Americans Against Gun Violence president, Dr. Bill Durston, spoke on the topic of preventing gun violence at the annual conference of American Public Health Association (APHA) on Monday, October 26. The APHA, founded in 1872, is the country’s oldest, largest, and most diverse organization of public health professionals. The 2020 annual conference was initially scheduled to be held in San Francisco but was moved to a virtual format because of the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic.
Click on this link for the full text of Dr. Durston’s presentation with references in PDF format. The main points that he emphasized in his talk are summarized below.
Gun violence is a serious public health problem in our country
The problem of gun violence receives the most public attention following horrific mass shootings. Since 1983, the number of mass shootings has been steadily increasing, and the number of people killed and injured in mass shootings has been rising even more steeply as the perpetrators have employed increasingly deadly weaponry to carry out their crimes. But mass shootings account for only a tiny fraction of all U.S. gun deaths. On an average day, more than 100 Americans are killed with guns, and two to three times this many people suffer non-fatal but often devastating, life changing gunshot wounds. Since 1968, more Americans have died of gunshot wounds than all the U.S. soldiers killed by any means in all the wars in which our country has ever been involved.
Rates of gun deaths and injuries are far higher in the United States than in other high income democratic countries
This rate of gun related deaths in the United States is 10 times higher than the average rate in other high income democratic countries. The overall U.S. homicide rate is seven times higher, driven by a gun homicide rate that is 25 times higher. For U.S. teenagers, the gun homicide rate is a staggering 82 times higher than the rate for teens in other high income democratic countries. If it weren’t for a U.S. gun suicide rate that is eight times higher than in the other high income democratic countries, the United States would have one of the lowest suicide rates of any democratic country. When access to guns is restricted, people don’t generally substitute other highly lethal means to attempt suicide or commit assaults. Instead, overall rates of suicide and homicide go down.
Many factors contribute to gun violence, but the most significant factor is also the one that is least discussed – our lax gun control laws and the easy access to guns
Many factors have been cited as contributing to our country’s extraordinarily high rate of gun violence. These include: a culture of violence in the United States, and pandering to violence in the popular media; socio-economic disparity and institutional racism; drug and alcohol abuse; and mental illness. While these are all important issues that need to be addressed, the United States is not an extreme outlier in any of these areas as compared with other high income democratic countries. The factor that is least discussed, but the area in which the United States is an extreme outlier, is our lax gun control laws and easy access to guns.
U.S. gun laws are fundamentally different from the laws in all other high income democratic countries
In all other high income democratic countries, the burden of proof is on the potential gun buyer to show that he or she has a legitimate need to have a gun and can handle one safely. And recognizing that there’s no net protective value in owning or carrying a gun, many high income democratic countries don’t accept “self defense” as a legitimate reason for having a gun. In the United States, anyone of a certain age who seeks to acquire a gun can legally do so unless the government can prove through a rudimentary background check that he or she falls into one or more narrow categories of persons being prohibited from owning firearms. The U.S. background check system is so flawed that even most individuals who have gone on to commit mass shootings have been able to pass background checks and legally purchase the guns they used in their crimes.
The U.S. response to mass shootings has been dramatically different from the responses of other high income democratic countries.
It took the Australian government just 12 days to decide to ban civilian ownership of all automatic and semi-automatic firearms after the 1996 Port Arthur mass shooting, and there were no further mass shootings in Australia for the next 22 years. New Zealand reacted in a similarly swift and definitive manner following the 2019 Christchurch mosque mass shootings. Great Britain already had a ban on civilian ownership of automatic and semi-automatic rifles, but after the mass shooting committed with handguns at the elementary school in Dunblane, Scotland in 1996, it took the British government less than two years to decide to ban all civilian handgun ownership. There have been no further school shootings since the ban went into effect, and the gun death rate in Britain is currently 1/60th the U.S. rate.
In the United States, by contrast, it would be too kind to say that our federal government has done nothing since 1996 to prevent mass shootings. When the CDC supported studies in the 1990’s documenting the seriousness of the gun violence epidemic in our country, Congress cut the CDC’s funding and placed a prohibition on the use of federal funds to advocate gun control. That prohibition was renewed every year through 2018. In 2004, instead of strengthening the 1994 federal assault weapons ban, Congress allowed it to expire. In 2005, Congress passed a bill giving gunmakers unprecedented protection from products liability lawsuits.
The main obstacles to adopting stringent gun control laws in the United States comparable to the laws in other high income democratic countries are four widely accepted myths
Myth #1: The Second Amendment was intended to confer an individual right to own guns.
Few people realize that first time in U.S. history that the Supreme Court ever ruled that the Second Amendment conferred any kind of individual right to own a gun unrelated to service in a “well regulated militia” was in the 2008 Heller case. The Supreme Court had ruled in four previous cases that the Second Amendment did not confer such a right, including in the 1980 case of Lewis v. United States, in which the Court stated:
The Second Amendment guarantees no right to keep and bear a firearm that does not have “some reasonable relationship to the preservation or efficiency of a well regulated militia.”
The majority opinion in the Heller decision, which was written by the late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, has been publicly condemned by respected constitutional authorities as a “radical departure” from prior legal precedent, an example of “snow jobs” produced by well-staffed justices, and as “gun rights propaganda passing as scholarship.” In his book, The Making of a Justice, the late Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens wrote, “Heller is unquestionably the most clearly incorrect decision that the Court announced during my [35 year] tenure on the bench.” Stevens also noted that the proper interpretation of the Second Amendment had been “so well decided” prior to Heller that the late Supreme Court Chief Justice Warren Burger had called the gun lobby’s ongoing misrepresentation of the Amendment “One of the greatest pieces of fraud – I repeat the word, ‘fraud’ – on the American public by special interest groups that I have ever seen in my lifetime.”
The Heller decision is worse, though, than even these harsh criticisms might indicate. In creating a constitutional obstacle, where none previously existed, to the adoption of stringent gun control laws in the United States comparable to the laws in all the other high income democratic countries of the world, Heller is literally a death sentence for tens of thousands of Americans annually. We should not be timid about openly stating that Heller was wrongly decided and must be overturned.
Myth #2: Honest, law-abiding people should own guns “for protection”
There is overwhelming evidence that guns in the homes and communities of honest, law abiding people are far more likely to be used to harm them than to protect them. This evidence includes the most recent FBI Uniform Crime Reports showing that guns are used in criminal homicides 34 times more often than they’re used to kill someone in self defense. We should all work to debunk the myth of “guns for protection.”
Myth #3: We can stop our country’s epidemic of gun violence without substantially reducing the number of privately owned guns in circulation.
When we talk about stopping the epidemic of gun violence in our country, we should be talking, at a minimum, about reducing rates of gun deaths to levels at or below the average for the other high income democratic countries. In the graph below, representative high income democratic countries are represented by circles, plotted according to their rates of gun deaths on the horizontal axis and their per capita gun ownership on the vertical axis. The graph also includes a computer generated “best fit” line that emphasizes that direct relationship between rates of gun deaths and per capita gun ownership. Clearly, the United States is an extreme outlier in both rates of gun deaths and per capita gun ownership.
Anyone who claims that we can stop the epidemic of gun violence in our country without reducing the pool of privately owned guns is essentially arguing that we can ignore the best fit line and instead move the lonely USA circle in the right upper corner of this graph horizontally to the left on the gun death rate axis without moving it downward on the guns per capita axis. If we were to accomplish this remarkable shift, we’d still be all alone in the left upper corner of the graph as the only high income democratic country in the world that has even been able to achieve a low rate of gun deaths despite high per capita gun ownership.
Americans Against Gun Violence is the only national gun violence prevention organization in the entire United States that openly advocates adopting stringent gun control laws - including a ban on all semi-automatic rifles, comparable to the ban that Australia enacted after the 1996 Port Arthur mass shooting, and a ban on handguns comparable to the ban that Great Britain enacted after the 1996 Dunblane Primary School mass shooting - that would lead to a reduction in the number of privately owned guns in our country. Joshua Sugarmann, executive director of the Violence Policy Center, summed up the limited measures advocated by other gun violence prevention organizations in his book, “Every Handgun is Aimed at You: The Case for Banning Handguns,” in which he wrote:
America's gun lobby would be on the run, if only the gun control advocates would bother to chase them. Instead, trapped by their perception of the politically achievable, gun control advocates are always on the defensive....They nibble around the edges of half-solutions and good intentions dramatically out of sync with the reality of gun violence in America.
Instead of continuing to “nibble around the edges of half-solutions and good intentions,” it’s past time that we should take definitive steps to stop the epidemic of gun violence in our country.
Myth #4: We need more research
In a gun violence prevention “fact sheet” entitled, Gun Violence Is A Public Health Crisis, the APHA itself calls for more research concerning “right to carry laws;” “violence prevention programs for children;” “the link between firearms policy and suicidal behavior;” and “the effects of different gun safety technologies.” In fact, however, there is already extensive evidence showing that liberal “right to carry laws” not only do not reduce crime, but are associated with increased rates of gun violence; that so-called “gun safety” programs for children and youth do not prevent firearm related deaths and injuries but are used by the gun lobby and the associated gun industry to build their future customer base; that lax gun control laws and easy access to guns are independent risk factors for suicide; and that “gun safety technologies” are largely ineffective because, as the National Research Council has pointed out, “Firearms, after all, are designed to injure.”
It was shameful for Congress to cut the CDC’s budget for gun violence research back in the 1990’s after the CDC funded studies showing that a gun in the home was 43 times more likely to be used to kill a household member than to kill an intruder; that children under the age of 15 in the United States were being killed by guns at a rate that was 12 times higher than in the other high income democratic countries of the world; and that gunshot wounds were the fourth leading cause of years of potential life lost before age 65 in our country. This being said, more research at this point will only document more senseless, preventable firearm related deaths and injuries.
There was already enough research in 1968 for the late Senator Thomas Dodd of Connecticut to state on the floor of the U.S. Senate:
Pious condolences will no longer suffice….Quarter measures and half measures will no longer suffice….The time has now come that we must adopt stringent gun control legislation comparable to the legislation in force in virtually every civilized country in the world.
Dr. Durston noted that skeptics claim that we’ll never be able to adopt stringent gun control laws in the United States comparable to the laws in other high income democratic countries. He stated that he’s confident that some day we will. The only question is, how many more innocent Americans will be killed and maimed with guns before that day arrives. He called on members of the American Public Health Association to commit to joining Americans Against Gun Violence in doing everything within their power to help make that day come sooner rather than later.
Note: Dr. Durston is a board certified emergency physician and a former expert marksman in the U.S. Marine Corps, decorated for "courage under fire" during the Vietnam War.