the Journal of the American Medical Association after the 2012 Sandy Hook massacre, the action stems from an irrational fear that saving lives is equivalent to forfeiting essential American values – the act is reminiscent of 1950’s paranoia where a glance askew was labelled as McCarthyism.
All efforts to have a meaningful impact on gun violence have been dead in the water for nearly two decades. More importantly, it has left the public without any “position” statements – guidelines that set the rhetoric for public health measures – to steer the public on safety. Instead, we are left to decide for ourselves, or worse, be swayed by an increasingly emotional debate on gun safety. If you’re confused if having more guns makes America safer or more dangerous, you should be. Here’s a study showing that guns increase crime, and here’s another showing the opposite. It would be nice if the CDC – with all of their resources – could separate the noise from the signal for us.
Another counterintuitive and inane bulwark of the pro-gun group is the institution of so-called “gun gag” laws. Florida was the first, and likely not the last, state to seemingly ban physicians from asking their patients if they owned a gun and if that gun was secured and out of reach of children. Although conversation on the topic is permitted if it is “medically relevant,” many physicians find the laws so restrictive that they chill any discussion on gun safety. Such seemingly common sense practices – practices that are routine for physicians – are now banned as a part of the hysteria that envisions British red coats returning America to the Queen. If my patient finds my questioning not “medically relevant” – even though it may be, I could be liable under Florida law.
Accidental injury from guns among children is a serious issue. A 2013 New York Times article estimated gun accidents may be in the “top five or six” leading causes of unintentional deaths among children due to discrepancies in accidental death reporting. Several months ago, Darnal Mundy, a 3-year-old boy in Miami, FL, shot himself in the head while looking for an iPad. He had climbed onto a chair, reached into a drawer, found a gun, instead of an iPad, and shot himself in the head. After being in a coma for several weeks, Darnal survived and was released from the same hospital at which I work. But not all children are so fortunate, one study has estimated that nearly two children die every week from unintentional shootings alone.
According to the Children’s Defense Fund, more than 40% of gun owning households with children store their guns unlocked. Some of these households don’t know the basics of gun safety, and they may never know now given the emergence of gun gag laws. Safe storage of guns – another common sense public health measure – is supported by the American Academy of Pediatrics because it has been shown to be effective at reducing injuries. It is no surprise that the National Rifle Association, one of the most powerful lobbies in Washington, has opposed safe storage laws for guns because it would have rendered homeowners “defenseless and given criminals a clear advantage in home invasions.” I didn’t realize that locked guns had adversely affected public health so much that we should only keep guns unlocked.
Changing public health policy usually begins with solid research. If you are interested in reducing the number of preventable deaths and injuries from guns, you can begin by opposing the nonsensical ban on federal funding of gun violence research. If you are a non-physician, you can show your support here. If you are a physician, you can sign a similar ban here.