Gun Violence: A Public Health Issue?

With the United States under violent assault since Sept. 11, 2001, American citizens have reeled from the size and scope of the assault and wondered whether ours really is a kind and gentle nation. We don't understand the reasons for the attack; in fact, we profess to abhor violence. Are we, at heart, a kind and gentle nation?

Reports from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show that from 1993-1998, on average, 115,000 firearm-related injuries occurred annually, resulting in 35,200 deaths per year. In 1998, firearm-related injuries followed motor-vehicle-related deaths as the second leading cause of injury-related death in the United States. Each year, more than 70 percent of homicides are committed with a firearm. Just having a gun in the home triples the risk of homicide in the home and increases the risk of suicide five times.

Our children are dying from guns. Overall annual death rates in children steadily declined between 1950 and 1993, primarily due to decreases in mortality from pneumonia, influenza, congenital anomalies, cancer and unintentional injuries. But homicide rates tripled and suicide rates quadrupled during that same time period: 86 percent directly resulted from firearms. Comparison of U.S. rates to those in 25 other industrialized countries showed that the homicide rate for children under 15 here was nearly 16 times higher and the suicide rate nearly 11 times higher than that of all the other countries combined.

The United States far exceeds other nations in the number of firearm-related mortalities. In 1996, handguns were used to murder two people in New Zealand, 15 in Japan, 30 in Great Britain, 106 in Canada and 9,390 in the United States. While many advocates of gun ownership claim the need to own weapons for self-defense and say that many of those deaths result from acts of self-defense, 1999 reported only 154 "justifiable homicides" by private citizens in the United States.

Firearms continue to be readily available, with few regulations controlling secondhand purchasing and hundreds of thousands of firearm thefts each year. The presence of firearms in the home has contributed to numerous tragedies that have had extensive media coverage. Consider the school-related shootings in Pearl, Miss.; Littleton, Colo.; and Springfield, Ore. Where did these children get their guns? Many got them from within their own homes. In 1995, a national survey reported that one in 12 students said they had carried a firearm for self-defense at least once in the previous 30 days.

In 2000, the rate of firearm-related death in Mississippi (16.9 deaths per 100,000 population) was more than 1-1/2 times that reported for the United States (10.4 deaths per 100,000 population). And this figure probably does not represent the actual number of firearm-related incidents, since the state has no effective system in place to record incidents. Among all causes of death in 2000, firearm-related mortality was the 10th-leading cause in Mississippi and the No. 2 cause among Mississippians ages 10-34.

Ironically, as medical expertise and technology improve, more gunshot victims survive their wounds; so death rates are actually declining. But we should not kid ourselves into thinking that the numbers are anything but unacceptable. The personal, social and economic costs are huge.

The sole purpose of a gun is to kill or injure or to threaten to kill or injure. Unregulated ownership or possession of such a dangerous object in a country with high crime rates is a disastrous combination. Gun control and crime reduction are overlapping but distinct issues—this country needs both. We accept that gun control will not, by itself, reduce crime rates, but stricter gun controls will reduce the number of gun murders, accidental firearm deaths and injuries, and firearm-related suicides. In the U.S., gun deaths are down 27 percent eight years after the signing of the Brady Law, and crime has not gone up—in fact, crime has gone down to record levels.

As far as we are aware, no data show that possession or use of firearms saves lives. We believe the onus should be on gun owners and manufacturers to produce such data.

We do not propose that stricter gun controls be introduced overnight. Such policy changes would not only be impractical but would, at least temporarily, leave more guns in the hands of criminal elements.

In a gun-restricted society, an individual retains his or her right to own a weapon and use it for hunting or other sport, but the weapon is kept at some central, secure location in the community. Strict but fair gun license laws would restrict ownership to persons who justify a need and would mandate both initial training and periodic retraining with an emphasis on safe and responsible use.

Firearms-related injury and death is a form of violence that we should no longer tolerate. Violence begets violence. If we want to preach the message of peace and civility to other countries, we must put our own house in order. Until then, hundreds of thousands of needless deaths will continue to occur.

Previous Comments


help me with my live in girlfriend. she is a bitch

jerry taylor

European-style gun control won't happen here for at least this generation, and probably not within my lifetime either. We can't even have national education standards without a lot of us thinking that even that is a step down the road toward totalitarianism.


Jerry, we're not qualified to conduct domestic therapy here (although we've engaging in one political therapy session this week, I think). The only, only relationship advice I can give, really, consists of two words: listening and compassion. Philip, this is probably another good place to recommend that everyone reading this rent Michael Moore's "Bowling for Columbine." It's really entertaining and very thought-provoking about the American cult of fear. I'm sure it's in all video stores in Jackson (although, of course, I recommend locally owned ones).



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