Taking aim at the gun as threat to public health

May 29, 1994|By Scott Shane | Scott Shane,Sun Staff Writer

They lost their lives in the epidemic of gun deaths. But they did not resemble the gunfire victims usually encountered in the news.

They were not poor. They did not live in the inner city. Their deaths had nothing to do with robbery or drugs.

Walter Layman, 27, a machinist, shot himself in January with a pistol belonging to the Kent County couple for whom he was housesitting. He was depressed over personal problems and was drinking heavily the night of his suicide.

John LaRue, 49, was cleaning his 9 mm handgun at the kitchen table of his Northeast Baltimore home last July when it fired accidentally, killing him. He had taken out the gun's magazine but apparently forgot the single round still in the chamber.

Sandra Peacock, 31, was killed last February after her husband returned to the couple's Parkton home and found her with another man, police say. Kenneth Peacock, a trucker who is awaiting trial on murder charges, is accused of using the .30-.30 caliber rifle he had purchased for his wife's protection.

Their deaths were among the hidden majority of American gun deaths that have no connection with street crime: suicides, which constitute nearly 60 percent of gun deaths; accidental shootings, about 5 percent of gun deaths; and one in every four homicides that are committed by relatives or lovers of the victim.

Such deaths have convinced a diverse group of researchers trained in medicine, psychiatry, epidemiology and law that gun violence can best be combatted not narrowly as a crime problem, but more broadly as a public health issue.

Their ambitious goal is, in effect, to wreck America's romance with guns by replacing folklore with hard data showing that a gun in the home generally makes a family less safe, not more safe. Public health advocates are taking on the firearms industry, as their colleagues three decades ago took on another seemingly omnipotent foe, the tobacco industry.

Ultimately, the public health experts hope to have the kind of impact on gun injury that similar public health campaigns have had not only on cigarette smoking, but on auto safety and environmental pollution as well.

Such publications as the American Journal of Public Health and the New England Journal of Medicine have staked out gun injury as their territory. The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention routinely collect data on gun deaths. The Clinton administration has highlighted the medical costs of gun injuries during its health-reform drive. The Joyce Foundation of Chicago has launched a major project explicitly aimed at redefining guns as a public health issue.

This turning point, Mr. Teret says, reflects a shift in public opinion about guns. "There comes a moment when people just say, 'I've had enough. Something has to be done,' " he says. "I think we've reached that point with guns."

Cigarettes and guns

For Mr. Teret himself, that point came long ago. In 1983, a friend's 22-month-old son was shot to death by his baby sitter's 4-year-old son using a handgun kept in the house for protection. The tragedy dramatized the problem for him.

Mr. Teret, 47, who holds degrees in law and public health, says his goal is in part to redirect public attention from the user of the gun to the maker of the gun.

"Our public policies focus only on the person who pulls the trigger and not the person who makes the trigger," he says. "If you really want to have an impact on gun injuries, you have to look at the manufacturing and marketing of guns. You need to regulate guns as consumer products."

That may seem not such a radical idea -- except that guns were explicitly exempted from regulation by the Consumer Product Safety Commission when it was created in 1972. The commission has the right to regulate the safety of toy guns, but not real ones.

As Mr. Teret focuses on gun manufacturers, Dr. Arthur L. Kellermann, director of the Center for Injury Control at Emory University and another key figure in the movement, follows guns into the home.

"For years, people have been bombarded with the idea that if you have a gun, you're safer," Dr. Kellermann says. "Our research shows that's not the case."

In landmark studies of gun deaths in Washington state, British Columbia, Tennessee and Ohio, he and his colleagues conclude that guns kept at home are used far more often to commit suicide or to kill a family member in a fit of rage than to fend off a potentially fatal criminal attack.

With Americans buying handguns in record numbers, Dr. Kellermann urges that they base their decision on real evidence. "Let it be an informed decision, rather than one driven by bumper stickers and cocktail conversation," he says.

Dr. Kellermann, 39, says the gun issue is today where the tobacco issue was three decades ago, when the U.S. surgeon general first linked smoking and disease.

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