Pathways to Peace

Neutralize Gun Violance

by Victor La Cerva, MD

Article #7 in our series
Creating Less Violence
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Victor La Cerva, MD, the Mediacl Director of the Family Health Bureau of the State of New Mexico, retired, is the author of two books, a figurehead in the Men's Wellness movement and father of two lovely teenagers. Victor lectures nationally on violence prevention and shares his expertise and experiences with visitors to this segment of Pathfinders.

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Neutralize Gun Violence

Our culture promotes guns as acceptable toys. Many children play with cap guns, "laser" guns, and water pistols. Our children routinely see unsafe and irresponsible gun handling on television programs and in movies. The difference between "pretend" and "real" actions and consequences is often not clear to a child. Our children need to know: Real guns are not toys.

—National Rifle Association

The need to eliminate gun violence brings us into murkier territory filled with seemingly irreconcilable interests. On the one hand, a gun is a tool many people enjoy having. Some use it for sport shooting, hunting, and protecting humans, pets, cattle, and crops from animal predators. Others like to have one at home for protecting themselves against potential robbers or intruders, who may—or may not—also be carrying one.

On the other hand, despite our best intentions, a steady stream of guns manages to flow into the hands of those who use them illegally, such as domestic violence criminals who threaten or harm family members. These guns are either obtained legally, stolen, or purchased from licensed dealers who value profit over rules restricting sales to minors or prohibiting their interstate transport. Currently, more than 38,000 gun deaths are reported each year in the Unites States—more than half the total number of Vietnam War fatalities.

Federal discussion about security measures is at a standstill, deadlocked in the opposition between two powerful, uncompromising factions. At one extreme the public health radicals who would like to see every gun in America melted down and the industry banned from ever making another one. At the other are National Rifle Association (NRA) officials bent on blocking any form of gun legislation, whether or not it makes public safety sense. In the middle are the majority of Americans, who either want to have guns or want to allow others to have them, yet also hope to reduce the suffering and carnage they cause. Beneath our political differences is a common theme: we are all against gun violence.

Aware of this mutual concern, we can break free of the gridlock and begin moving forward. The following eight areas for
F I R E A R M S action can, if implemented, begin to provide some measure of safety. Most of these suggestions all parties can agree on.

Action Agenda

F    Focus on eliminating firearm deaths among young people.

I     Improve gun safety features, especially trigger locks and storage practices.

R    Restrict unsupervised access to guns by young people.

E    Ensure that every school is a safe school.

A    Abolish guns from the homes of adolescents who are depressed or chemically dependent.

R    Remove guns from the hands of criminals involved in domestic violence or other violent misdemeanors.

M   Maximize the availability of nonlethal protection devices.

S    Systematize the surveillance of firearm injuries and deaths.

Focus on Eliminating Firearm Deaths among Young People

Our society no longer tolerates women dying in childbirth. Every state currently appoints a committee to routinely review birth records showing maternal death, to determine what went wrong and what can be done differently in the future. Nor do we accept, as we once did, that our children may contract polio at the local pool or swimming hole. Whenever a young person comes down with a debilitating infectious disease, a group of healthcare providers meets to evaluate the source of the problem. Some states investigate all infant deaths to ferret out the causes of infant mortality.

We have reached a similar point in our struggle to reduce youth gun casualties. It is time to declare that we will no longer tolerate the senseless loss of life to firearms and that we will do everything in our power to understand why these tragedies occur and what can be done to prevent them.

What is needed at this juncture, perhaps more than anything else, are "Zero Tolerance" teams dedicated to ensuring that not one death occurs among individuals under the age of eighteen. Each team, crossing all debate lines, could be composed of a parent of a young person with a firearm, an NRA enthusiast, and representatives from the medical examiner's office, law enforcement, public schools, the juvenile justice system, social services, public health, community youth programs, and the emergency room. Team members could meet three times a year to review the youth firearm deaths reported over the previous four months, ascertain why these tragedies occurred, and shape preventive efforts for the future. The team's findings would need to be made public, and the victims' names withheld to protect the privacy of their families.

Improve Gun Safety Features

The number of negligent childhood poisonings dropped significantly with the introduction of childproof pill bottles. The number of negligent childhood shootings can decline, too, with the widespread installation of gun safety features. Inexpensive trigger locks and storage devices, capable of preventing young children from accidentally shooting off a loaded gun, are already available. To increase their accessibility, we can insist that these devices be included in the cost of buying a gun. We can also advocate for gun safety curricula in the schools so that students can learn what to do if they come in contact with a gun.

The best solution is to insist that gun manufacturers become accountable for the safety of their products, just as toy and doll manufacturers are. Consumer product safety awareness can be easily integrated into gun manufacturing technology. A simple gun stock combination lock, like those used on briefcases, for example, would enable parents to protect their children from misfiring. It is clearly time to promote the manufacture of "smart guns."

Restrict Unsupervised Access to Guns by Young People

Does it really make sense for anyone under age twenty-one to be handling a weapon without adult supervision? Current laws—which prohibit people under the age of twenty-one from purchasing handguns, but not from possessing them—seem to imply that it does. Hence, our first move as responsible citizens would be to require parents to assume liability for damages, including pain or suffering, wrought by minors who have gained access to the family gun. In addition, communities can initiate gun buy-back programs, gun exchanges featuring tickets or games, or toy-guns-for-books swaps. Each of these endeavors will let our young people know that guns do not solve problems.

Ensure That Every School Is a Safe School

We must do whatever is necessary to keep guns at least 1,000 feet from schools and school events. In addition, we must convert other areas into gun-free zones. Health facilities, public parks, daycare centers, and all public buildings can be as purged of guns as airports are. Many cities do not allow handgun possession without a permit; perhaps yours would like to join their ranks. To help maintain the peace, establish a system for handling reports of illegal weapon carrying or discharge. Following in the footsteps of those who established a toll-free number for reports on drunk drivers, why not operate an 800-WEAPONS line for calls about firearms?

Abolish Guns from the Homes of Adolescents Who Are Depressed or Chemically Dependent

Guns are now the suicide implement of choice for both young men and young women. In many communities across the United States, more young people are lost to suicide gun deaths than to homicide gun deaths. The sanest preventive approach if your teenager is depressed or chemically addicted is to obtain help and to store all guns at a relative's or neighbor's house until you are certain the risk of self-harm has passed. For this, no law is needed—only common sense and a strong media campaign.

Remove Guns from the Hands of Criminals Involved in Domestic Violence or Other Violent Misdemeanors

This suggestion is likely to stir up the most controversy, particularly among NRA members and others who claim: "Guns don't kill people. People kill people." To counter this line of reasoning, you can point out: "Motor vehicles don't kill people. The people driving them do."—a reality that has not stopped our society from enacting driving regulations.

Many such regulations are in effect. A prospective driver must reach a certain age before applying for a license; must demonstrate the capacity to use a car safely before being granted a license; must register the vehicle; must renew the registration yearly; and must officially transfer it upon selling the vehicle. The fees that accompany registration procedures help pay for the motor vehicle registration program and also contribute to the tax base, offsetting some of the public costs entailed in treating injuries sustained from improper vehicular use. Registration further facilitates the recovery of stolen vehicles and the ability to trace drivers involved in a crime.

In addition, several penalties are in place for abusing the privilege of driving. These range from warnings and fines to the revoking of licenses and the impounding of vehicles. Furthermore, because so many people are injured or killed in crashes, all drivers are expected to carry insurance to help pool funds for paying these bills. Automobile insurance companies, in an effort to keep premiums affordable and reduce their payouts, have moved to the helm of auto safety campaigns.

Reasonable equivalent regulations, penalties, and insurance requirements are not in place for individuals who operate guns. In most states, domestic violence criminals can buy and possess as many guns as they want, despite their abuse of this tool. Licensing and registration policies, as well as penalties for misuse, would certainly help control the ownership of such firearms. Yet, just as driving-while-intoxicated initiatives do not stop alcoholism but do prevent some of the resulting slaughter, regulating guns will not stop violence but will reduce the number of tragedies that occur each day.

Toward that end, here are some options worth considering. To ensure that all currently owned guns are registered, we could enforce laws requiring customers to show proof of registration before buying ammunition or reloading materials, at least for a number of years. To keep guns out of the hands of violent people, we could tighten the enforcement of existing dealer distribution laws. We could also insist that all judges issuing protective orders ask if firearms are currently in the home and, if they are, have them removed for the duration of the order.

Gun insurance is another possibility. For one thing, it would help cover the $33,000 average cost of each hospitalized gunshot wound patient. For another, insurers may be just the agents needed to inspire improved gun safety design and to offer gun owners courses in firearm safety and conflict resolution.

Maximize the Availability of Nonlethal Protection Devices

Many people keep firearms to protect themselves from stranger-inflicted violence. If non-lethal devices were more readily available, this sector of the weapon-bearing population might be willing to trade in their guns for other articles of self-defense. Sticky glue, pepper spray, mace, tranquilizer darts, and tasers do not cause permanent injury or death; firearms often do.

Systematize the Surveillance of Firearm Injuries and Deaths

Progress in preventing highway deaths improved markedly with the establishment of a national reporting system that enabled analysts to unravel patterns of vehicular injury and death. This system helped alert citizens to the epidemic of drunken driving and spurred on the development of many automotive and highway safety features. With a similar system in place to monitor firearm violence, we would achieve advances in home and neighborhood safety comparable to the progress made in highway safety.

Additional Resources

Center to Prevent Handgun Violence, 202-289-7319   •  Eddie Eagle Firearm Safety Program of the National Rifle Association, 888-231-0752  •  Firearm Injury Prevention Curriculum, 505-272-5062. A New Mexico Emergency Services for Children Project designed for grades K-8  •  HELP (Handgun Epidemic Lowering Plan) Network, available through the Children's Memorial Hospital, 2300 Children's Plaza #88, Chicago, IL 60614  •  Not Even One (Gun Death in a Young Person), established by the Carter Center, 404-420-3843  •  Stop Firearm Injury, sponsored by the American Academy of Pediatrics, 708-228-5005


Victor La Cerva, MD

©Victor La Cerva 2000  

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Editors note:

Victor's Pathfinder series offers an opportunity for visitors to understand the roots of violence and to explore the ways of understanding and addressing it at home and work. This begins with your own personal tapestry of internal issues.

Contributions and questions that arise from your personal experience are valued and welcomed.We wish you well on the path and look forward to your participation.

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