Vol. 191 April 15, 2018 The Gun Violence Epidemic

April 15, 2018

Hub thumbnail 2015

“EPIDEMIC” continues to be a common catch word for headlines. Apparently we have lots of epidemics; the flu, HIV, opioid, Zika, gun violence, etc. We spend a lot of tax money investigating and containing epidemics. . . . Oh, . . . all except for that last one: gun violence.

Why is that? In 1996 the Communicable Disease Center (CDC), our federal bulwark against harmful epidemics, was expressly instructed by Congress NOT to study anything related to guns, i.e. don’t give research grants, don’t establish data bases to track events, and don’t sic the EIS on the gun violence epidemic. In one of his rare Executive Orders President Obama instructed the CDC in 2012 to resume their gun violence research and asked Congress to allocate $10 million dollars for that purpose. Congress never did.

EIS stands for the Epidemic Intelligence Service, a division of the CDC. It has a stellar reputation for laser-focussed field analysis of incipient epidemics to guide early actions to contain them, to reduce any harm to people. Just last week the CDC launched an investigation into a cluster of 53 new HIV cases in Lowell, MA. (In 2007 Boston had a “cluster” of 92 gun-related homicides.) Ironically, the CDC remains hamstrung in any effort to collect and analyze data on the gun violence epidemic at a time when it is asking the general public to participate in identifying any other kind of potential epidemic via internet “crowd sourcing” .

The CDC does keep mortality statistics and issues an annual report of causes of death for each state. The difference of gun-related death rates  between states is huge, and  no one really knows why. Massachusetts had the lowest number of gun-related deaths in 2016: 3.4 deaths per 100,000 population, or 242 gun-related deaths in Massachusetts that year. Texas, Florida, and California had 3,353, 2,704, and 3,184 gun-related deaths respectively that same year. Those three states also had the most suicide deaths and the most accident-related deaths of all the states. That’s interesting, but those rates may not be related in any way to each other . Food for thought? Too bad the CDC can’t collect more data on gun deaths.

A gun is the harmful agent in this epidemic just as a virus is the harmful agent in the AIDS epidemic. True, human behavior is the cause for both of the epidemics spreading, but while we are developing a HIV vaccine we have implemented effective measures to contain the epidemic with “safe sex” campaigns, identification of risk factors, pre-natal treatment of HIV-positive pregnant women, early treatment of exposed newborns, and development of successful medical treatments. All of this was accomplished with the support of the CDC and NIH. Why not provide government support for similar interim steps to reduce the gun violence epidemic? Medical societies and many citizen groups have picked up the “safe gun” banner. Why hasn’t the federal government done so?

One answer is, of course, money. The NRA contributed money to 205 House members (189 Republicans and 16 Democrats) and 42 Senators (35 Republicans and 4 Democrats) in 2012. The Democratic Senator that got the most NRA money got less than the 41 Republicans above him or her on the list. 95 of the top 100 NRA money receivers in the House were Republicans. Most analysts actually consider this as “chump change” ($5,000-10,000 per Congressman) compared to the $18.6 million that the NRA spent on NRA-favorable candidates in the 2012 elections. Analysts speculate that the money buys “allegiance” rather than “influence” (whatever that means). We all know it buys lots of “thoughts and prayers.”

Another answer may be that there are more guns than people in the U.S. It is as if everyone had AIDS, or as if HIV- infected people considered it their constitutional right to do anything with it they wished to. We as a nation did a lot to reduce the harm of HIV without abolishing the HIV virus. Why can’t we take the same approach to gun violence? We could do quite a bit without abolishing guns if we could do research about how guns are spread, how they are used for harm (In fact, 50% of gun deaths are suicides), how we could reduce harmful use (electronic signatures, smart guns, trigger locks, no multiple cartridge magazine, etc.).

The significant reduction of auto accidents deaths was accomplished by multiple means (seat belts, car seat regulations, air bags, electronic sensors, changes in car manufacture, speed limit regulations, etc,) and not by abolishing cars or drivers’ licenses. With better data perhaps we could take effective action to reduce the gun death epidemic.

Claritin:gun cartoon

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Vol. 188 March 1, 2018 St. Valentine’s Day Massacre #2

March 1, 2018

Hub thumbnail 2015St. Valentine’s Day Massacre,
Chicago, Ill. 1929:
7 gangsters killed.

St. Valentine’s Day Massacre, Parkland, Fla. 2018:
17 kids & staff killed.

Firearm safety is a public health issue”
-Massachusetts Medical Society, February 2018

The 1929 massacre was partly responsible for the 1934 Illinois and 1935 Federal laws regulating machine guns. The laws actually did NOT ban the guns, They taxed them! The tax was $200 (about equivalent of $8000 today) and the annual license to own one was also very expensive. It effectively doubled the price of a tommy gun, the gangsters favorite. In 1986 the sale of fully automatic guns was prohibited by federal law “except those already existing in owners hands” that were grandfathered in. (1)

This year’s St. Valentine’s Day Massacre was the 30th mass shooting (more than 4 victims) in 2018 . . . so far. It was also the 17th time a gun had been fired on school grounds in 2018 . . . so far. AND on February 14, 2018 there were 28 additional gun deaths elsewhere in our country. (2)

Just to numb your brain with some more statistics (I know, I know . . .your eyes are already glazed over having read these numbers or others like them so many times), but during the period of 2009-2013 there were 722 per year firearm-related injuries Massachusetts, a state well-know nothing for its extensive of gun regulations . When you subtract the average of 121 suicides per year and 187 unintentional injuries per year some might say, “Only half are homicides. What’s the big push against gun violence.?”

And that’s when you can reframe the conversation into “gun safety”, not gun banning, not gun restrictions. That is the tack the medical profession is taking, and it might prove to be less confrontational to vested interests and more successful than other efforts.  Gun safety measures target preventing ALL of the 722 annual gun injuries. (pun intended).

The American Academy of Pediatrics strongly recommended a few years ago that pediatricians ask about gun safety as part of their usual assessments of household risks during a well visit; i.e. “If you have guns in the house,are they stored safe from the access of children?” One response was Florida legislature passing a law making it a crime for a physician to ask a patient or parent about gun ownership. The law was rescinded by the US Court of Appeals after the AMA brought suit.

In the same Feb. 24 2018 newspaper that Trump called for the arming of school teachers the Associated Press reported that 9,070 pupils (1 in 105 students) had to be physically restrained in Massachusetts school during the 2016-2017 school year.   244 of those incidents resulted in an injury to student or staff. Nationally the U.S. Education Department estimates that figure of physical restraint is at least 22,000 incidences per year. So, let’s just throw a gun into THAT equation! (CCT Feb. 24, 2018)

A relevant model of effective action is the decrease in auto fatalities by passing multiple laws and regulations, technological advances, and public education (Seat belts, airbags, speed limits, car cameras, etc.)

Smart gun technology  now exists to make guns safe, but they would still allow the owner to “repel any invaders of his house . . . or country”,  and might cut the number of gun injuries by 50%. Reducing mass homicides would require more regulation of automatic guns.

Organized Medicine’s new recommendations are to focus on gun safety.
1. Physicians should talk to their patients and families about gun accessibility, storage, and safety in the home.

2. The CDC should be allowed to conduct gun violence research (collect and analyze data)  like in any other public health epidemic.

3. Increase federally funded research on this “urgent health care crisis” of gun violence.

Many physicians belong to the NRA, “and that’s OK”. A physician friend of mine from Massachusetts was interviewing for a medical license by a physician panel in New Mexico. The chairwoman, noting his home state, asked him if he knew about gun control in New Mexico. He pleaded ignorance, and she responded, “A steady hand. Would you like an application to the NRA?”

 

 


Vol. 174 July 15, 2017 Dumb Government and Smart Guns

July 15, 2017

Gun violence injuries and deaths in the U.S. is a public health crisis.”   – AMA

Gun violence kills roughly 30,000 Americans each year, about as many people as car accidents. The federal government has been restricted in gathering and analyzing gun violence data since 1996 when a CDC study linked the presence of a gun in the house with an increased risk of homicide. The NRA responded with a successful lobbying effort to pass the restriction that the CDC may not use any money allocated to it for “activities that advocate or promote gun control.” It stripped $2.6 million from the CDC budget for firearm injury research. After the Newton School shooting in 2012 Obama issued an Executive Order (one of his relatively few) commanding the CDC to renew their research into gun violence and requested Congress to allocate $10 million for that. Congress never did, and research never resumed.

The NRA has also successfully limited the federal government’s ability to trace guns involved in crimes, “crime gun-tracing”. Some states have developed data bases of crime-gun tracing to identify sources of and reduce illegal gun trafficking. Massachusetts established crime-gun tracing in 2014, but has not published a meaningful analysis of the data which might lead to some action. The 2017 Massachusetts legislature has inserted into their budget proposal a request that the governor produce such an analytical report.

Doctors, particularly pediatricians, are keenly aware of the dangers of having guns in the  house. 90% of accidental gun injuries to children happen in a home with a gun. The American Academy of Pediatrics has explicitly recommended that pediatricians routinely ask gun-safety questions during health and wellness visits. But in 2011, Florida passed a “Privacy of Firearm Owners” law levying $10,000 fines and loss of medical license to any pediatrician that inquired about the presence of firearms in the house. The law was upheld by a Florida state court in 2014 based on “2nd Amendment infringement”. The law was just struck down this year by a Federal Appeals Court that ruled that “there was no evidence that the law infringed on the Second Amendment.” By the way, the Affordable Care Act (aka Obamacare… remember Obamacare?) specifically prohibits physicians from keeping records on gun ownership. an assurance to any paranoid, conspiracy-theory-believing gun owner that docs were now not in league with big government. (see “Docs vs. Glocks”, Scientific American, August 2015. pg. 10)

The solutions to gun violence deaths are mostly focussed on mass shootings including either/or/and:
1. eliminate mental illness,
2. eliminate terrorists,
3. eliminate humane treatment (put water boarding video of terrorists on You Tube),
4. eliminate Muslims,
5. eliminate political correctness  (utter the words “Radical Islam Terrorists” which Obama refused to say (sic.) (1)

The truth is that “mass shootings”, though a big part of media attention, are a small part of the  30,000 annual gun death toll. 62% of  gun deaths are due to suicides committed with guns that DO NOT BELONG to the victim (particularly among the young). Criminals steal about 250,000 guns per year. 1.7 million children live in homes with unlocked, loaded firearms. (2)

The NRA consistently raises the spectrum of the need for the home owner to have a means of self-defense, but a gun is 22 times more likely to be used in a criminal assault, an accidental death or injury, a suicide attempt, or a homicide than it is for self-defense. 61% of gun homicides are by people who know each other.(3)

Making a gun as smart as an iPhone is one way to prevent to a large portion of gun injuries and deaths. Previous attempts to develop such a smart gun have been fraught with problems, have been actively boycotted by gun manufacturers, and have been opposed by gun advocates and the NRA. Kai Kloepfer, a 15-year-old high school student in Colorado, in response to the Aurora theater shooting near his home, started a science project in 2015  to design a pistol that will only fire when a sensor in the grip recognizes the fingerprint of the owner. His project won awards, and Kloepfer delayed his entrance to MIT for a year when he got a grant to develop a working model of such a smart gun. By 2017 he successfully built and demonstrated a smart pistol. The gun takes 1 second to unlock, its battery lasts a year, a light indicates the battery status, and a second light indicates it is unlocked and ready to fire. Neither a child nor a thief can fire the gun. The owner may store up to 10 “authorized user” fingerprints (like for a spouse or domestic partner ). The smart gun is smart enough to NOT  connect with the internet, so it can not be hacked or hijacked.

The NRA response has been predictable: “NRA does not oppose new technological developments in firearms; however, we are opposed to government mandates that require the use of expensive, unreliable features, such as grips that would read your fingerprints before the gun will fire.”(2)

Hey, at least the NRA didn’t evoke the 2nd Amendment argument. That is progress!  Technology can deal with “expensive” and “unreliable”. Technology is far faster to upgrade than the Constitution.

References:
1. “A Nation Captive To The Gun”, Garry Wills, Boston Globe 6/15/2016
2. “The Future of Everything”, Wall Street Journal, 2017, Geoffrey Fowler
3. Journal of Trauma and Acute Care Surgery, 1998

 

 


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