Troubling Trends: Observations Made While Preparing A Presentation for the American Public Health Association Annual Conference
A Message from the President of Americans Against Gun Violence
October 29, 2020
I had the honor and privilege of being invited to speak on the topic of preventing gun violence at the annual conference of American Public Health Association (APHA) on Monday, October 26, 2020. 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.
In preparing for my presentation, in addition to consulting many other sources, I read the amicus curiae (friend of the court) brief that the APHA had filed in conjunction with three other medical organizations in the 2008 Supreme Court case of District of Columbia v. Heller. In its brief, the APHA presented extensive evidence in support of the public health benefit of Washington DC’s partial handgun ban and safe storage law. A narrow majority of Supreme Court justices apparently ignored this evidence, though, along with evidence submitted in amicus briefs from numerous other organizations concerning the constitutionality of the District of Columbia’s handgun law. In a 5-4 decision that reversed over 200 years of prior legal precedent, including four prior Supreme Court decisions, the majority ruled that the partial handgun ban and safe storage law violated the Second Amendment.
In preparing for my talk, I also consulted a gun violence prevention “fact sheet” entitled, “Gun Violence is a Public Health Crisis,” that is currently posted on the APHA’s website. In comparing the APHA’s current fact sheet with its 2008 amicus brief, I noted a troubling trend that I have also observed with many of our country’s other best known gun violence prevention organizations. Even as the epidemic of gun violence in our country has grown worse, the measures proposed by these organizations to address the epidemic have grown more timid.
Americans Against Gun Violence is currently the only national gun violence prevention organization that openly advocates overturning the rogue 2008 Heller decision and adopting stringent gun control laws in the United States comparable to the laws in the other high income democratic countries of the world – countries in which mass shootings occur rarely, if ever, and in which the rate of gun deaths is, on average, one tenth the rate in the USA. Unlike most other entities that hold monopolies, we would be delighted if the APHA and other gun violence prevention organizations would break up our monopoly by joining us in advocating that we follow the examples of these other countries.
Here’s the gist of the talk I gave at the APHA’s annual conference, plus some additional comments concerning the troubling trends I noted in preparing this talk. You can click on this link for an expanded, fully referenced version of my talk in PDF format.
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, 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 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