I want my patients, neighbors and fellow citizens, both gun owners and non-owners, to appreciate the risks and benefits of owning a gun and the things we can do to make our homes and communities safer.
About 100 Americans die every day from gun violence. While deaths continue to rise, an endless debate pits “gun control” against “gun rights” advocates. As a primary care physician and epidemiologist, I think we’re having the wrong conversation. If we’re serious about saving lives, physicians need to promote gun safety literacy— an understanding of the risks and benefits of gun ownership and of what we, as a society, can and should do to make our communities safer.
Lack of knowledge is a major obstacle to reducing injuries and deaths. When I ask high school classes to recall a public health message related to motor vehicle safety, all the hands go up; when I ask about messages relating to gun violence, there’s silence.
Here’s what everyone needs to know:
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More than half of gun owners possess a gun primarily for self-protection. Yet a gun in a home is actually 22 times more likely to result in a suicide, homicide or accidental injury than it is to be used in self-defense.
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Gun owners tell me how important good training is to preventing injury. Though I myself do not own a gun, I believe them. Yet more than 40 percent of owners receive no formal training in operating a gun.
Few high school students I have taught have heard of “smart guns,” which can be fired only by their owner. Smart guns could substantially reduce accidental deaths, injuries to police officers and teen suicides, but they are not available for purchase in this country.
There are more than 300 million guns in our country today. With guns so ubiquitous, parents should ask whether guns are present and properly locked in the homes their children visit. In Washington state, more than 200,000 children live in homes where guns are not locked securely. All gun owners should be aware that, under the community endangerment provision of the recently passed Initiative 1639, they are liable for crimes and injuries committed using their unlocked firearms.
Parents, teachers and students should recognize the risks of gun suicide.
Funding for research on gun violence is less than 1 percent of that spent on research on other diseases with comparable mortality. We should know that relatively little is being done to investigate causes and solutions to our gun-violence epidemic.
I want my patients, neighbors and fellow citizens, both gun owners and non-owners, to appreciate the risks and benefits of owning a gun and the things we can do to make our homes and communities safer. Armed with accurate information, most people will make choices that promote health and safety. Physicians, as stewards of public health, need to take the lead in promoting gun literacy, both in our practices and in the public domain.