To treat gun violence as a health crisis, start with existing myth-busting data

AR-15_Sporter_SP1_Carbine-300x120When partisans refuse to deal with deadly gun violence as a public health crisis and to support and fund rigorous research to guide  law-making, it’s unsurprising that extreme and outlandish notions rush to occupy a noxious space in public discussions — a condition one think tank has labeled “truth decay.”

Let’s not stoop, though, to useless bickering about our respective “thoughts” on guns, but rather stick to facts and credible evidence to figure how the nation can better prevent mass shootings.

Exhibit A:  A South Florida radiologist’s essay on the lethal results of wounds inflicted by high-powered battlefield weapons like the AR-15 used in the recent mass shooting at a Florida high school.

A recent Washington Post video (re-posted on this blog), offered a clinical view of “cavitation” caused by assault weapons’ fire. But the South Florida physician’s first-hand report is starker and more direct: The military weapons’ high-speed bullets, packing explosive power, cause immense damage, no matter their shooter’s intent or skill, he says. They tear sizable entry and exit wounds, as well as vaporizing expanses through tissue as they go.  He reports of a trauma surgeon, racing to save a patient with a wound to the abdomen, finding, “only shreds of the organ that had been hit by a bullet from an AR-15, a semi-automatic rifle which delivers a devastatingly lethal, high-velocity bullet to the victim. There was nothing left to repair, and utterly, devastatingly, nothing that could be done to fix the problem.”

Exhibit B: Scientific American  deserves credit for digging back and re-presenting information from the available, bona fide researchers’ findings on guns and their harms, including these data points:

  • Firearm assaults were 6.8 times more common in the states with the most guns versus those with the least. Also, in 2015 a combined analysis of 15 different studies found that people who had access to firearms at home were nearly twice as likely to be murdered as people who did not.
  • Murder and suicide were more common among people who kept guns in their homes … in homes that owned guns for self-defense [there were] 70 percent increased odds of being murdered at home.
  • A gun in the home was tied to a nearly five-fold increase in the odds of suicide. (More Americans die from gun suicides every year than gun homicides.)
  • In a 2015 study of 14,000 victims of crime, researchers concluded that gun use to prevent crimes is rare.
  • In a 1998 analysis of 668 shootings around homes in three cities, researchers found that accidental shootings, homicides, assaults and suicides were much more common than gun use for self-defense.
  • Most Americans with concealed carry permits are white men living in rural areas, yet it is young black men in urban areas who disproportionately encounter violence. Violent crimes are also geographically concentrated: Between 1980 and 2008, half of all of Boston’s gun violence occurred on only 3 percent of the city’s streets and intersections. And in Seattle, over a 14-year-period, every single juvenile crime incident took place on less than 5 percent of street segments. In other words, most people carrying guns have only a small chance of encountering situations in which they could use them for self-defense.

Much of the path-breaking work on gun violence was conducted for a time by Arthur Kellerman, a physician, public policy expert, author, and now dean of the F. Edward Hébert School of Medicine at the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences. He has written how partisans in Congress cut off research on gun violence by medical scientists.

Exhibit C: Mother Jones, meantime, also has posted its interesting journalistic dig into 62 mass shootings that have occurred in recent years, finding that the horrific incidents are increasing. And, emphatically no: They have not been stopped and unlikely will be prevented by having “good guys with guns” in schools, movie theaters, and other public places where these rampages have occurred.

Exhibit D: The Pulitzer Prize-winning site Politifact has fact-checked assertions made in the current outcry about the South Florida mass shooting. Its data points include:

  • In 68 percent of school shootings, the shooter gets the gun from a parent or close relative’s house. (That statistic comes from a federal study that examined 37 incidents of school violence between 1974 and 2000.)
  • The number of schools employing uniformed officers skyrocketed from about 13 percent in 1994 to over 51 percent 2014, many funded through federal grant money, according to a study by Xavier University criminal justice professor Cheryl Lero Jonson. But two of the deadliest school shootings — Columbine and Virginia Tech — occurred despite the presence of armed police.
  • A 2000 study found in Chicago, metal detectors prevented 294 weapons, 15 of which were guns, from entering schools. A 1993 sample of New York City schools with metal detectors showed a deterrent effect because some students said they were less likely to bring guns to school. But even metal detectors are no guarantee. In 2005, a teenager killed an unarmed security guard and passed through a metal detector at a high school in Red Lake, Minn., and murdered a teacher and five students.

In my practice, I see the major harms that patients suffer while seeking medical services, including for firearm-related injuries, and the giant toll inflicted on them by dangerous and defective devices. We must act to reduce gun deaths, which claimed more than 33,000 lives in 2017 alone.

In fields like health care and economics, smart experts are finding the major effects possible by altering human behavior to change and save lives. We no longer can focus just on seeking magic pills, potions, or procedures to improve our well-being. We can get Americans to change their actions — to stop smoking, drive safer, eat better, exercise more, and not take illicit substances. Steps like these have saved countless numbers of us from disease and death. With 9 of 10 American schools conducting “active shooter” or “lockdown” drills, and with these increasingly common in work places, too,  it’s clear we must both be respectful of Americans’ Second Amendment rights but also our overriding right for our youngsters and ourselves to be free of fear and senseless gun violence.

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