On Dec. 14 last year, a horrific event occurred in my home town of Newtown, Conn. Twenty children and six brave educators were senselessly executed by a lone gunman, who had also slain his mother before taking his own life.
The physicians in town who responded that day (including myself), and who work with those that did, have formed a professional group, United Physicians of Newtown.
From our website:
Although our specialties differ, our goal is the same - to stop this national epidemic that has taken our children. We believe this is a major public health issue and can be successfully addressed as with other previous United States epidemics including tobacco, alcohol and motor vehicle safety.
The important thing to us, from a professional vantage point, is to recognize that gun violence is a public health issue. We believe we can learn a lot from previous experience. Some public health interventions were contentious (smoking curtailment, for example, or the current argument over supersized soft drinks) and some less so, such as seat belt and air bag use.
We know that seat belts have saved lives. In fact, they save more than 10,000 a year according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
But in looking back on the introduction of the mandatory nature of seat belts, we find some interesting lessons to be learned. For one thing, while the impetus for improving automobile safety was undoubtedly Ralph Nader's 1965 classic Unsafe at Any Speed, it took three more years before federal legislation required seat belt placement in most vehicles, and another 16 years before New York became the first state to mandate their use (something that for the most part happens at the state and not federal level).
Adding air bags, using infant car safety seats, and improved crash resistance are examples of added safety features that make cars safer today than 50 years ago.
Still, there are persistent examples of resistance to the use of safety belts both then and now that sound very familiar. Safety belts are an impingement on personal freedom, goes the argument, and some have called "saved lives" data exaggerated.
There's a straightforward response to that. The data can be analyzed and ought to be reproducible (the hallmark of science is reproducibility) and empirically checked from year to year. Impingement on freedoms ought to be a trade-off for the desire and ability to save lives. Freedom is never absolute (which is why you can't yell "fire" in a crowded theater.)
Lessons learned from the seat belt saga should inform our current discussion about gun violence and gun safety. We need the research done on firearms injuries so that we can have data-driven discussions about what does and does not work. We need to recognize that there is always a balance between personal freedom and the need to save lives, which the government has a clear stake in promoting.
We need to do much more than that, of course. There are mental health issues that need addressing, as well as a hard data driven look at our culture of violence, not least of which is found on network television (people are quick to point the finger at video games, but rarely television - perhaps because many of the pointed fingers are on TV.)
Our physician group endorses doing all of that and more. We'll work with our professional societies and the CDC to help get this done.
We're not out to impinge on personal liberties. We come from a town with a strong hunting tradition and we respect the Second Amendment. But we are doctors first and foremost: our goal is to save lives. If we can do anything to help insure that there are no more Tucsons, no more Auroras, no more Virginia Techs, no more Newtowns, well, that's a goal worthy of everyone's effort.
Greg Dworkin is a pediatric pulmonologist practicing in Danbury and living in Newtown, Conn. He is a contributing editor for Daily Kos, and has worked with the White House, CDC and HHS in two administrations on public health issues. He is on the steering committee of the newly formed United Physicians of Newtown.
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