July 18, 2013 — Among developed countries, rates of violence are roughly similar. But in the United States, the chance of dying from a violent act exceeds that of other countries by a wide margin.
It’s because of guns, says David Hemenway. The U.S. suffers higher rates of gun-related homicides, gun-related suicides, and unintentional gun deaths simply because so many more people here own and use firearms and because of permissive gun laws.
“When there are more guns there are more deaths,” said Hemenway, director of the Harvard Injury Control Research Center and professor of health policy at Harvard School of Public Health (HSPH). “We have by far the weakest gun laws in the developed world. We’re just such an outlier.”
In the first of HSPH’s summer “Hot Topics” lecture series, Hemenway outlined a wealth of facts and statistics linking the availability of guns in the U.S. with the nation’s relatively high rates of gun-related deaths.
• In 2010, 250 people were shot each day in the U.S. and 85 died each day. Of those deaths, there were nearly twice as many suicides as homicides.
• Among a group of 14 developed countries, the U.S. is the only one without a gun licensing system or requirements of firearms training for gun owners, and one of only two without gun storage regulations.
• Children aged 5-14 in the U.S., according to 2003 statistics, are more than 13 times more likely than children in other high-income populous countries to be murdered with a gun, nearly 8 times more likely to die of gun-related suicide, and 10 times more likely to be the victim of an unintentional shooting.
• Guns pose a significant threat to women. A comparison of six states with low rates of gun ownership (such as Hawaii and Massachusetts) and 15 states with high rates (such as Wyoming and Montana)—with roughly equal population numbers in each group of states—found that, between 2001 and 2007, 29 women in the ‘low-gun’ states were unintentionally killed with guns, 406 committed suicide with guns, and 780 were murdered with guns. In ‘high-gun’ states, the numbers were 205, 2,926, and 1,978, respectively.
Lessons from motor vehicle safety can translate to gun safety
The U.S. would do well to approach the problem of gun violence the same way it approached the problem of automobile safety, said Hemenway. Over the past 60 years, he noted, automobile-related fatalities have fallen 80%, largely because of a focus on systems aimed at safety—such as airbags, more intelligently-designed streets, safety glass, and new social norms that have made drunk driving much less acceptable.
In the same way, the U.S. could establish systems to reduce people’s chances of being harmed by firearms. For instance, to reduce crime, manufacturers could give guns unique serial numbers that would make it easier to find criminals who use guns. To improve safety, they could make guns child-proof. In the policy arena, the government could require universal background checks or limit gun purchases to one per month, could institute registration and licensing, and could create regulations for safe gun storage.
Hemenway said most Americans favor such policies, especially in the wake of gun tragedies such as the killing of 26 children and teachers at an elementary school in Newton, Conn. in December 2012. But gun owners remain passionate about their Second Amendment gun rights, he said, and the National Rifle Association (NRA), with its deep pockets, continues to oppose any meaningful restrictions on guns.
Given this reality, Hemenway said many groups—the media, physicians, gun shop owners, gun owners themselves—have a role to play in reducing gun violence. The reality is that “we’re going to have a lot of guns in the U.S,” he said. “A lot of people love their guns. Right now we’re dying with guns. We have to figure out a way to live with guns.”