Cartoon by Manny Francisco

Want to stop mass shootings?

Harvard Gazette: The mass shootings over the weekend in El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio, killed at least 31 people and wounded scores more. Those incidents were just the latest such deadly attacks in the United States, which has tallied more than 250 since Jan. 1, according to a new report by Gun Violence Archive. The group defines a mass shooting as one that claims the lives of at least four victims.

David Hemenway, professor of  health policy at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, director of the Harvard Injury Control Research Center, and author of the 2006 book “Private Guns, Public Health,” has spent much of his career studying gun violence. He spoke with the Gazette recently about what can be done to stop mass shootings.

GAZETTE: How do other countries, where mass killings are less common, handle gun issues differently?

HEMENWAY: First, it’s important to recognize the other high-income countries start off with many fewer guns and much stronger gun laws. Second, often when there is a mass shooting in another country it’s a time when everyone is thinking about guns, and it becomes an opportunity to think about what kinds of gun laws are needed. Typically it is a time when countries improve their gun laws, making them stronger, not solely to prevent mass shootings but to also to help prevent other firearm-related problems, such as homicides, suicides, gun robbery, gun intimidations, and gun accidents.

GAZETTE: How do you respond to the suggestion that shooters would be dispatched more quickly and inflict fewer injuries if more people carried weapons?

HEMENWAY: Too many of us watch television shows and movies where guns are the solution to so many problems. The good guy with the gun is the big hero. One huge problem is that so many people in the U.S. are armed who really aren’t well trained. Going to a gun range and shooting a few times does not make you well equipped to deal with violent situations where your adrenaline is going like crazy, your heart is beating a mile a minute, and you have seconds to make the right decision. It takes good training — repetition, practicing over and over — to react to that kind of situation. You can’t, on the fly, suddenly think you are going to be this great hero; instead you could shoot the wrong person, or you could get in the way of the police or others who are well trained and trying to figure out what’s going on. Most people, unless they are with the armed services or a member of the police force, never encounter such violent scenarios. So it’s going to be incredibly rare for you to be in a situation where you could actually do something. Do we really want continuously to train millions of people for an event that virtually almost none of them will ever encounter? Even for something as simple as CPR, continued training is needed. I was taught CPR 10 years ago, but I don’t feel at all confident that I would really know what to do if I was alone and had only seconds to respond effectively. For mass shootings you would have to keep training over and over for the training to be at all effective >>>

GAZETTE: Some gun control opponents have pointed to mental health issues and violent video games as major factors in the number of mass shootings in the United States. Are those two things more prevalent here than in other countries with lower rates of gun violence, and, if so, why?

HEMENWAY: There are a whole range of things that could play a role in prevention, including better parenting, less racism, better education, more job opportunities. All of these things might have some effect on reducing shootings in the U.S. We should improve all those things. But the most cost-effective interventions involve doing something about guns. For example, as far as we can tell, virtually all developed countries have violent video games and people with mental health issues. There’s no evidence that I know of that shows that people in the U.S. have more mental health issues, especially violent mental health issues. Compared to other high-income countries we are just average in terms of non-gun crime and non-gun violence. The elephant in the room, the thing that makes us stand out among the 29 other high-income countries, is our guns and our weak gun laws. As a result, we have many more gun-related problems than any other high-income country. Every other developed country has shown us the way to vastly reduce our problems. Our guns, and our permissive gun laws, are what make us different than France, Italy, the Netherlands, South Korea, New Zealand, you name it.

GAZETTE: Why does it seem many law-abiding American gun owners fear restrictions like background checks and the elimination of high-capacity magazines, bump stocks, and assault rifles? How would most gun owners be affected by such changes?

HEMENWAY: The overwhelming majority of American gun owners favor universal background checks, at least that is what they say on survey after survey. Most favor the elimination of military weapons in everybody’s hands. If you asked them whether they feel comfortable with some of the people in this country who own guns legally, they would say “no.” Just as there are some bad drivers, there are also some irresponsible gun owners. A problem is that responsible gun owners have been convinced that there are people out there trying to take away their guns. The U.S. gun lobby has been very effective in preventing changes that might reduce gun sales, regardless of the effect on public health and public safety.

In our work at the School of Public Health we are making gun owners part of the solution. My colleague Cathy Barber is working with gun owners, gun advocates, gun trainers, and gun shop owners. Together they are finding common ground and developing solutions. The first area where they have found much common ground is around suicide. The evidence is overwhelming that a gun in the home increases the risk of suicide. More people die from gun suicide than gun homicide, and the people dying are gun owners and their families. Cathy has helped get gun shops in 20 states to play a role in reducing suicide. One grass-roots education effort includes guidelines on how to avoid selling or renting a firearm to a suicidal customer. To activate gunners, you need the right message and the right messenger. And the right messenger isn’t Harvard or public health professionals, it is responsible gun owners themselves. She is hoping to expand her focus to work on preventing guns from moving from the licit to the illicit market. Gun advocates have great ideas; they know about guns; and they are big into safety, so there are large potential benefits to get them to work together with public health professionals. That’s the goal >>>