Guest columnist: Scourge of gun violence requires public health strategies

Dec. 22, 2012 @ 06:30 PM

Like so many Americans, I am overcome by grief and sadness over the loss our nation suffered in Newtown, Conn. As we try to comprehend the violence and pain it has inflicted, we feel motivated to do something, anything, to stop the senseless violence. However, if the past is an indicator of our actions, the anger we feel and our renewed passion to stop the violence will likely descend into circular rhetoric about gun control and the right to bear arms.

The National Center for Injury Prevention and Control, U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that in 2010 (the latest year for which these data are available), firearms were responsible for the loss of 31,076 American lives in homicides, suicides and unintentional shootings. Furthermore, during the same year, 73,505 Americans were treated in hospital emergency departments for nonfatal gunshot wounds. In his book, “Gun Violence: The Real Costs,” Phillip J. Cook, the ITT/Terry Sanford Professor of Public Policy at the Sanford School of Public Policy at Duke University, estimated that the annual financial cost for this violence is about $100 billion.

Across the nation, we experience the trauma of gun violence with such regularity that our communities often feel that changing the situation is beyond our grasp and we are seemingly desensitized to the tremendous loss our communities experience. In Durham, 22 lives were lost to homicides with a firearm in 2011. In addition, 442 aggravated assaults and 467 robberies involved the use of a firearm. When the numbers are tallied for 2012, Durham will likely have seen fewer homicides, aggravated assaults and robberies that involved a firearm. However, each of those numbers, still far too many for our community, represents a life taken or irreversibly altered by a firearm.

While there are no words to take away the pain and suffering caused by such loss, I would like for us to consider three specific actions to help our communities recover from the significant financial cost inflicted by gun violence.

Firearm manufactures must share the financial costs with communities: The manufacturer of firearms used in acts of violence should pay a prescribed amount to the affected community for each individual killed or injured by a firearm they produced. Firearms are unique, in that unlike most other products, the primary function of a firearm is to kill. These funds could be used to help the community recover from the financial costs of gun violence. In response, manufacturers will likely invest in the development of safety technologies that will reduce the improper use of firearms they produce.

Gun violence insurance should be required for every firearm owned: Gun owners should be required to purchase appropriate insurance that will make payments to affected communities in the event that a gun they own is used to injure or kill another human being. We purchase insurance to manage risk for our businesses, homes and vehicles. Is it not reasonable that we manage the risk of gun violence with appropriate insurance?

Increase penalties across the criminal-justice process when a firearm is used in the commission of a crime: This would include higher bail, longer prison terms and stiffer penalties at sentencing. Some jurisdictions have increased penalties for crimes involving a firearm; however, they tend to apply primarily to sentencing and don’t differ punitively from penalties for the same crime where no firearm is used.

Seeking criminal-justice solutions alone has not resulted in a successful reduction in gun violence, and gun violence continues to be a leading cause of injury and death in the United States. The National Violent Death Reporting System is used by the CDC to monitor violence-related injuries, including those involving a firearm. These data can be used to develop evidence-based strategies to reduce gun violence. Given the prevalence of gun violence in the United States, there is great value in adopting a public health approach to dealing with it. Using the public health approach, we have developed successful strategies to address other health and safety problems. The same success can be achieved with reducing gun violence if we make it a priority and recognize gun violence as the leading cause of injury and death that it is.

Newman Aguiar is past chairman of Durham Gang Reduction Strategy.