Saturday, November 13, 2004

Lock and Load

The New York Times
November 13, 2004

Lock and Load

Nothing kills Democratic candidates' prospects more than guns. If it weren't for guns, President-elect Kerry might now be conferring with incoming Senate Majority Leader Daschle.

Since the Brady Bill took effect in 1994, gun-control efforts have been a catastrophe for Democrats. They have accomplished almost nothing nationally, other than giving a big boost to the Republicans. Mr. Kerry tried to get around the problem by blasting away at small animals, but nervous Red Staters still suspected Democrats of plotting to seize guns.

Moreover, it's clear that in this political climate, further efforts at gun control are a nonstarter. You can talk until you're blue in the face about the 30,000 gun deaths each year, about children who are nine times as likely to die in a gun accident in America as elsewhere in the developed world, about the $17,000 average cost (half directly borne by taxpayers) of treating each gun injury. But nationally, gun control is dead.

So it's time for a fundamentally new approach, emblematic of how Democrats must think in new ways about old issues. The new approach is to accept that handguns are part of the American landscape, but to use a public health approach to try to make them much safer.

The model is automobiles, for a high rate of traffic deaths was once thought to be inevitable. But then we figured out ways to mitigate the harm with seat belts, air bags and collapsible steering columns, and since the 1950's the death rate per mile driven has dropped 80 percent.

Similar steps are feasible in the world of guns.

"You can tell whether a camera is loaded by looking at it, and you should be able to tell whether a gun is loaded by looking at it," said David Hemenway, director of the Harvard Injury Control Research Center. Professor Hemenway has written "Private Guns, Public Health," a brilliant and clear-eyed primer for the country.

We take safety steps that reduce the risks of everything from chain saws (so they don't kick back and cut off an arm) to refrigerators (so kids can't lock themselves inside). But firearms have been exempt. Companies make cellphones that survive if dropped, but some handguns can fire if they hit the ground.

Professor Hemenway notes that in the 1990's, two children a year, on average, died after locking themselves in car trunks. This was considered unacceptable, so a government agency studied the problem, and General Motors and Ford engineered safety mechanisms to prevent such deaths.

In contrast, 15 children under the age of 5 die annually in fatal gun accidents in the U.S., along with 18 children 5 to 9 years old. We routinely make aspirin bottles childproof, but not guns, even though childproof pistols were sold back in the 19th century - they wouldn't fire unless the shooter put pressure on the handle as well as the trigger.

Aside from making childproof guns, here are other steps we could take:

Require magazine safeties so a gun cannot be fired when the clip is removed (people can forget that a bullet may still be in the chamber and pull the trigger). Many guns already have magazine safeties, but not all.

Finance research to develop "smart guns," which can be fired only by authorized users. If a cellphone can be locked with a PIN, why not a gun? This innovation would protect children - and thwart criminals.

Start public safety campaigns urging families to keep guns locked up in a gun safe or with a trigger lock (now, 12 to 14 percent of gun owners with young children keep loaded and unlocked weapons in their homes).

Encourage doctors to counsel depressed patients not to keep guns, and to advise new parents on storing firearms safely.

Make gun serial numbers harder for criminals to remove.

Create a national database for gun deaths. In a traffic fatality, 120 bits of data are collected, like the positions of the passengers and the local speed limit, so we now understand what works well (air bags, no "right on red") and what doesn't (driver safety courses). Statistics on gun violence are much flimsier, so we don't know what policies would work best, and much of the data hurled by rival camps at each other is inaccurate.

Would these steps fly politically? Maybe. One poll showed that 88 percent of the public favors requiring that guns be childproof. And such measures demonstrate the kind of fresh thinking that can keep alive not only thousands of Americans, but the Democratic Party as well.