Gun Violence: Harvard School of Public Health on Research Around Preventing Violence

Jan 7, 2013, 12:55 PM

Harvard School of Public Health Forum on Gun Violence Harvard School of Public Health Forum on Gun Violence

Tuesday, January 8, from 12:30 to 1:30 p.m. EST, the Harvard School of Public Health, in collaboration with Reuters, will present an hour long live webcast on gun violence, in response to the too many recent gun massacres.

The webcast is part of the school’s ongoing “Forum” series,  whose aim is to provide a platform to discuss policy choices and scientific controversies by leveraging participants' collective knowledge. Tomorrow’s forum on gun violence will look at the legal, political, and public health factors that could influence efforts to prevent gun massacres.

Participants include Laurence Tribe, professor of Constitutional Law at Harvard Law School; Felton Earls, MD, professor of child psychiatry at Harvard Medical School; David King, senior lecturer in public policy at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, and chair of Harvard’s Bipartisan Program for Newly Elected Members of Congress; and David Hemenway, PhD, Director of the Harvard Injury Control Research Center.

In advance of tomorrow’s Forum, NewPublicHealth spoke with Dr. Hemenway about ongoing research efforts aimed at preventing gun violence and gun massacres. Dr. Hemenway is the author of Private Guns, Public Health, which demonstrates how a public-health approach—historically applied to reducing the rates of injury and death from infectious disease, car accidents, and tobacco consumption—can also be applied to preventing gun violence. Dr. Hemenway’s book was supported by a Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Investigator Award in Health Policy Research.

NewPublicHealth: What is the overall goal of the Forum? 

Dr. Hemenway: The Forum series focuses on how public health can help impact many major issues in the U.S. We are able to gather experts at Harvard who are working on these issues to provide information about what we know and to share ideas on approaches to help address these problems.  

NPH: On tomorrow’s panel, you’ll be discussing the issue from a public health approach. What are some of the concepts you’ll be sharing?

Dr. Hemenway: I’ll be talking about what we know about the relationship between guns and public health and how the United States, compared to all the other industrialized democracies, is really such an anomaly in that we have such a horrific gun problem. I’ll present the evidence we have on having a gun in the home, how it’s more often detrimental to the family than beneficial or protective. And I’ll talk about the public health approach and how we can do lots of things besides having more sensible gun policies. We don’t have to just rely on legislation; we can do things, as we have in many areas, to try to change social norms.

NPH: Expand on that a bit. Why are guns a public health issue?

Dr. Hemenway: For one thing, the shooting in Sandy Hook [in Newtown, Ct.] was a suicide as most of the mass shootings are. So it’s a mental health issue. Often the shooters want to die in a blaze of glory. They’re ready to die, they expect to die, and instead of just killing themselves, they’re killing other people along the way.

NPH: An increased focus on suicide prevention is a critical factor in preventing mass killings?

Dr. Hemenway: Absolutely. There’s no question. A colleague of mine, Matt Miller, teaches a course on suicide and public health. One of the things we learn is that it’s not just the mental health of people that matters. It’s also a lot of other things, cultural things, but also the ready access to lethal means. If you change the ready access fewer people die in suicides.

NPH: What do you think some critical next steps should be?  

Dr. Hemenway: I really want to see the government collect better data on gun issues. We have a national violent death reporting system that we helped create here at Harvard, but it’s only in 18 states. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention does surveys about all different sorts of problem areas, and it used to have a question about guns and it has stopped having that question. I want that question back. And we need money for gun research. CDC and the National Institutes have basically no money for the issue, so I want to see the government step up. I want to see foundations step up.  I want to see Congressional hearings about guns. I want to see real national commissions to look at what we know and what we should know and why we don’t know it and what we’re doing.

And I’d also like to see this lead to all different groups saying enough’s enough, we’re all going to get involved in all different ways, from women’s groups to school groups to clergy.

But a big thing is to change social norms. We’ve already had some of those successes. When I was a kid drinking and driving was fine. Now it’s not fine. And it’s not just because of the law because the law was always there. It has a lot to do with social norms. This is not acceptable behavior anymore.

Another area we talk about where social norms have changed is smoking. What a magnificent change we’ve had in smoking in the United States. We need to see a social norm change on gun violence. Instead of it being the mark of a real man that you can shoot somebody at 50 feet and kill them with a gun, the mark of a real man is that you would never do anything like that. You’d show that you were stronger than they were and smarter and not just that you had some weapon. The gun is a great equalizer because it makes wimps as dangerous as people who really have skill and bravery and so I’d like to have this notion that anyone using a gun is a wuss. They aren’t anybody to be looked up to. They’re somebody to look down at because they couldn’t defend themselves or couldn’t protect others without using a gun.

NPH: How does that happen?

Dr. Hemenway: Well, in the United States, it wasn’t that long ago that dueling was common and what a stupid practice that was. But everybody felt like they had to – if you were insulted you had to duel. The same way that too often among inner city minority youth if somebody disses you, you feel that you have to respond in a certain way. That’s not the way you have to respond, but it is if that’s the culture.

This commentary originally appeared on the RWJF New Public Health blog.