Feinsinger column: Gun violence in America is a public health problem
May 15, 2018
Americans own 48 percent of the estimated 650 million civilian-owned guns worldwide, with 1/3 of Americans owning guns. There are more than 36,000 gun-related deaths in the U.S. every year, approximately the same as the number of deaths from auto accidents. Gun-related deaths in the U.S. are 25.2 times higher than in other developed countries.
People argue about gun death statistics, but it's clear that our gun culture is killing far too many of us, whether these deaths are single homicides, mass shootings (these get the most publicity but account for only 3 percent of gun deaths), suicides (there is a clear link between having a gun handy and successful suicide) or accidental gun discharges.
It's also clear that the medical profession needs to speak out on this issue, just as we would be expected to do on any other epidemic such as polio or influenza.
Recently, the American Academy of Family Physicians, the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, the American College of Physicians, and the American Psychiatric Association told President Trump and members of Congress that they must take firm action to deal with gun violence "as a public health epidemic."
As reported in the March 15 issue of the American Family Physician journal, these groups, which represent 450,000 physicians and medical students, recommended these three steps:
• "Label violence caused by the use of guns as a national public health epidemic.
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• "Fund appropriate research at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as part of the 2018 federal budget."
• "Establish constitutionally appropriate restrictions on the manufacturing and sale, for civilian use, of large-capacity magazines and firearms with features designed to increase their rapid and extended killing capacity."
Other common-sense efforts that are talked about and which are supported by most Americans include:
• Universal, enforced, background checks for anyone buying a gun under any circumstance.
• Make it law that whenever anyone stocks up on large numbers of guns and/or ammunition, various law-enforcement agencies would be notified.
• Enable and encourage primary care physicians to talk to patients about gun safety (due to gun industry lobbying some state legislatures have made this illegal).
• Better mental health care, which is touted as the only option by some in the gun lobby. Realistically, though, for the most part it's difficult to determine who is at risk for committing homicide, and to treat such people.
What about the Second Amendment?
• No amendment is absolute. The First Amendment gives us freedom of speech, but you can't shout "fire" in a crowded theater (if there is no fire).
• The Founding Fathers surely didn't envision the mayhem that exists today in the name of the Second Amendment, which is open to interpretation anyway.
In Japan, there are 127 million people, with annual gun deaths close to zero. People wanting to own a gun have to take a day-long educational class on firearms, pass a written test, achieve 95 percent accuracy at a shooting range, pass a mental health evaluation and background check; and to retain their license they have to repeat this process every three years.
Japan also has strict limitations on the type of firearms that can be purchased. Like most Asian societies, the overriding value in Japan's culture is what's best for the common good. The Japanese feel that the individual rights we in Western societies hold so dear are "selfish and irresponsible." It may well be that the majority of Americans would reject the degree of gun control that Japan has, but that's what it would take to get our gun deaths down close to zero.
Dr. Feinsinger's "Doctor's Tip" normally appears in the Tuesday Body & More section. Due to the subject matter, his column this week appears on the Opinion page. Dr. Feinsinger retired from Glenwood Medical Associates after 42 years as a family physician, and now has a nonprofit Center For Prevention and Treatment of Disease Through Nutrition. For questions, email firstname.lastname@example.org.