As the nation grapples with last week’s school shooting in Connecticut, discussions across the nation are focused on how we can reduce gun-related violence and the devastation it causes. NewPublicHealth joins that conversation today, beginning with an interview with Jeffrey Swanson, PhD, a professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Duke University School of Medicine. Swanson is a member of the Methods Core of the Public Health Law Research (PHLR) program at Temple University, a project of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. The researchers analyze the intersection of public health and law, selecting studies for funding and providing technical assistance and support to strengthen research on law and health.
>> Read a blog post by Scott Burris, director of PHLR, on developing new laws to increase the safety of having guns in society.
An article published last year by Dr. Swanson following the shooting of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords and eighteen other people in Tucson, Arizona, argued that homicides committed with guns against strangers by individuals with mental disorders occur far too infrequently to allow for explanatory statistical modeling and predictability. However, improving treatment access, continuity and adherence for people with serious mental illnesses can help prevent some violent episodes, according to Swanson.
NewPublicHealth spoke with Swanson a few days after the shooting in Newtown, Conn.
NewPublicHealth: What is the role of law and public health in efforts to prevent gun and other forms of violence?
Swanson: We need to think about gun violence as a public health problem. Homicide and suicide are the second- and third-leading causes of mortality in the U.S. population ages 15-34, and firearms are involved in most violent fatalities. In theory, the law should be an effective public health tool in trying to address the problem. Law can regulate what kinds of guns are available, where they can used, by whom, and even how they are stored. But since the U.S. Constitution protects a citizen’s basic right to possess a gun, the law can’t go too far in limiting legal access to guns in the population. That means we have to focus more on trying to identify dangerous people who should not have guns. That’s very complicated, because violence is complicated and so are people. The law could be used even more effectively, though, if we had better research evidence about what features of gun laws and policies work best to protect safety while safeguarding civil rights. That’s what we’re trying to do.