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“The Sanest Approach To Gun Policy”: The NRA Won’t Like This Idea

The National Rifle Association has just finished its annual meeting in Indianapolis. I don’t think I’m being reductionist in describing the NRA’s position on gun safety as pretty basic: Guns are good; gun regulations are bad. That’s unfortunate because the key insight in the perpetually fruitless gun control debate is that our social problem is deaths from guns, not the guns from themselves.

That distinction opens up the door to what I’ve always believed is the sanest approach to gun policy: a public health approach. What if we treated guns like cars, cribs and small electrical appliances? What if we focused less on the guns and more on when, where and why people get hurt or killed by them?

Automobile safety is an encouraging example. America’s roads are much, much safer than they were a half century ago. We didn’t become anti-car. We didn’t take cars away (except for some chronic drunk drivers). We made cars and roads safer and minimized the situations in which Americans were most likely to kill themselves on the road.

In 2010, the last year for which we have data, roughly 11,000 Americans died in gun homicides; 19,000 died by gun suicide; and 600 died from gun accidents – over 30,000 gun deaths a year. To put that in perspective, the faulty General Motors ignition switch at the heart of the current massive recall has been blamed for 13 deaths. Not 13,000. Not 130. Thirteen.

Experts believe that a high proportion of gun deaths are preventable. David Hemenway, a professor at the Harvard School of Public Health, has been an advocate of the public health approach to gun deaths for decades. I first met him when I was writing about this subject for The Economist in the late 1990s. The NRA annual meeting prompted me to call Professor Hemenway and ask what his top three reforms would be if our goal were to reduce unnecessary gun deaths.

Here are three sensible policy changes that would enable Americans to keep their guns and not die from them, too:

Universal background checks to keep guns out of the hands of criminals. Unlike drugs, just about every gun starts out legal. (You can make heroin in the remote regions of Afghanistan; you can’t make a handgun that way.) Regulations that make it harder for legal guns to end up in the hands of criminals and psychopaths will make it less likely that those criminals or psychopaths rob or shoot the rest of us.

More responsibility on the part of manufacturers for producing safer guns. The phrase “safer gun” may seem like an oxymoron; it’s not. There are many ways that gun technology can be improved to reduce inadvertent harm. Guns can be childproofed, so that young children cannot fire them. Guns can be equipped with “smart chips” so they cannot be fired by anyone but the owner. (This makes them both safer and less likely to be stolen.) Recording the unique ballistic fingerprint on every firearm would make it possible to trace any gun used in a crime back to its owner.

Lean on gun dealers to do much more to prevent “straw purchases,” in which a person buys a gun legally with the express intent of passing it on to someone who cannot buy a gun legally (e.g. a convicted felon). We do not consider it acceptable for retailers to sell liquor to people who are underage. So why is this practice in the gun trade not more rigorously opposed, including by gun enthusiasts? Let me connect the dots: If it is harder for bad people to get guns, then fewer bad people will have guns.

The NRA and the most steadfast gun rights advocates oppose these policy changes as well as the public health approach to reducing gun violence in general. Opponents typically subscribe to the “slippery slope” argument: If the government is allowed to require background checks or to promote “smart guns,” then soon all conventional guns will be banned.

This is sadly tragic logic. According to the New England Journal of Medicine, traffic fatalities per mile driven have fallen more than 80 percent since the 1950s. We’ve cracked down on deadly behaviors like drunk driving. We’ve used data to reduce other risk factors (such as young drivers driving at night or with other teens in the car). We put airbags in every new car and required seat belts.

Lots of people are alive today as a result. I may be one of them. When our Ford Explorer rolled over at 65 mph on an interstate highway in 2001, my wife and I were wearing seat belts and our two children were in car seats; we were relatively unhurt.

These kinds of changes are not costless. In the 1980s the major car companies argued that airbags were far too expensive to ever become a standard feature. Technology solved that problem; the same companies now use safety as a selling point. Most important, we have saved a lot of lives without fundamentally changing the driving experience.

So let’s do that for guns. The public health approach seems like an end run around a pro-gun versus anti-gun debate that is getting us nowhere. We have the potential to prevent tragedy – while still respecting the basic rights of responsible gun owners – if we focus on one crucial fact: guns and gun deaths are distinctly different things. I’ve never met anyone who is in favor of the latter.


By: Charles Wheelan, U. S. News and World Report, April 29, 2014

April 30, 2014 Posted by | Gun Deaths, Guns, Public Health | , , , , , , | 1 Comment


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