Want To Take A Public Health Approach To Gun Violence? Ask The NRA For Help.

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Here we go again.  Another state, Texas, is going to try and keep physicians from talking to patients about gun ownership thanks to a bill newly-filed by a state representative named Stuart Spitzer, who happens to be a general surgeon with a medical degree from UT-Southwestern Medical School.  The proposed bill goes further than the celebrated Docs vs. Glocks Florida statute which prohibits inquiry into gun ownership but makes an exception in cases where the physician believes that a serious medical problem might arise if the patient has access to a gun.  The Texas law contains no such provision, and simply says that any physician, other than a psychiatrist, cannot ask a patient to disclose firearm ownership, period. The end.

The bill’s sponsor peddles the standard nonsense about how this law will protect gun ownership because, according to him, the moment that such information is entered into a patient’s file, the Federal Government will be able to find out who has guns and who doesn’t.  This outright lie has been floating around the paranoid internet since Obama took office, even though the NRA has refuted it on their website.   But if Glenn Beck can find customers to stock up on freeze-dried food for the coming apocalypse, how hard is it for a Texas legislator to make others believe that Big Brother is waiting to grab their guns after a visit to their local doctor?

docs versus glocks                Even though studies show that most patients really don’t care if their doctor asks them about guns, people are sometimes susceptible to this blatant attempt at fear-mongering because they simply don’t understand the methods used by the public health community to define and treat medical risk.  It’s easy to get all worked up about Ebola because the danger is obvious; you don’t need to be a rocket scientist to figure out that with mortality rates above 50%, doing whatever is necessary to avoid this disease is a priority for government and citizens alike.  But is there a consensus on the medical risks posed by guns?  In a funny way there is such a consensus, but it’s based on the idea that guns don’t pose any medical risk at ball.

At the same time that public health researchers argue that the risks of guns outweighs the benefits, the NRA pushes the opposite point of view.  And while research clearly supports the public health position on gun risk, the NRA continues to use a bogus telephone survey by Gary Kleck and some thoroughly-discredited statistical nonsense from John Lott to sell the idea that guns are essential tools  in protecting us from crime. Using the fear of crime as a justification for guns is a master stroke of marketing because a majority of Americans now agree with the pro-gun point of view.

Know why the NRA and its allies have been so successful selling the positive utility of guns?  Because they have adopted a public health strategy for convincing the public and the lawmakers that what they are saying is true. First, identify the disease, which in this case is harm caused by crime.  Then identify how the disease is spread, in this case contact with a criminal.  Now develop a vaccine, i.e., the gun, and immunize as many as people as possible with concealed carry, now legal in all 50 states.

The problem in trying to sell the public health solution to any medical problem, as David Hemenway reminds us, is that unlike medicine, “the focus of public health is not on cure, but on prevention.” This usually requires a long, comprehensive strategy combining research, education and laws. Recognizing that most people aren’t usually responsive to solutions which don’t immediately work, the NRA has fast-tracked the process. The real problem in the gun debate is that the side which is totally resistant to an honest, public health approach to guns has shown itself remarkably adept at turning that same approach on its head and getting exactly what it wants.

 

Want To Teach Kids Gun Safety? The NSSF’s New Video Doesn’t.

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Ever since Sandy Hook, the gun industry has decided that safety is its middle name.  And chief among the proponents of this new strategy is the National Shooting Sports Foundation, which has taken upon itself the mission of pushing gun safety messages to kids who aren’t yet old enough to own or purchase guns, but it’s never too early to start cultivating the next generation of consumers.  You’ll pardon me for sounding just a tad sarcastic in this commentary, but this new-found concern about safety issues is interesting, given the fact that gun design hasn’t really changed in the last 125 years.  In other words, guns are as lethal and dangerous now as when the invention of smokeless-powder cartridges in the 1880s allowed gun makers to design small arms that could fire multiple rounds without having to be reloaded after every shot.

But what’s interesting about the new attention to safety being paid by the gun industry is that the notion that guns might be potentially dangerous no matter how they are used is a concept that is remarkably absent from the NSSF’s safety campaign, even though the campaign’s name, Project Childsafe, does beg the question of what exactly are we trying to keep the children safe from?

lock2                To the credit of the gun manufacturers, you may have to read the fine print, but they don’t beat around the bush when it comes to telling a gun owner the truth about the product he just bought.  For example, the instructional manual issued by Smith & Wesson for its old warhorse, the Model 10, K-frame revolver, states that “this firearm is classified as a dangerous weapon.”  The manual that accompanies Ruger’s Mini-14 rifle is even more explicit, stating in big, bold red letters – FIREARMS ARE DANGEREOUS WEAPONS – a warning that has not deterred me from owning three of them.

The risk posed by a gun, however, seems to be lost on the folks who produce safety videos for the NSSF.  The most recent is a bouncy, joyful message from a veteran, competitive shooter, hunter and mom named Julie Golob, whose family shares a love of the heritage, outdoors and the shooting sports; in other words, all the right credentials to be considered an expert on how to communicate with children on any subject, let alone safety and guns.  The video goes on to showcase a few cutesy testimonials from what is now the standard racial and gender inclusive group of kids, who relate how their parents did or didn’t talk to them about guns.  At which point Julie reappears and chants the usual refrain borrowed from the NRA’s phony safety program, Eddie Eagle, about not touching the gun – leaving the area – telling an adult, which is then followed by a new lyric for the older kids involving telling them never to touch a gun unless being supervised by an adult, never point a gun at anyone and always assume that every gun is loaded.

Oh, by the way, Julie doesn’t forget to mention that guns should be locked or locked away. As she puts it, parents have to set a “talk the talk and walk the walk” example.  The video runs 5 minutes, 37 seconds, and the entire comment about safe storage, which is the only way to keep guns away from kids no matter how many times you tell them not to touch a firearm, consumes a total of 8 seconds.  In other words, the only valid statement about gun safety in this entire message takes up 2% of the message.

As I said at the beginning of this commentary, you’ll have to excuse me from sounding a bit sarcastic.  But when the organization which represents the gun industry in every legislative and public discussion about gun safety can produce a public service announcement that is, to put it bluntly, an exercise in cheap hucksterism, then when it comes to safety the gun industry is inviting itself not to be taken very seriously.

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We Know That Guns Are A Risk. But Does Anyone Really Care?

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Two noted clinical gun researchers, ER physicians Garen Wintemute and Megan Ranney, have just published an important commentary about gun violence. The article follows from the decision of the American College of Emergency Physicians to join the seven other major medical organizations in calling for a more aggressive and comprehensive medical approach to gun violence, and the authors raise some important issues both in terms of the data on gun violence, as well as the particular challenges facing ER physicians who often face this problem on a daily basis.

The article points out that while vehicular and gun death rates were relatively stable beginning in 2000 and continuing for the next six or seven years, motor vehicle deaths then plunged again while the rate of gun mortality is beginning to creep back up.  The decline in car deaths is due to a successful public health campaign, but there has been no such campaign in the case of guns. This is even more disconcerting when one realizes that the United States is, in fact, one of the least violent countries in the OECD.  The percentage of American adults reporting being the victims of an assault is less than one third the number in Belgium, less than half of what is reported in Switzerland or Spain.

emt                What sets America apart from these other countries is that our violence is so much more deadly, and this is due to the existence of so many guns.  Only one OECD country, Israel, has a homicide rate one-third as high as ours; for the remaining OECD community our rate is ten to thirty times higher than anywhere else.  The authors tie these disparities to the enormous number of guns floating around, the U.S. counts only 5% of the world’s population but more than 40% of all guns in civilian hands.  I want to inject a cautionary note here, however, because our gun violence is overwhelmingly a function of the presence and use of handguns and, if anything, the U.S. probably has even a greater proportion of the world’s privately-owned pistols and revolvers, certainly this is the case when we confine our comparison to the rest of the OECD.

I mention the issue of handguns because the authors call for comprehensive background checks as the primary mechanism for reducing the possibility that guns will get into the wrong hands.  But I have never understood why background check advocates always promote checks both on handguns and long guns when gun violence as a criminal behavior overwhelmingly involves handguns, and while long guns are often used in suicides, it is arguably the case that long gun suicides are usually committed by the legal owner of the gun.  Given the firestorm that erupts every time an attempt is made to expand background checks, would we lose much ground by only using NICS to control the transfer of guns that cause the most harm?

My other concern is the article’s reliance on a public health approach that has worked for many other products but does not, in my view, address the central issue involved in regulating guns.  I cannot think of another consumer product whose regulation was opposed by the energized, mobilized and well-financed grass-roots effort which is the case with guns.  Of course car manufacturers fought seat belts, of course cigarette companies tried to deny that smoking made people sick, but when public policies were being debated you didn’t see the galleries packed by drivers or smokers demanding that the government stay off their backs.

Public opinion polls now show that, pace the valid research referenced by Wintemute and Ranney, a majority of Americans believe that a home containing guns is safer than a home which is gewehr-rein.  Consider such people deluded, stupid or worse, but the NRA has done a helluva job making us feel that the benefits of gun ownership outweigh the risks.  And I’m not sure the other side has a message that plays as well in Peoria or anywhere else.

Everytown Starts Their Own ‘March Madness’ Campaign And May All The Teams Lose.

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Leave it to Shannon and the chicks (as in women, not in birds) to come up with a new twist on America’s national bash known as ‘March Madness’ by starting their own campaign to prevent colleges from becoming the latest venue where anyone and everyone can carry a gun.  The Everytown group has just posted a new graphic identifying the states where bills have been introduced that would allow guns on campus, of which four such attempts have gone down the tubes but twelve more remain to be finished up.  The campaign has gotten a boost from Bryant Gumbel, whose commitment to reducing gun violence is so pronounced that he’s been attacked by Ted Nugent, who might do himself a favor and stick to strumming his guitar.

Most of the folks who honestly believe that guns would make campuses safer are reacting to a recent spate of news stories regarding campus rape.  And while nobody wants to walk around a college campus in fear of being attacked, the question which needs to be addressed is whether carrying a gun would really make anyone on campus more safe.  The truth is that college campuses, particularly the larger schools with residential populations, happen to be places where certain types of behaviors are unfortunately all too common, and such behaviors are guaranteed to make students much less safe when combined with access to guns.

march                I am referring to two issues that are generic to campus life: alcohol and suicide.  According to the NIH, four out of five college students consume alcohol and half of those student drinkers admit to binge drinking as well.  More than 1,800 college students die from alcohol-related injuries, and nearly 700,000 students report being assaulted by another student who had been drinking prior to the attack.  Nearly 600,000 students each year end up in the campus health station because they injured themselves while under the influence of alcohol, and nearly 100,000 reported that they were sexually abused by someone who was under the influence during the attack.

Proponents of campus guns will tell you that these statistics prove the necessity of getting rid of gun-free college zones, but what they don’t want to do is look at the possible use of guns by the students who drink and then assault someone else.  Even the average gun nut (myself included) will admit that guns and alcohol don’t mix, and it’s to Everytown’s credit that the announcement of their March Madness campaign focused specifically on the degree to which alcohol impairs judgement, particularly the mental stability required to behave safely around guns. As for suicide, it happens to be the second leading cause of death for college students, and if anyone tells you that a suicidal person is less prone to end their life because they have access to a gun, you’re not talking to someone who possesses even a shred of intelligence, never mind common sense.

Last week the debate on campus guns got particularly loud in Florida, due largely to the energy and effort of the gun-totin’ Grandma, a.k.a. Marion Hammer, the Gunshine State’s lobbyist for the NRA.  She sent out a call to all the gunnies in Florida, telling them that their constitutional “rights” were being violated if they couldn’t bring their guns into classrooms and dorms. This is a rather odd view of the 2nd Amendment, given the fact that the Supreme Court in the landmark Heller decision, specifically noted that Constitutional protections of gun ownership did not preclude the government from banning guns in “sensitive” places such as schools.  But leave it to the NRA and Grandma Hammer to explain the Constitution whichever way they can.

Most proponents of colleges as gun-free zones cite the degree to which campuses are also usually crime-free zones.  What I like about the Everytown campaign is that it brings us squarely back to the real issue, namely, that someone walking around with a gun is a greater risk to himself and others than when the gun was left at home.  Let’s see how Everytown’s tournament plays itself out.

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The Violence Policy Center Has Something Important To Tell Us About Guns.

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When the Violence Policy Center began tracking shooting homicides committed by persons with concealed-carry permits, they were attacking the most cherished totem of the pro-gun community, namely, the idea that armed citizens play a positive role in protecting themselves and others from crime.  The fact that there is no credible research to back up this bromide is beside the point; it’s the stock-in-trade of every statement made to justify the concealed-carry of guns.  You can hear it from the NRA’s chief Florida lobbyist, Marion Hammer, arguing for concealed guns to be permitted on college campuses, you can hear it from national legislators on Capitol Hill as they debate a national, concealed-carry reciprocity law.

To the Violence Policy Center’s credit, they have not only maintained their stance regarding CCW-holders who use guns to shoot themselves and others, they have now augmented their effort with an updated website which lets viewers  examine specific information about CCW shootings on a state-by-state basis. One thing I should say right from the gitgo; the data is not meant in any way to be comprehensive, nor could it reflect the true degree of violence caused by individuals who are licensed to walk around with guns.  Nobody collects such data, which forces the VPC to fall back on media reports that are, by definition, very incomplete, vague and therefore capture only the tip of the iceberg at best.  But anyone who attempts to discredit this effort by getting into a spat over whether the numbers show this or the numbers show that is missing the point.

conference program pic                What the new presentation allows you to do is look at the details of these CCW shootings, compare what you read from one state to another, and draw some conclusions not about the connection between concealed-carry and gun violence, but the much greater issue of access to guns and gun violence per se.  After all, pro-gun proponents will tell you that virtually all gun violence is caused by guns getting into the ‘wrong’ hands, which means that if we take guns away from criminals and the mentally unstable, there won’t be any gun violence at all. But the content on the VPC website belies such nonsense, and what it says deserves to read in full.

Here’s a couple of quick examples drawn from the first entry of various states picked at random for purposes of review.  Mississippi:  Three drunks get into a bar argument and two end up shot dead.  Arizona: Husband shoots wife to death.  Oregon: Shooter kills father, kills another guy and then kills himself.  Ohio: Two guys are drinking at a party, one disses the other, bang.  Maine: They leave a bar, they are both boozed up, an argument starts, and that’s that.

Notice a pattern?  Five shootings, eight people dead, seven knew each other well before the fatal incident occurred. Not one of the shooters was a ‘criminal.’  Not one of these shootings involved the commission of any crime.  In fact, the shooters in every single case were law-abiding citizens or otherwise they wouldn’t have been able to carry a gun.  Despite what the NRA and the other pro-gun propagandists say, these reports picked at random from the VPC website are exactly what true gun violence is all about.

According to the FBI, less than one out of five fatal shootings in the United States takes place during the commission of a serious crime.  Homicide is impulsive, it usually grows out of disputes between relatives or friends, and if a gun is present the argument gets very violent, very fast.  And this is particularly true when the homicide victim is a woman; virtually every woman killed with a gun or any other weapon lost her life during a domestic dispute.

The pro-gun community can talk from today to next year about how we much safer we are because more people are walking around with guns.  I don’t think this argument should turn on numbers; I think it should turn on the lethality of guns.  The VPC website hits that one right between the eyes.

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Do Guns Make College Safer? The “Gunshine State” Will Soon Decide.

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Now that the Gunshine State, a.k.a. Florida, has moved a step closer to letting everyone walk around on college campuses with a banger in their pocket, it’s time to look at the argument being made by proponents of campus CCW to see if their argument accords with the facts. Campus shootings are, in fact, something of a mini-legend in American culture thanks to ex-Marine Charles Whitman who, on August 1, 1966, went up to the top of the University of Texas campus tower and methodically gunned down 44 people, 12 of whom died, having previously shot his mother, wife and three people within the tower, for good measure.  Whitman’s life ended in a blaze of police gunfire on the tower’s observation deck, but the episode helped launch Kurt Russell’s career who later starred as Whitman in a crummy TV-movie called The Deadly Tower.

The debate in the Florida legislature is following the now-typical path of all bills that seek to widen acceptance and use of guns, namely, that guns are valuable tools for self-defense.  Leave it to the pistol-packin’ Grandma, Marian Hammer, the NRA’s Florida lobbyist to express it best: “The plain truth is campuses are not safe. They are gun-free zones where murderers and rapists may commit their crimes without fear of being harmed by their victims.”  In fact the bill that would allow concealed-carry on Florida campuses was introduced following a shooting last November at Florida State University where a former student wounded three people before he was gunned down by the cops.

      Marian Hammer

Marian Hammer

There has been heightened attention recently about campus crime, most of it concerning sexual assaults. Even the Federal Government has gotten into the act, holding hearings on proposed legislation that would require higher education institutions to better enforce laws against sexual assaults, as well as being accountable for tracking the incidence of such crimes.  But the concern about campus rape doesn’t necessarily mean that colleges are less safe than other environments unless, of course, you toe the NRA line and assume that any location which doesn’t permit guns is, by definition, a less-safe place.

The good news is that we now have a very detailed report on campus guns published by Generation Progress, an activist organization which used to be known as Campus Progress, but like the Millennials they represent, has now grown up and addresses gun violence as just one of its progressive campaigns.  Like many such reports, this report notes that campus crime rates are below crime rates in general, a statement I have seen elsewhere but have not been able to pin down hard data which shows this to be true.  On the other hand, FBI data referenced in this report indicates that guns are used in roughly half of the homicides reported on college campuses, which is below the national number which pegs guns as the method used in 70% of all homicides committed in the United States.

A more important finding in the report is the fact that less than 10% of all serious campus assaults involved a perpetrator who was not connected in some way to the institution where the incident occurred.  More than two-thirds of the assailants were students, former students or alumni and faculty or staff, with the remaining known attackers being spouses or partners of someone connected to the institution.

Despite Marian Hammer’s fear-mongering , the reality is that just about everyone who walks onto a college campus to commit a violent act is drawn to that location not because it’s a gun-free zone, but because they know the campus environment and can move around it with ease.  Not that this information will persuade Florida legislators to retain the current ban on campus guns.  After all, Florida issued less than 30,000 CCW permits in 2000, while in 2010 they issued more than 160,000 and surpassed the million mark in 2012.  Meanwhile, the state had 499 gun homicides in 2000 and more than 700 gun murders in 2012. Duhhhh,  if armed citizens protect us from crime, shouldn’t those numbers be reversed?

 

When It Comes To Guns, Breitbart Gets It Wrong And Moms Gets It Right.

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Readers who follow my column no doubt understand that I spend most of my time debunking what I consider to be mistakes, intended or otherwise, made by anyone and everyone who writes about guns.  And while some organizations and writers on both sides get it right most of the time, there are others who virtually every day get it wrong.  Topping that latter list is breitbart.com, which pushes out a comment on guns just about every day, and just about every day gets it wrong.  Their latest is a comment about women and guns that was made by Moms Demand Action activist Kristen Moore, who was interviewed by Michigan Radio following Governor Rick Snyder’s decision to approve a new law which allows women to have their CCW applications expedited in situations where they face potential domestic violence.

Typically, the Breitbart story started off by falsely accusing the Moms group of stating that it was “wrong” for women to carry guns.  But that’s not what Ms. Moore said at all.  What she said very clearly was that if women were thinking about applying for a CCW and purchasing a gun for self-defense, that they needed to make an “informed” choice in the matter, which means understanding whether, in fact, having a gun around the home or in the pocketbook provides any real safety at all.

open                The gun industry has been going all out for the last twenty years trying to make us all believe that guns serve a positive social utility because when we own and carry one we are more safe.  First we had the nonsense produced by Gary Kleck, who claimed on the basis of 213 telephone interviews that millions of crimes were thwarted by gun-carrying individuals each year. Then we had the bigger nonsense by John Lott, who basically said the same thing, even though it’s never been clear whether he had any real data at all.  If the gun industry wants to promote the virtues of arming citizens in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary that’s fine.  After all, they’re in the business of selling guns, not conducting research about gun risk. But the reason that so many people read Consumer Reports is that maybe, just maybe, the manufacturer’s claims aren’t always exactly true.  That’s what the Moms group means when they talk about making an “informed” choice.

For me, the issue of whether anyone will be protected by carrying a gun, however, goes to something else.  Because it’s not just a question of whether the statistics show that a gun makes you safer or not, it’s also whether someone who decides to carry a gun is trained so that their gun could even be used for self-defense.  It turns out that Michigan requires that anyone applying for CCW must show that they have shot a gun a whole, big 30 times.  Meanwhile, a 2006 FBI study of violent assaults on police officers concluded that criminals who used guns to attack cops practiced using their guns roughly two times every month!

If anyone thinks that raising the issue of “informed” choice about CCW is a back-door way of getting rid of all the guns, go right ahead and delude yourself as much as you can. The real reason that keeping a gun around for self-defense means first of all that the wrong person may get his hands on the gun, which is why, as Kristen Moore pointed out, women are five times more likely to get killed in domestic disputes when there’s a banger stuck in a drawer, a closet, or even a safe.  But even if the gun can only end up in the ‘right’ hands in the event of an attack or a threat, does the person to whom those hands belong really know how to use that gun to protect themselves just because they spent a few evenings fooling around at the local range?  As Ian Fleming says, “Shooting hell out of a piece of cardboard doesn’t prove a thing.”

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