An Ongoing Health Problem

The United States has an ongoing public health problem: death due to guns. Although deaths due to guns are decreasing, in 2007 there were about 30,000 gun deaths, 56% suicides, 41% homicides, and 3% due to accidents. In 2011, the last year for complete data, there were 12,664 murders, 8,583 by guns, or 68%. And, although the number of gun deaths is decreasing slowly, a mass shooting happened again last week, this time killing 20 six and seven year old kids and 8 adults, including the shooter and his mother. The USA has a population of over 300,000,000 and there are just about this same number of guns, a ratio of about one gun for every man, woman and child in the society. During the Obama Presidency, there has been a run on gun purchasing for a variety of reasons. When these mass murders happen gun purchases also usually rise.

Here are some numbers taken from Am. J. Lifestyle Med. 2011; 5 (6): 502-511 by David Hemenway PhD, which reviews 101 articles on this subject:

Violent deaths among 5-14 year olds: USA versus other high income countries: Gun homicide rate: USA 13.4:1. Gun suicide rate: USA 8:1. Total gun deaths: USA 10.6:1. In the fifteen states with the most guns (WY, MT, AK, SD, AR, WV, AL, ID, MS, MD, KY, TN, LA, MO, VT) compared with the six states with the least (HI, NJ, MA, RI, CT, NY) the total populations are 25.5 million in the high gun states and 27.0 million in the low gun states. The ratio of gun homicides for the 5-14 age group in the high gun states to the low gun states is 2.5:1. The ratio of non gun homicides is 1:1. The ratio of gun suicides in high gun states versus low gun states is 12.1:1. The ratio of accidental gun deaths is 11:1. There is also good evidence that having a gun in the home is a serious risk factor for intimidation and killing women who live in that home. Expanding the statistics beyond children and women, there isn’t really any statistically credible evidence that there is an overall health risk-benefit ratio to having a gun in any home and the American Academy of Pediatrics has decided that guns do not belong in households where children are present.
Gun murder rates in the USA are about the highest in the world, as is the prevalence of gun ownership. Bu contributing factors to this public health problem.

First, the Second Amendment to the Constitution states: “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms shall not be infringed.” The most recent Supreme Court interpretation of this amendment (by a 5-4 vote) holds that this guarantees all individuals the right to gun ownership. Some people have also argued in the past and particularly during the last few days that the purpose of this amendment is to enable states and individuals to defend themselves against a tyrannical United States government. But from reading history one should also consider that state militias were instrumental in the revolution against Britain which was fresh in the minds of the founding fathers when the amendment was adopted. My 5X great grandfather, John Baird, fought in a South Carolina militia led by General Sumter. Many, if not most soldiers who fought in the Revolutionary War were also members of local militias in the various states. They were fighting to free themselves from a “foreign” tyranny and occupation. Note also that the amendment begins, “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State…” This could logically be interpreted to mean that the states may need well regulated Militias to control their own populations and that they (the people collectively) should therefore be allowed to keep and bear arms in a well regulated fashion. Hunting ducks and deer is not mentioned. At a time in history when hunting actually provided some of the food that people ate, having guns for this purpose was probably assumed by the founding fathers. The Second Amendment is about something else.

So why, when we no longer need to hunt, do we have so many guns? Our gun ownership rate is more than ten times the rate in Great Britain and our gun murder rate is much higher. Guns play a uniquely prominent role in our culture. Why?

1. Guns are toys. Many people like to shoot at targets. Target shooting is amusement so the concept that guns are toys for many people should taken seriously. At some firing ranges the targets are shaped like people. If you drive a lot on the back roads of America you have surely noticed road signs with lots of bullet holes in them. The folks that caused this were having a form of fun, however pointless or stupid it may have been.

2. Guns are used for hunting, another form of fun for many people. They do not need to hunt to eat anymore. So they shoot ducks and deer for fun and fellowship. Granted, they may eat some of the game they “bag” but they do not need to. They have been raised in families that have hunters in them and hunting is one of the things that they enjoy doing together. A little more troubling is that some people also specifically enjoy killing animals. There are “ranches” in Texas where you can pay large sums to shoot a tiger or lion or other exotic animal. The animals are kept caged, then let out when the hunter has driven close enough to take a shot. This “hunting” is done for blood lust or fun.

3. Guns are penis lengtheners. Some people think that guns make them more manly. Some argue that they carry guns for protection but if you read the anecdotal evidence for guns actually being used to protect the gun owners from assault, the true frequency of such protective use that is not criminal in itself is very hard to determine. One has particular difficulty determining the number of deaths that would result if those “protecting” themselves did not have a gun. The case of George Zimmerman and Trayvon Martin is illustrative. Zimmerman was armed and on a self-authorized neighborhood watch at night. He saw Martin walking in his neighborhood. He interpreted Martin as suspicious, called the police, then followed Martin even though the police told him that they were coming and didn’t need for him to do that. Eventually a confrontation took place, Martin knocked Zimmerman down, and Zimmerman, “standing his ground” as Florida law theoretically permits, shot Martin to death. This case has not yet come to trial but it illustrates the problems of anecdotal evidence of guns being used for “self-protection.” Zimmerman could have stayed in his car and waited for the police. By the time they arrived Martin would have been home watching TV and eating his convenience store purchases.

4. Crazy people can get guns. (This raises a whole new set of questions about access to mental health care in this country.) We have laws that require background checks on people who want to buy a gun in a retail store. But statistics show that about 40% of guns are bought and sold at gun shows or privately and no background checks are conducted. The Newtown massacre illustrates a further problem. The guns used in the massacre were legally purchased by the shooter’s mother. The shooter himself had access to these guns and no background check was ever conducted on him. Gun control advocates point out that a gun in a home, as we have seen above, will most likely be used to shoot someone who lives in that home, whether suicide, homicide, or by accident. Indeed, the shooter shot his mother first before going to the school. We will never be able to identify all the potential homicidal/suicidal people in the society but they will do less damage with knives and baseball bats than with guns. Someone in China just attacked a school with a knife and slashed 22 students. They all survived.

What remedies should we consider? None will cure the problem but they may ameliorate it.

Banning the private ownership of assault weapons and high-capacity magazines seems reasonable. These semi-automatic weapons with high-capacity magazines are made to kill large numbers of people as quickly as possible. They are for war. They are not used to shoot ducks and deer. The theater shooter in Aurora, Colorado had purchased several thousand rounds of ammunition and the shooter in Connecticut had several hundred. Why should hunters need that amount of ammunition? We should restrict the amount of ammunition someone can purchase. Part of the mystique of hunting is the ability to bring down game with a single shot. Those who think that the second amendment was written so that they, as individuals, can protect themselves from our federal government are wrong as a matter of history and as a matter of practicality. Reread the history of the Symbianese Liberation Army and the Branch Davidians and reflect on how successful these deranged people were. The history of the Confederacy is also relevant.

Hand gun ownership should also be much more severely restricted. Wanting a handgun and really needing it are two very different things. There are simply too many people who own guns and don’t really know how to use them effectively for self-protection without committing crimes themselves. It has been argued for example that all teachers in the public schools should be armed or even more, that everybody in society should be armed. I have discussed this with my son, Daniel, who is a second degree black belt in Karate and who has taught classes in schools to instruct teen-age girls in self defense against assault. Daniel points out that people who are not well-trained and very experienced in fighting with or without guns will always hesitate when attacked. That hesitation will give the attacker the ability to shoot first or strike the first blow. The armed teacher will likely be the first casualty. Should we also have them wear bullet-proof vests? And one should think about the wisdom of having people open defensive fire in a crowded hall or schoolroom. Elsewhere, the more armed people there are, the more disagreements will lead to gunfights and the more people, criminal and law-abiding, will die. This is particularly true when people are allowed to carry guns into bars as some states permit. One can easily imagine a scene where the usual law-abiding folks are in a bar watching a sporting event. The liquor flows and a controversial call occurs in the second half or about three drinks into the game. An argument ensues, escalates, deities are invoked, parentage is questioned, guns are produced, other armed fans take notice, pick a side, and all hell breaks loose. People are wounded or die, liquor is spilled, and the disputed call on TV results in a five yard penalty. So, occasionally an armed guard may stop an assault in a public place but the number of lives saved may be cancelled out by the number lost elsewhere in arguments that escalate to shooting because one or more of the participants is armed.

Simply repealing the Second Amendment because it is out-of-date is probably not possible. But the right to keep and bear arms is not one of the Creator-endowed rights asserted in the Declaration of Independence. Indeed the Constitution was written, ordained and established by “We the People…” not God, in the eighteenth century. But it has to serve a continuously evolving society. When one of its provisions causes an ongoing public health problem today, then it does not “promote the general Welfare.” The Constitution can and has been reinterpreted and provisions can and have been repealed. Let us approach this problem rationally and not testicularly or religiously. We regulate automobiles, liquor, tobacco, and lots of drugs. None of these are designed specifically to kill but their use carries inherent dangers that we all recognize. Guns are designed specifically to kill. How can we not rigorously regulate their possession and use?

A last thought. People who gonadally or religiously view their guns will not be persuaded by any of the facts I have cited or arguments I have written. In spite of overwhelming evidence, there are still people who do not believe that President Obama was born in Hawaii, that evolution explains speciation, and that global warming due to human activity is happening. These people are immune to facts and reason. They illustrate an observation of Robin Williams: “God gave man a brain and a penis and only enough blood to run one at a time.” They simply must be outvoted. Your congressmen and women need encouragement to act. This is an ongoing public health problem that we ignore at our peril.