Megan Ranney is an emergency physician and associate dean at Brown University. Her essay in Time (April 12, p. 26) should be required reading, particularly with the city of Providence earning the dubious distinction of having its probable biggest shooting in the city’s history as nine people were felled. Dr. Ranney correctly argues that the approach to gun deaths should not be an issue of politics but as a public health problem.Before undertaking any discussion of a sane policy, let’s get something out of the way: both sides of the debate about guns are correct. Yes, there would be zero deaths if we had zero guns (and, yes, homicides would still occur from other weapons) but a gun doesn’t go off on its own. John or Jane Doe is always behind it. Invariably, guns in some of these hands have risks escalated in an instant. The public health approach requires attention to those folks who have triggers for self or another party violence. Most Rhode Islanders and Americans think about “gun violence” only when there is a mass shooting. The reminder has been fairly frequent in 2021 with over 200 shootings (defined as four or more people shot or killed) as of May 24. More than 15,000 people in the U.S. have died from gun-related violence. In 2020, statistics, such as they are since collection of data is sporadic, documented an increase of 10 percent of gun homicide or suicide. On average every day in 2020, 100 people died and 200 were injured every single day.
Like COVID-19 deaths or resulting illness during that pandemic, each gun-related injury carries the pain and suffering of survivors’ post-traumatic stress, lost wages, and future psychic injury or treatment for bodily harm. With COVID-19, as Dr. Ranney points out, public health professionals sprung into action studying its causes, its remediation, its prevention through masks and vaccines, and then disseminated the solution across the country. Yet, by contrast, with the epidemic of gun deaths and injury, Congress passed legislation in the ‘90s to ban the use of government funds to advocate for any kind of gun control. The consequence was that the firearm prevention studies, already reduced at that time to about one-hundredth for diseases killing a similar number of people dried up. Instead, tiresome arguments vacillated between banning guns or arming everyone instead of digging into the hard work to reduce risk and improve safety.
Were this problem treated as a public health issue, reliable data would be collected, including how many firearms owners are safe while their colleagues are not. Policies that are effective would be differentiated from the duds. There most likely will be a need to change the ways guns are engineered. During the ‘80s when I ran and then was the R.I. attorney general, I called for a then 20 cent additional cost for a modification of guns, which would fire only with the fingerprint of the owner. I was heartsick over the number of children who got into “pop’s nightstand” and “played” with the firearm, thereby killing themselves or playmates.
Research-based safety protocols where experts in firearms and public health experts work together is needed. Can’t finger-pointing stop so we can end this epidemic?
Violet is an attorney and former state attorney general.