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Harvard Researchers: Tackle Gun Violence Like Smoking, Car Deaths

BOSTON — After every mass shooting, just like after the one in Newtown, Conn., there are calls for putting restrictions on the type of guns and ammunition that people can own. But some Boston researchers say it’s time to start looking at gun violence as a public health threat that can be curbed, similar to smoking and motor vehicle deaths. They’ve written an essay on the topic in Monday’s online version of the Journal of the American Medical Association.

WBUR’s All Things Considered host Sacha Pfeiffer spoke with one of the article’s authors, David Hemenway, a professor of health policy at the Harvard School of Public Health and director of the Harvard Injury Control Research Center.

David Hemenway: I feel like we are in the same place in guns today as we were in motor vehicles in the 1950s, because then the motor vehicle manufacturers really tried to say it was all the driver. “Cars don’t kill people; people kill people” was the implicit mantra.

And it really wasn’t until public health physicians asked a different question: not “who caused the accident?” but “what caused the injury?” And people were being speared by steering columns that didn’t collapse, their faces were being ripped apart by glass that wasn’t safety glass, and so forth. Now you can’t make them without collapsible steering columns, you can’t make them without seat belts. There are certain things in guns that we want manufacturers to say, “You can’t make guns which can cause great public harm with very little benefit,” and that would be high magazine capacity.

Sacha Pfeiffer: You also point out that driver education is required to drive, and that what might be applicable for guns would be mandatory gun safety classes.

A lot of states have mandatory gun safety classes, but many, many states don’t. And almost all other developed countries require some sort of training that you know what you’re doing before you’re allowed to have this dangerous product.

You also draw some comparisons to smoking, and one that I thought was quite interesting was that smoking used to be perceived as glamorous — it made you looks sexy and powerful. But we’ve changed that image so that you appear possibly to be addicted and unattractive. You would like a similar campaign for guns. What do you want that campaign to be?

Well, basically it’s not for gun ownership, but it’s for gun use in certain situations. There’s this notion that if you use a gun in Hollywood you’re portrayed as this masculine person, and really, using guns, particularly [among] inner-city kids, should be considered a sign of weakness, that you’re really a wuss, [that] you can’t stand up for yourself without the use of this “equalizer” because you’re not the man similar to the man you’re facing.

But that is still so ingrained in Hollywood — Bruce Willis, Clint Eastwood, Arnold Schwarzenegger. Do you think we have a long way to go there?

Absolutely we have a long way to go, but we had a long, long way to go about cigarette smoking. All you have to do is look in any movie from the ’50s or ’60s or ’70s, and everybody’s smoking and it’s sexy to smoke. And now, I think, a lot of people would [say], “Oh my goodness — you want to kiss this person who has this smoke?” and now there’s a change in social norms.

When it comes to changing social norms about guns, are you suggesting anything beyond just a public service announcement-type campaign? For example, would you like restrictions on graphic violence being depicted in movies?

I mean, here’s an example of changing social norms: In the motor vehicle area, one of the great norms that was changed was drinking and driving. When I was a young adult, social drinking and driving — everybody did it. It was against the law, but everybody did it. It was perfectly fine. And now it’s not. Now it’s considered not correct to do that. It’s that you’re endangering other people. One of the things that helped do that was the designated driver campaign, the notion that friends don’t let friends drive drunk. And one of the things that I would love to see done is for gun owners to have a similar social norm when one of their friends clearly is going through a bad patch — the man has just been divorced, he’s started drinking, he’s started talking crazy. His friends should help him get rid of his gun for at least a few months, until he gets over this problem.

And I think, you know, one of the things that could’ve helped in Sandy Hook was that here you had a 20-year-old kid, and he clearly was doing badly. If the mother’s friends had gotten together and talked to her and said, “This is not a good time for your son to be around semi-automatics. Why don’t we figure out a way to get the guns out of the house for a year or two?” That’s the kind of thing that could really make a difference in preventing some of these real tragedies.

A third category you mention in which there have been public safety successes are unintentional poisonings. You talk about there now being childproof safety packaging for medications. There’s toxicity reduction, reducing the number of pills per bottle. How do you see that applicable to guns?

In two ways: One is we have childproof aspirin bottles; we should have childproof guns. We used to have childproof guns 100 years ago. This is not the major gun problem, but it’s still a problem. Every once in a while a little kid picks up a gun and shoots somebody, and it’s crazy. This should not have to happen.

What do you say to fierce Second Amendment advocates who say the Constitution does not give you an explicit right to drive, to smoke, it doesn’t say anything about unintentional poisonings — but it does mention guns. And, therefore, they’re not sure there should be any limits on them.

Well that’s not what the Supreme Court says. What the Supreme Court has interpreted the Second Amendment to mean is that you have a right to have a gun, a handgun, in your home, but there always can be reasonable, sensible gun laws.

Even with many guns still being out there and many people still having them?

Even with many, many guns. And I think there’s no question we’re going to have many, many guns out there.

Professor Hemenway will take part in a Webcast forum sponsored by Harvard School of Public Health, called “Gun Violence: A Public Health Crisis,” on Tuesday, Jan. 8.

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