Guns: a Health and Moral Issue

October 11, 1993

In the best study yet on the efficacy and peril of keeping guns in urban households, a team of researchers reports in the Oct. 7 issue of the New England Journal of Medicine that guns are more dangerous than they are protective.

The team, led by Dr. Arthur L. Kellermann of Emory University's School of Public Health, is cautious and non-dramatic in its conclusions. But its most important finding has dramatic import:

"Although firearms are often kept in homes for personal protection, this study shows that the practice is counterproductive. Our data indicate that keeping a gun in the home is independently associated with an increase in the risk of homicide in the home. . . . We did not find evidence of a protective effect of keeping a gun in the house, even in the small subgroup of cases that involved forced entry." The "great majority" of victims were killed by a relative, friend or acquaintance.

Given these results and those of previous sound studies that showed a strong association between guns in the home and suicides or unintentional shooting deaths by children at play, the team concluded: "In the light of these observations and our present findings, people should be strongly discouraged from keeping guns in their homes."

We think it is time to start thinking of gun homicide in the homand in the streets as a medical problem as well as a law enforcement problem. Please read the letter to the editor today from members of the Johns Hopkins Children's Center. Youthful gunshot victims represent a "spreading epidemic," they write. They are correct to say that the public would never stand for an epidemic like polio or typhoid to spread as unchecked among children as gun wounds and deaths are spreading.

What is needed is public sentiment that forces timid lawmakers to stand up to the pro-gun forces and impose meaningful controls on gun ownership. It is good to see not only physicians in this effort, but also the religious community. For gun madness, especially handgun and assault weapons madness, has become not just a crime problem, not just a health problem, but a moral problem.

The decision by the Archdiocese of Baltimore to fight for stricter gun controls in the General Assembly next year is good news. Auxiliary Bishop John H. Ricard put the matter clearly: "This is a moral issue, tied to our belief that life is sacred, tied to love of neighbor."

For a start, Congress must pass the Brady bill, which requires a waiting period on handgun sales. It won't take guns out of those homes where they are a threat to the innocent. It won't disarm all criminals. But, as Dr. Jerome P. Kassirer says in an editorial in the New England Journal of Medicine, "it is a reasonable beginning. Might passage of this bill be the beginning of a series of more restrictive statutes? Yes, it could be and should be."

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