More precisely, Wiersema's work and the work of other scientists who've been collecting, comparing and analyzing data on firearms injuries in the United States has revolutionary potential. He is a foot soldier in a scientific guerrilla movement, still in its early stages, that seeks to change the way we think about guns. If it succeeds, its leaders fervently believe, it could do much more than help explain the mysterious fluctuations of the murder rate: It could break the cycle of lethal violence for good.
The American people have a unique and uniquely unresolved attitude toward guns. To some, they are icons of freedom, symbols of self-reliant frontier individualism, as well as practical tools for self-protection that are fundamentally no different (as one manufacturer's ad would have it) from fire extinguishers. To others, they are terrifying emblems of a uniquely murderous culture, an omnipresent threat to personal security and the social order, and the chief reason why rate drop or no rate drop the per capita murder toll in America each year remains by far the highest among Western industrialized nations.
These views have long seemed irreconcilable, and they've produced, among other things, a political stalemate on the question of gun control. The country has been united, however, in its tendency to view the problem of gun violence through a criminal justice frame. Some see the violence as the fault of incorrigible "bad guys," while others see it as an outgrowth of underlying social problems. Either way, it is seen as a crime problem, to be analyzed and addressed primarily in terms of the motivations of criminals, the effectiveness of deterrence and punishment, the hiring of more cops, the building of more prisons and so on. And if the nation's long-term homicide rates, tracked over the past few decades, are any measure, none of this traditional "crime fighting" has done much good. In 1960, according to the National Center for Health Statistics, there were 4.7 homicides for every 100,000 Americans; in 1995, the most recent year for which complete mortality statistics are available, there were 8.7.
Pow, pow, pow, pow, pow.
A couple of decades ago, however, a tiny group of physicians and public health specialists began to argue that gun violence was in fact a reversible problem. Unscarred by the politicized gun control debate and able to break free from the criminal justice frame, they began to ask a different kind of question about guns.
What if you approached the whole violence question more broadly, they asked not merely as something for cops and judges to deal with, but as a major, pervasive threat to public health?
What if you looked at shooting incidents of all kinds homicides, suicides and accidents as the equivalent of an infectious disease? What if you tracked them the way you'd track an outbreak of malaria or cholera, using epidemiological techniques, then analyzed your data to see how the disease might be contained?
What if you thought of a gun as an organism with a life cycle from manufacture to sale to possession to use and focused your attention on the earliest stages, where prevention efforts would do the most good?
Public health types use words like "sea change" and "paradigm shift" to describe what they've been hoping to accomplish with questions like these. And a couple of analogies to motor vehicles and tobacco come up again and again.
"For years," says Stephen Teret, a lawyer turned public health specialist who heads the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research in Baltimore, "people tried to reduce the highway death toll by getting people to drive safer." But then the idea surfaced "that in addition to trying to get people to drive better, you could modify the highway environment, you could modify the car, so that when the foreseeable driving error occurs, people aren't given a death penalty for that, that the car becomes more forgiving. And since the mid-1960s, we've regulated the way that cars are designed and highways are constructed, and that saved hundreds of thousands of lives.
"Well, guns now kill almost as many people as motor vehicles kill per year in the United States. And we can do the same thing with regard to guns."
Teret goes on to talk about childproofing guns, and about using new technology to "personalize" guns so that only their owners can fire them, and about reshaping the public's attitude toward keeping guns around the house. Other public health people talk about more aggressive enforcement of existing gun laws (against possession by minors in particular), about more effective intervention in domestic disputes, and yes, it's true about placing some additional restrictions on handguns. But the overall message extends well beyond gun control, and it comes back to the auto and smoking analogies: If it's too hard to change an individual's dangerous behavior, you can change the environment in which the behavior occurs.
"In this country, we really brought about a miracle," says Mark Rosenberg, who heads the National Center for Injury Prevention and Control. "We redesigned the car, we redesigned the highway ... and no one talked about banning cars. All those people who are concerned about motor vehicle safety, they're not saying, 'You're pro-car and you're anti-car.' "
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