For seven years gun-control advocates have lobbied for the Brady Bill, which mandates a national waiting period for buying handguns. But ironically, the bill’s passage may actually benefit the gun industry. Oversold by its supporters, the Brady Bill has become synonymous in American minds with gun control itself. If violence continues once a national waiting period goes into effect (as it likely will), the gun lobby will offer the Brady Bill as proof that gun control doesn’t work.
With its passage, gun-control advocates find themselves at a crossroads. We can continue to push legislation of dubious effectiveness. Or we can acknowledge that gun violence is a public-health crisis fueled by an inherently dangerous consumer product. To end the crisis, we have to regulate–or, in the case of handguns and assault weapons, completely ban–the product.
The romantic myths attached to gun ownership stop many people from thinking of them as a consumer product. As a result, the standard risk analysis applied to other potentially dangerous products–pesticides, prescription drugs, or toasters–has never been applied to firearms.
Yet guns are manufactured by corporations– with boards of directors, marketing plans, employees, and a bottom line–just like companies that manufacture toasters. What separates the gun industry from other manufacturers is lack of regulation.
For example, when a glut in the market caused handgun production to plummet from 2.6 million in 1982 to 1.4 million in 1986, the industry retooled its product line. To stimulate sales, manufacturers added firepower, technology, and capacity to their new models. The result: assault weapons, a switch from six-shot revolvers to high-capacity pistols, and increased use of plastics and high-tech additions like integral laser sights.
The industry was free to make these changes (most of which made the guns more dangerous) because guns that are 50 caliber or less and not fully automatic can be manufactured with virtually no restrictions. The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms lacks even the common regulatory powers–including safety-standard setting and recall–granted government agencies such as the Consumer Product Safety Commission, the Food and Drug Administration, and the Environmental Protection Agency.
Yet guns are the second most deadly consumer product (after cars) on the market. In Texas and Louisiana the firearms-related death rate already exceeds that for motor vehicles, and by the end of the decade firearms will likely supplant automobiles as the leading cause of product-related death throughout the United States.
But since Americans view firearm suicides, murders, and fatal accidents as separate problems, the enormity of America’s gun crisis goes unrecognized. In 1990, American guns claimed an estimated 37,000 lives. Federal Bureau of Investigation data shows that gun murders that year reached an all-time high of 15,377; a record 12,489 involved handguns.
In 1990 (the most recent year for which statistics are available), 18,885 Americans took their own lives with firearms, and an estimated 13,030 of those deaths involved handguns. Unlike pills, gas, or razor blades–which are of limited effectiveness–guns are rarely forgiving. For example, self-inflicted cutting wounds account for 15 percent of all suicide attempts but only 1 percent of all successful suicides. Poisons and drugs account for 70 percent of suicide attempts but less than 12 percent of all suicides. Conversely, nonfatal, self-inflicted gunshot wounds are rare–yet three-fifths of all U.S. suicides involve firearms.
In addition to the human toll, the economic costs of not regulating guns are staggering. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) estimated that the lifetime economic cost–hospitalization, rehabilitation, and lost wages–of firearms violence was $14.4 billion in 1985, making it the third most expensive injury category. The average lifetime cost per person for each firearms fatality–$373,520–was the highest of any injury.
Such human and economic costs are not tolerated for any other product. Many consumer products from lawn darts to the Dalkon Shield have been banned in the United States, even though they claimed only a fraction of the lives guns do in a day. The firearms industry is long overdue for the simple, regulatory oversight applied to other consumer products. For public safety, the ATF must be given authority to control the design, manufacture, distribution, and sale of firearms and ammunition.
Under such a plan, the ATF would subject each category of firearm and ammunition to an unreasonable-risk analysis to weed out products whose potential for harm outweighs any possible benefit. This would result in an immediate ban on the future production and sale of handguns and assault weapons because of their high risk and low utility.
Because they are easily concealed and accessed, handguns hold the dubious honor of being our number-one murder and suicide tool. Assault weapons–high-capacity, semiautomatic firearms designed primarily for the military and police–pose a public-safety risk as the result of their firepower. A 1989 study of ATF data conducted by Cox Newspapers found that assault firearms were twenty times more likely to turn up in crime traces than conventional firearms.
In addition, a regulatory approach to firearms would exert far greater control over the industry and its distribution network. It would not, however, affect the availability of standard sporting rifles and shotguns, which would continue to be sold because of their usefulness and relatively low risk.
Such an approach is the industry’s worst nightmare–conjuring images of an all-powerful “gun czar.” And in a sense, gun manufacturers would be right: the ATF would become a gun czar in the same way that the EPA is a pesticide czar, the FDA is a prescription-drug-and-medical-device czar, and the Consumer Product Safety Commission is a toaster czar. Yet it is just such a regulatory approach that has dramatically reduced motor-vehicle deaths and injuries over the past twenty years.
Gun-control advocates cannot afford to spend another seven years battling over piecemeal measures that have little more to offer than good intentions. We are far past the point where registration, licensing, safety training, background checks, or waiting periods will have much effect on firearms violence. Tired of being shot and threatened, Americans are showing a deeper understanding of gun violence as a public-health issue, and are becoming aware of the need to restrict specific categories of weapons.
As America’s health-care debate continues, discussion of the role of guns–from the human price paid in mortality to the dollars-and-cents cost of uninsured gunshot victims–can only help clarify that gun violence is not a crime issue but a public-health issue. This shift in attitude is apparent in the firearms component of Clinton’s domestic violence prevention group, which is co-chaired not only by a representative from the Justice Department–as expected–but also by a CDC official.
Even if the only legacy of this current wave of revulsion is that gun violence will now be viewed as a public-health issue, America will still have taken a very large first step toward gun sanity.
Josh Sugarmann is executive director of the Violence Policy Center and author of NRA: Money, Firepower & Fear.