Like bombs, guns are dangerous: in 2011, 87 people were shot every day – 54 suicides, 30 homicides. In addition, 851 people were shot unintentionally, like what happened a week back – a 5-year old boy who was given a gun as a present by his parents and unintentionally shot his 2-year old sister.
In earlier pieces, I have reflected on how we have handled other known killers: cigarettes, alcohol, motor vehicles, and overeating. I have also documented how many deaths have resulted because certain drugs are illegal. This article explains how lessons learned from our efforts to control these other killers apply to guns.
Data on Killers
a. Smoking and Drinking
Every year 400,000 Americans die from smoking. However, it can be argued that alcoholism is even more dangerous. While far fewer die from alcoholism than cigarettes (the CDC estimates that 79,000 deaths annually for the years from 2001-2005 were attributable to excessive alcohol use), I have argued that this disease is even more dangerous because of its broader impact – injuries and deaths from driving, fires, falls, drowning, homicide, suicide, family abuse, and loss of jobs.
b. Motor Vehicles and Overeating
There are between 30,000 and 40,000 motor vehicle fatalities every year with a significant portion attributed to drunk drivers. Overeating has become a real and growing killer. The United Nations reports that even in developing countries, the number of obese children now exceeds the number malnourished. Being overweight contributes getting breast and other cancers, various heart diseases, high blood pressure, high cholesterol and glucose levels, and a wide variety of physical ailments.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 38,329 people died of drug overdoses in 2010. Most notably, 22,134 died from legally prescribed drugs. US deaths from illegal drugs were about 17,000, far less than US-supported drug interdiction efforts worldwide.
A brief summary of what has been tried to restrict these known killers is given below.
Cigarettes are legal, but there are age restrictions on purchasers and heavy taxes that are in part used to finance anti-smoking information campaigns In addition, smoking is not allowed in most public buildings. This approach appears to be working: the CDC reports the percent of adult smokers has fallen from 42% 1965 to 19% in 2011.
The US engaged in a very interesting experiment between 1920 and 1933 – Prohibition: it banned the manufacture, transportation and sale of alcohol. What was learned?
- Alcohol consumption did not end, despite significant efforts by Federal, state and local governments;
- Making the production and sale of alcohol illegal simply meant the market was served by criminals;
- Violence increased as different gangs fought over market control;
- Alcohol prices increased significantly;
- The quality of the alcohol products varied, creating greater health risks.
After giving up on prohibition, alcohol production and sales became legal again with age limits on buyers. Severe penalties exist for alcohol-related incidents that include motor vehicle accidents and physical abuse.
c. Motor Vehicles
Various measures exist to limit motor vehicle accidents: drivers must pass driving tests to get licenses to drive, cars must be registered and inspected annually, a number of driving restrictions are enforced that include speed limits and traffic lights. In addition, all motor vehicles are required to have liability insurance to cover injury and damage to the motor vehicles of others. These regulations appear to be working: motor vehicle deaths per 100 million motor vehicle miles driven have fallen from 3.3 in 1980 to 1.2 in 2012.
The US bans the possession, production and sale of many drugs. Since 1996, the US government has spent more than $150 billion to cut off illicit drug supplies. Last year, the government spent more than $15 billion to reduce supplies, with 36% of that going to “domestic law enforcement” and 16% to “domestic interdiction”. More than $2 billion was spent internationally. Despite these efforts, I estimate US illegal drug sales at $400 billion annually and growing.
Have the bans worked? No. Recognizing that no country has come even close to doing as much as the US has to reduce illicit drug use, the US rankings on prevalence of use (among countries with populations of 1 million and up) are:
- Cannabis – 4th
- Opiates – 1st
- Amphetamines – 5th
- Cocaine – 5th, and
- Ecstasy – 11th.
The US “drug war” has created a criminal element resulting in nearly 100,000 homicides globally per year. The US has by far the highest incarceration rate of any country in the world (730 prisoners per 100,000 citizens). And 25% of the prisoners are non-violent drug offenders.
Overeating is a growing killer. The WHO has developed a health risk statistic – the Disability-Adjusted Life Years (DALYs). It measures years lost both because of a premature mortality and years lost due to time lived in less than full health. The United Nations reports that even in developing countries, the number of obese children now exceeds the number malnourished. Overeating leads to being overweight/obese and that in turn results in high DALYs. It is difficult to infer the importance of being overweight for the following health problems: breast cancers, cerebrovascular diseases, colon and rectum cancers, corpus uteri cancers, diabetes mellitus, hypertensive heart disease, ischaemic heart disease, osteoarthritis, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, high blood glucose, low fruit and vegetable intake, and physical inactivity.
Effective US policies to reduce overeating? None. In fact, the largest farm subsidies go to starches – corn, wheat, soybeans, rice – and livestock.
Implications for Control of Guns
- It is clear from efforts to ban alcohol (Prohibition) and drugs (ongoing program) that bans do not work. The US market is just too big and profitable. If an item is banned, a criminal element will supply it. And there will be collateral damage as different criminal groups compete violently for market shares. Banning guns will not work.
- What can we learn from efforts to reduce motor vehicle accidents? Before being allowed to drive, citizens must pass a driving test. People wanting to own a gun should be required to pass a gun proficiency test. And while licenses are issued by states, there is a pretty effective national on-line database that police can access to check on a driver’s out-of-state violations. A national gun registry should be instituted to serve the same purpose. And finally, anyone buying a gun should be required to carry liability insurance that covers any damage done by the gun.
- We know 400,000 Americans will die every year from smoking. But they are not banned. In fact, I view the program to reduce cigarette smoking as about as good as can be done. What features from that program should be incorporated in a program to reduce gun deaths? First, age restrictions on purchases: 5 year old children should not be allowed to buy or own a gun. Second, very heavy taxes: guns kill people, and funds are needed to control gun violence and educate people on the dangers of guns.