Monday, September 13, 2004

Gun control or education?

One of the discussions raging in the comments here is over gun control. The argument was made that we should invest in gun education rather than gun control. This reminded me of an interesting article I saw in Harvard Magazine. The article is an introduction to the book, Private Guns, Public Health, by Harvard public health professor David Hemenway.

He makes an interesting argument. He suggests that gun control vs. education is to some extent a false dichotomy. As a result of his research he argues that there are some simple technological changes that could make guns safer.

He says that gun deaths (about 30,000 in 2001) fall into three categories:
- Suicide - 58%
- Homicide - 37%
- Accidents - 5%

He doesn't argue that the prevalence of guns in the US (about 35% of households have guns) increases suicides or homicides - the research doesn't support that claim. Rather, the prevalence of guns tends to make suicides more successful and crimes more lethal. For example, suicide attempts using drugs succeed only 2-3% of the time. With guns, suicide attempts are successful 90% of the time.

In terms of homicides, guns allow fights to escalate to lethal violence, where they might not if there was not a handgun present.

He suggests a couple of relatively simple technological changes that could reduce accidental deaths. One is magazine safety - if there is not a clip in the handgun, it will not fire even if there is a round in the chamber. Children are frequently involved in these types of accidents because they don't realize a gun can still fire even if the clip is out.

Secondly, even 100 years ago gunsmiths had developed handguns that required the shooter to apply extra pressure to the grip before it would fire. This prevents small children from being able to fire guns.

He also suggest manufacturing guns that they will not fire when dropped.

To deal with the problem of guns involved in crimes, he suggests making it more difficult to remove the serial number from guns. That would allow law enforcement to track handguns and enforce existing laws.

One interesting study he talks about looked at the efficacy of gun education for children:

Many times a teenaged boy will find a gun such as a semi-automatic pistol in his home and, after taking out the ammunition clip, assume that the gun is unloaded. He then points the pistol at his best friend and playfully pulls the trigger, killing the other lad with the bullet that was already in the chamber. "People say, 'Teach kids not to pull the trigger,' but kids will do it," Hemenway says. In a 2001 study, for example, small groups of boys from 8 to 12 years old spent 15 minutes in a room where a handgun was hidden in a drawer. More than two-thirds discovered the gun, more than half the groups handled it, and in more than a third of the groups someone pulled the trigger—despite the fact that more than 90 percent of the boys in the latter groups had received gun-safety instruction.

One of the problems in dealing with suicides and homicides is that there is a lack of data on gun deaths. He's involved with the National Violent Death Reporting System (NVDRS) that is collecting detailed information on violent deaths in the US. One problem is that the center is not adequately funded and is currently only collecting data from 13 states. Once researchers have access to better data, they can figure out what actually works.

I think this is a fascinating article in that he approaches the issue of gun violence from the perspective of public health. He has no particular partisan axe to grind and he's only interested in solutions that actually work.



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