Bang

Guns, Fear, the Constitution, and the Public’s Health,” written by Garen J. Wintemute, M.D., M.P.H., will appear in the April 3 edition of the New England Journal of Medicine. (HT to You Don’t Say.)

Dr. Wintemute notes that “the $2 billion annual costs of medical care for the victims of gun violence are dwarfed by an estimated overall economic burden, including both material and intangible costs, of $100 billion.” (footnote omitted). So “[i]t’s unlikely that health care professionals will soon prevent a greater proportion of shooting victims from dying; rather, we as a society must prevent shootings from occurring in the first place.” Ain’t that the truth.

Because I don’t know anything about gun violence statistics or prevention, I’m eminently qualified to comment. So here goes: There’s big money in guns. Period. End of story. Finito. Before there were guns, people did not kill people with guns. Before guns no one feared death by gun. That was then, of course. Today people own (hand)guns, in large part, because they fear death (by handgun). But,

Gun violence is often an unintended consequence of gun ownership. Americans have purchased millions of guns, predominantly handguns, believing that having a gun at home makes them safer. In fact, handgun purchasers substantially increase their risk of a violent death. This increase begins the moment the gun is acquired โ€” suicide is the leading cause of death among handgun owners in the first year after purchase โ€” and lasts for years.

Dr. Wintemute takes issue with state legislatures deregulating gun use. He says that relaxed regulations are founded on myths:

One is that increasing gun ownership decreases crime rates โ€” a position that has been discredited. Gun ownership and gun violence rise and fall together. Another myth is that defensive gun use is very common. The most widely quoted estimate, 2.5 million occurrences a year, is too high by a factor of 10.

Policies limiting gun ownership and use have positive effects, whether those limits affect high-risk guns such as assault weapons or Saturday night specials, high-risk persons such as those who have been convicted of violent misdemeanors, or high-risk venues such as gun shows. New York and Chicago, which have long restricted handgun ownership and use, had fewer homicides in 2007 than at any other time since the early 1960s. Conversely, policies that encourage the use of guns have been ineffective in deterring violence. Permissive policies regarding carrying guns have not reduced crime rates, and permissive states generally have higher rates of gun-related deaths than others do.

I’m all for approaching a long-running debate from a new angle. It can break the stalemate. Entrenched special interest groups are superb at framing the issue in a way that places their agenda in the best light. But what about the rest of us? Maybe the combination of medicine & money — commodities that we all fear losing — will shift this debate.

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