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The other side of the gun debate

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POSTED January 18, 2013 9:13 p.m.

As politicians in Washington debate whether new laws should be issued to tighten up on background checks, impose limits on assault weapons and regulate ammunition sales and the like — a debate likely to be dominated by politics — it is worth focusing on the other side of the gun question, the public health side.

It is not news that even though we spend more on health care than any other country, we rank at the bottom of virtually every mortality measure. The assumption is that this is mostly a measure of the life spans of older Americans (of things like diet and smoking), who account for the majority of all deaths, but the headline news is just how poorly those under 50 rank.

The latest study making these headlines is the work of a panel of experts charged by the Institute of Medicine and the National Research Council with explaining why life expectancy in the United States is lower — and has been since the 1980s — than other rich countries such as Germany, Japan, France and Australia.

A major part of the answer is the higher death rates for those under 50. And a major part of the reason for those higher death rates is death by guns.

The numbers are pretty stark: firearm homicide rates that are 20 times higher, with 67 percent of all homicide deaths involving guns, which is more than 40 points more than the other countries. Suicide rates, though lower here, more often — six times more often — involve guns. American men, the most common victims of firearm killings, have the lowest life expectancies.

When we talk about guns in this country, we talk about the clout of the NRA, how much capital it could cost the president, how many seats it could cost Democrats (as it surely did in the 1994 midterms) and the reach of the Second Amendment. The debates quickly devolve into a battle of extremes, with politicos and so-called constitutional law experts (frequently labeled as experts based on their television skills and not on their knowledge or reputation in the profession) — not doctors or demographers or epidemiologists — pushing partisan and polarizing positions.

If the latest study accomplishes nothing else, it should bring another side, and another set of experts, into the discussion.

The Second Amendment issue really is a red herring. The Supreme Court has made clear that banning the ownership of guns by law-abiding citizens who meet the requirements of background checks violates the Second Amendment. It is equally clear that there is nothing unconstitutional about in-depth background checks being applied to gun and ammunition purchases, bans on assault rifles or limits on sales that are not accompanied by background checks. This is not a Second Amendment issue. No one with any chance of securing legislation or regulating gun ownership is proposing anything unconstitutional.

The NRA argues that the answer to gun deaths is more guns. That answer needs to be tested not in polls but in studies. It obviously does not address suicide deaths, which one would expect to increase and not decrease if there were more, and more easily accessible, guns. But if opponents of further regulation want to test that conclusion in objective studies conducted by professionals without a political agenda, they should. Likewise for homicide deaths.

But this is the bottom line: Guns should not be a political issue dividing us along our usual political lines. This is a public health challenge. The issue is saving lives.

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