Gun Control Won't Stop Violence, but It Can Limit It

October 26, 1994|By JON VERNICK, STEPHEN TERET and DANIEL WEBSTER

Guns dramatically affect the public's health. In 1991, more than 38,000 homicides, suicides and accidental deaths were caused by firearms in the United States. For every death, there are more than seven non-fatal injuries, or more than 250,000 gun injuries annually. The burden that firearm deaths and injuries place on the economy is staggering -- an estimated $20.4 billion in lifetime costs in 1990, including $1.4 billion in direct health-care expenditures.

Faced with these grim statistics, the public and the media have expressed a dramatically increased interest in the epidemic of gun violence in the United States. Legislators have responded by proposing and enacting many different kinds of laws. In most cases, these laws attempt to limit access to some kinds of guns for all or some people. New proposals, including licensing prospective handgun purchasers, are expected to play an important role in Maryland's next legislative session.

As new gun laws are proposed, however, people should reasonably ask, ''Will this law work?'' As public-health researchers who study gun violence and the policies to prevent it, we try to answer precisely this kind of question. Some of the different kinds of gun laws have not yet been carefully evaluated. Nevertheless, from the several well designed studies that have been done, a pattern emerges. Laws that impose broad restrictions on access to guns are associated with fewer gun deaths and injuries.

John Sloan and his colleagues studied the effects of laws regulating the sale of handguns in Seattle, Washington, and Vancouver, Canada. Although the two cities are quite similar in many ways, they differ greatly in their regulation of handguns. In Seattle, handguns could be purchased easily for self-defense or recreation. In Vancouver, gun buyers were required to obtain a special permit, and self-defense was not a valid reason to obtain such a permit. As a result, Seattle residents own many more handguns than do citizens of Vancouver.

Dr. Sloan found that the two cities had very similar rates of homicide committed with weapons other than handguns. But Seattle had a much higher overall homicide rate, because a citizen of Seattle was nearly five times more likely to be murdered with a handgun than was his neighbor in Vancouver. Also, young people in Seattle had a far higher suicide rate than their counterparts in Vancouver -- largely because 15- to 24 year-olds were 10 times more likely to kill themselves with a handgun in Seattle than in Vancouver.

Some have argued that the recent epidemic of violence in Washington proves that the District's virtual prohibition on private handgun possession or sale is ineffective. Colin Loftin and his colleagues at the University of Maryland conducted a careful evaluation of the effect of the city's law from 1968 to 1987.

They found that after the law was enacted in 1976 there was an abrupt decline of about 25 percent in the number of homicides and suicides committed with guns. In other words, the law prevented about 47 deaths a year.

No similar reductions occurred in adjacent counties in Maryland and Virginia or in rates of homicide and suicide by means other than firearms. Although the gun law did not prevent the subsequent escalation of violence in Washington, this study suggests that without the law the death toll might have been even higher.

Other studies also suggest that limiting access to guns will reduce the incidence of violent deaths and injuries. Arthur Kellermann and his colleagues have studied whether having a gun in the home is protective or dangerous to those living in the home.

They find that the presence of a gun in the home is associated with a 4.8-fold increased risk of suicide and a 2.7-fold increased risk of homicide for occupants of that home, compared to homes without a gun. Other studies have shown that in assaults committed by a family member or intimate acquaintance of the victim, the risk of death is 3 times greater if a gun is used than if a knife is used, and 23 times greater than if bodily force is used.

But some, notably Gary Kleck, have argued that guns are used many times each year by their law-abiding owners to prevent a criminal victimization. The best scientific evidence available, from research by David McDowall and colleagues at the University of Maryland, suggests a small number of defensive uses of guns, compared to their frequent use in violent crime. They find more than 10 times as many crimes committed with guns each year than incidents of firearm self-defense.

Phil Cook has also demonstrated that only about 3 percent of all victims were able to use a gun against an intruder in their home, even though about half of all U.S. households own at least one firearm.

Do gun laws work? These and other studies demonstrate that they can and do. Certainly limiting access to guns will not eliminate the social and economic factors that contribute to violence. Research tells us, however, that where guns are less available, violence that does occur is less likely to be deadly.

The authors are faculty members of the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health.

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