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Wednesday, April 12, 2006 - Page updated at 06:58 AM


Pro / Con

Address gun violence as a public-health issue

Special to The Times

My father, Tom Wales, was murdered in 2001. The same year he was shot and killed in our Seattle home, approximately 29,000 firearm deaths were reported in the United States. About half were criminalhomicides and half suicides, with a small percentage also due to gun accidents. Gun violence is not just about crime.

Investigations into the causes of firearm death usually focus on intent. Exploring motive is important work for law enforcement. Even when a killer's motives are known, they're still hard to understand, however. I suppose this is why some mistakenly blame the victim. "They shouldn't have been at a rave party," some have said about our recent tragedy here in Seattle. When my dad passed, some people asked what he did to deserve it. Others said he should have kept a dog for protection.

What can we really do to reduce the number of firearm murders, suicides and accidents? And how does the availability of guns in this country contribute to the total rate of firearm-related death?

These are public-health questions, not just questions about criminal intent or suicidal impulse. It is also not about our right to own guns. When a person we care about dies from a faulty product, or in a car accident, or by suicide with drugs available over the counter, we ask whether reasonable precautions had been taken in the manufacture, distribution and availability of the product, car or drug. While governmental authorities or consumer watchdogs keep detailed statistics on these matters, we seem paralyzed to act similarly or effectively when it comes to firearms.

And, firearms are just about the most lethal instruments readily available on the market. Research has shown that a gun, uniquely among commonly available weapons (and other consumer products), provides its shooter with the ability to kill quickly. This is underscored in analysis of violent deaths that are not premeditated but instead realized in "heats of passion" — for example, during episodes of domestic violence or the commission of suicide by disaffected youth.

Research further suggests that individuals who use firearms when attempting to commit suicide or murder are likely to be more "successful." While perhaps little can be done to prevent a person who is determined to commit suicide or murder, death may be avoided in cases where the impulse is temporary and bodily violence minimized. In such instances, the absence of a "readily available firearm may stall the individual long enough to prevent the ... act," according to Canadian firearms researcher Yvon Dandurand.

The role of public-health epidemiology (study of the causes, distribution and control of disease or injury) is to determine factors of risk so as to better target interventions for prevention. A major, positive, public-health effect could result from interventions that render gun violence less lethal. The same could be said for rendering premeditated or impulsive acts of gun violence less accessible (with reduced availability of guns).

Yes, criminals will continue to acquire firearms (legally and otherwise) and commit gun crimes with them. The issue we have yet to address is that of law-abiding citizens purchasing guns that later cause the intentional or unintentional death of the gun owner or someone else.

We can only imagine what Kyle Huff might have used had he not had access to firearms. He was reportedly also in possession of a machete and baseball bat, which he did not use. Both bat and machete are less deadly than the 12-gauge shotgun he chose for his rampage.

We can learn a lot from our neighbor to the north, Canada. Specific regulatory actions taken by the Canadian Firearms Centre to reduce risks of firearm deaths without prohibiting gun ownership show measurable promise, supported by findings obtained from research into domestic violence, suicide and accidental shootings. Following the 1995 Firearms Act and its implementation in 2003, the Canadian Department of Justice reported that with the onset of stricter controls, the rate of firearm suicide in Canada dropped without evidence of a similar reduction in the rate of firearm ownership.

Losing a person we care about to murder is deeply troubling. My heart goes out to the families and friends of those killed on Capitol Hill.

While there is no justification for the shooting, there is hope.

When we give flu shots to those most in need, we are exercising a public-health strategy and targeting intervention where it counts. For guns, we can also save lives but only if we look at firearm-related death as the public-health epidemic that it is. There are no more lethal instruments or products so readily available, so loosely restricted and monitored, in our communities than guns.

Amy Wales is the daughter of slain federal prosecutor Tom Wales, and holds a master's degree in social policy from Oxford University. Preliminary findings from her research thesis, "Regulatory Policy and the Gun Debate: An investigation of and case for taking a public health approach to firearm injury reduction in the United States, with some reference to Canada," were presented in 2003 at the Fourth Annual Global Conference on Cultures of Violence at St. Catherine's College, Oxford University.

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