Let’s treat gun safety as a public health issue

07/20/2014 6:00 PM

07/18/2014 4:28 PM

Quick, are you more likely to die by a bullet or in a car crash?

Common sense would seem to suggest the latter. Cars are everywhere. We are an auto-obsessed nation. To be American is to drive — everywhere. Teenagers itch to get behind the wheel, and the old and infirm vigorously resist giving up the keys.

Nevertheless, in 14 states and the District of Columbia the number of gun fatalities has overtaken the number of road deaths, and the rest of the nation appears on track to follow suit. This is a striking when you consider that more than 90 percent of American households own a car, whereas a little more than one-third have a gun.

One reason for the flip-flop is that for nearly 50 years, the nation has been focused on making driving safer. We have gone in the opposite direction on firearms.

An attitude shift toward automobile safety began in the 1960s, when government and manufacturers worked together to achieve it with campaigns to promote seat belt usage, higher quality tires, shatterproof windshields, changes in highway construction and lower speed limits. As a result, deaths by automobile accident have plummeted.

Why can’t we see firearms from the same perspective, as a consumer safety issue? One that demands responsibility from owners and manufacturers, with public awareness campaigns and product innovations incorporating the latest in safety research.

We all know why not.

Any policy discussion of guns in America is poisoned by politics. The gun debate has long been awash with misinformation and shrill rhetoric. Whether the topic is mass shootings or violent criminals, advocates on both sides of the gun control issue can be counted on to miss the forest for the trees.

Consider that of the more than 32,000 gun deaths every year, a full two-thirds are unintentional shootings and suicides (there are more than 19,000 gun suicides a year). These fatalities are tragic and largely preventable, as when a child finds a loaded and unsecured gun and kills a sibling or playmate.

Let’s suppose we could all agree that the right to own firearms was not in question in the United States, and that government and industry would become dedicated to making those firearms as safe as possible. What progress could we achieve in gun mortality?

Let’s look again at the gun death and auto death statistics for a comparison. They’re compiled in a new report by the Violence Policy Center using data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Center for Injury Prevention and Control. In 2011, there were 32,351 gun deaths and 35,543 car deaths in the nation. In 1999, there were 28,874 gun deaths and 42,624 car deaths.

To understand the impact, the fatality numbers should be expressed as a rate, since more and more drivers hit the road every year. The fatality rate per 100 million vehicle miles traveled was 1.10 in 2011, down from 1.55 in 1999. In 1966 that figure was 5.50.

That’s what a concentrated focus on safety can achieve.

It took two acts of Congress to enshrine car safety as a public health issue to be studied and mitigated: the Highway Safety Act and the National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act, both enacted in 1966.

As a comparison, firearms aren’t allowed to be considered under the purview of the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission. We have the National Rifle Association and its fellow travelers to thank for that. Even the slightest hint of the government studying guns from a public health standpoint provokes howls about the infringement of Second Amendment freedoms.

Frankly, there is a lot we do not know about guns and how they are used by Americans, be it legally or criminally. We can’t prevent further harm until we understand how accidents happen, how much more likely a person is to commit suicide if a gun is accessible, how guns wind up in criminals’ hands, and a raft of other questions.

More and better studies might encourage safety-conscious gun owners to accept new measures to keep their guns safe.

Design changes such as safety grips, biometrics to keep guns from firing by just any hand, and better indications that the chamber is loaded also need to be studied for their effectiveness in reducing accidents.

It took time, but American drivers grudgingly accepted wearing seatbelts as mandatory, and now we value everything from high-tech air bag protection to gizmos that warn us of unseen dangers as we back up our cars.

It’s past time for a similar attitude shift about gun safety.

Mary Sanchez is an opinion-page columnist for The Kansas City Star.

©2014 The Kansas City Star

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