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Childhood-injury expert urges end to ban on U.S.-funded gun-violence research

“By taking basic steps to permit public health research, we can finally begin to understand the sources of the current epidemic of violence and how best to control it,” a BMJ commentary says.

A firearm kills somebody in this country every 17 minutes.
REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

The 19-year-old ban imposed by Congress on the federal funding of research into gun violence needs to be overturned if we are going to ever figure out how to reduce that violence, argue the authors of an editorial published Wednesday in the BMJ.

“Any other public health problem of comparable seriousness would not have been ignored for decades, but US history and the political pressure brought to bear by the National Rifle Association have so far proved impossible to defy,” write the commentary’s authors.

One of the authors, Dr. Frederick Rivara, is a professor of pediatrics at the University of Washington who has spent the past 30 years studying childhood injury and its prevention. He was founding president of the International Society for Child and Adolescent Injury Prevention. The other authors are Dr. Kamran Abbasi, international editor of BMJ, and Dr. Margaret Winker, a medical research editor.

In U.S., a gun kills someone every 17 minutes

Rivara and his colleagues argue that gun violence in the U.S. is one of the country’s major public health problems. The statistics, certainly, are alarming: A firearm kills somebody in this country every 17 minutes. That’s an average of 87 people a day, or 609 a week. 

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In 2014, firearms were responsible for 33,599 deaths in the U.S.  Of those, 63 percent were suicides, 34 percent were homicides and 2 percent were unintentional shootings.

“The problem is worldwide,” Rivara and his co-authors acknowledge, “although few countries have guns embedded in the national psyche to quite the same extent as the US.”

But the shortening of so many people’s lives, while tragic, is not the entire sum of the toll that gun violence places on society, they add. It also has detrimental effects on our educational and health-care institutions, and contributes to family instability and our growing prison population.

‘A classic public health problem’

Gun violence is, therefore, “a classic public health problem,” they argue, although, unfortunately, “US political forces and special interest groups have blocked any public health approach” to treating it as such.

But that public health approach — defining and monitoring the problem, identifying risk and protective factors, developing and testing prevention strategies, and, finally, adopting those strategies found to be effective — is urgently needed.

“Research is needed on all aspects of gun policies and safety, including evaluating state policies, improving understanding of the effects of restricting access to firearms and other lethal means for people at risk of suicide, and evaluating the effectiveness of community and school gun safety training,” Rivera and his colleagues write. “Smart gun and smart gun safes could be evaluated to determine their effect on safety.”

The writers also call for more epidemiological research to understand “who buys guns and what happens to the people who own them and their families and communities.”

“By taking basic steps to permit public health research, we can finally begin to understand the sources of the current epidemic of violence and how best to control it,” Rivera and his co-authors conclude. “Only hard evidence will cool the heat of gun rhetoric and address this critical worldwide problem.”

FMI: You can read the commentary in full on the BMJ website