Published November 7, 2016
To solve America’s problem with gun violence, look no further than how the U.S. has curbed motor vehicle fatalities through increased safety measures and stricter legislation.
That’s according to Sandro Galea, Robert A. Knox Professor and dean of the Boston University School of Public Health. Galea was the keynote speaker for the School of Public Health and Health Professions’ 28th annual J. Warren Perry Lecture, held Friday afternoon in the Butler Auditorium in Farber Hall, South Campus.
An epidemiologist and a physician, Galea focuses his research largely on trauma. He is an expert on gun violence who has been quoted widely in national media outlets in recent years as mass shooting incidents have embroiled the country in a debate about gun violence and gun laws.
Over the course of an hour, Galea took a very data-driven approach on the causes and consequences of gun violence, calling it a “quintessential population health issue” that costs Americans $229 billion annually — more than obesity and a little less than smoking. Despite those costs, gun violence has been a tough nut to crack for cultural and political reasons.
That’s not to say the problem can’t be curbed, he said, as long as the underlying social, political, cultural and economic factors that contribute to the issue are addressed.
“Motor vehicles present a really interesting case study,” Galea said, pointing out that motor vehicle deaths have decreased dramatically, particularly over the past 15 years.
“We have not stopped car manufacturers from selling cars. We have not stopped driving cars,” he said. “What we have done is mitigated the consequences of the motor vehicle epidemic. We’ve done that through seat belts, through air bags, drunk driving legislation, through stricter, more careful, more thoughtful enforcement. Which shows that it actually can be done, and it can be done in a way that preserves the cultural positioning of a particular product, but also saves the health of populations.”
Cars and guns both play a huge role in American culture, Galea said. The difference is that the narrative around guns is that Americans feel they need more firearms in order to protect themselves from the bad guys.
For example, he said, after the Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando in June, Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump argued that if some of the club-goers were armed, the outcome would have been much different.
“There is only one problem with that line of argument, which is that it is wrong,” Galea said. “That argument is simply not borne out by the data. The data are clear that if you own a gun, you are more likely to be killed by a gun.”
Galea also addressed the issue of mental illness and gun violence. The media narrative after several recent mass shootings, he said, has been that the shooter had a mental illness. The political response has been that the U.S. should do more to limit gun access for people with mental health problems.
He noted that a recent poll showed that 63 percent of people felt that mass shootings were more reflective of problems in addressing mental illness than a sign of gun control issues. But people with mental illness are far more likely to harm themselves than others and are often victims of violence, not the perpetrator, Galea said.
What’s more, he said, Canadians are no less afflicted by mental illness than Americans, but the death rate by firearms in Canada is significantly lower than in the U.S.
“Our attention on mental illness is a red herring,” he said, pointing out that America still needs to vastly improve how it serves the needs of people with mental illness. But, he added, “The narrative that says mental illness is the cause of the firearm epidemic is simply wrong.”
During his talk, Galea noted that the death rate from firearms has remained relatively flat since 1999, but injuries have increased as improvements have been made in treating people with gun injuries.
Still, he said, there’s an obvious answer to the root cause of the problem. “From an epidemiological perspective, there is no question what the root cause is: The root cause is the presence and widespread availability of guns.”