Guns as public health problem: A Penn professor speaks out

    Until about 15 years ago, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention funded studies on guns. Not now. “Federal funding for research on firearms has been essentially gutted,” said Susan Sorenson, a professor in the University of Pennsylvania’s school of social policy.

    Before the late 1990s, major publications like Science and the New England Journal of Medicine treated gun violence as a public health issue and published research articles that might have guided the “meaningful action” that President Obama vowed toward preventing future Sandy Hook massacres.

    “The NRA successfully lobbied Congress to rescind portions of the CDC budget that were going to firearms research,” she said. “Peoples’ studies were stopped midstream.”

    And so we are left with little data and lots of conflicting opinions. Some are blaming the mental health care system, others our culture of violence, and others the lack of adequate gun-control laws. Even Michael Moore’s popular gun violence documentary “Bowling for Columbine” had no clear message, as it vacillated between blaming the guns and the American culture.

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    What social scientists have learned is that most gun owners in America are white people with disposable income. And guns tend to go along with gun deaths.

    Though people may buy guns for protection, the dangers of gun ownership came through in several 1999 studies by Sorenson. as well as U.C. Davis researcher Garen Wintemute. Those studies found that people who own guns are seven times more likely to commit suicide than people who don’t. More people kill themselves with guns than are killed by other people with guns. Among women, gun owners are more likely than non-owners to die from gun homicide.

    What does Sorenson recommend for meaningful action? First, there has to be a broad view. In the immediate wake of this latest tragedy, we’re focused on the individual shooter and his parents and the guns involved. But the next massacre could be committed by a different type of shooter with a different background and different kinds of guns.

    “We need to look at this from 10,000 feet up,” she said. There’s no quick fix here. We need sustained effort, she said. And we need creative ideas, such as “smart guns” that will fire only when a registered owner uses them. That technology would have prevented Adam Lanza from using his mother’s guns in last Friday’s shooting. It could also make life safer for police officers, because they run a risk of getting shot if criminals manage to get their guns away from them.

    Millions of dollars have been spent on smart gun technology, but not a single such gun has been brought to market, she said.

    Right now the lack of research is paralyzing, said Sorenson. The government needs good data to make good decisions but they’ve continued backing a policy that assures they don’t get new data. “I do think data have a place at policy making table,” she said. “Otherwise we just have dueling experts.”

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