Newtown Massacre as a Public Health Failure—and Opportunity

By Nicholas Freudenberg* and Michele Simon

While the nation grapples with how 27 lives were lost in small-town America last Friday, the bigger question is, how are so many lives lost all year around in cities big and small? The public health profession – whose primary aim is prevention – is at least partly to blame for the nation’s failure to address gun violence.

While conventional medicine treats patients with problems such as lung cancer and gunshot wounds, public health professionals instead focus on the related behaviors, aiming to prevent people, for example, from smoking or drinking too much. Similarly, when it comes to America’s gun problem, public health speaks of “violence prevention” or the even more sterile “injury control.”

However, each of these approaches fails to address the underlying factor driving the negative behaviors: massive industries that manufacture and market the products of destruction, whether it’s tobacco, alcohol, or in this case, guns.

Of course it’s not just the market for deadly product these industries create; it’s also the powerful lobbyists that hold our political system hostage to reform. The public health profession has failed miserably in the political arena due to its collective unwillingness to identify and oppose harmful corporate lobbying.

While much has been said about how the National Rifle Association intimidates politicians, this is no excuse for inaction by the public health field. (Some also argue the NRA’s political influence is exaggerated.) Now more than ever public health professionals working in violence prevention need to speak out about the role the firearms industry in destroying lives forever. They need to step out of their academic ivory towers and government offices to tell the truth about how the manufacture, sale, and marketing of guns contribute to our “culture of violence.”

President Obama says he want to find ways to fix this problem. Fortunately, there is no lack of effective policies available to reduce gun violence and the gun industry’s harmful practices. For example:

1. Taxes on bullets, a strategy designed to make ammunition more expensive and to bypass current interpretations of the Second Amendment;

2. Mandatory trigger locks, in which only the legal owner of the gun can fire the weapon, often using fingerprint technology and other such built-in safety devices;

3. Bans on assault weapons and other military-style firearms, which have proven helpful in other nations;

4. Stricter enforcement of registration of people banned from owning firearms including felons, those with serious mental illness or history of domestic violence, along with such background checks at gun shows;

5.  Legal liability for gun companies for the consequences of unscrupulous retail distribution practices that make it easy for purchasers to bypass registration system;

6.  Rescinding recent laws that allow people to carry concealed weapons into churches, universities, bars, national parks and other settings;

7.  Licensing systems that would require gun owners, like car owners, to obtain a license to operate a firearm and require periodic re-licensing;

8.  Stricter standards for the manufacture of firearms, one of the least regulated products on the market;

9. Adequate funding for enforcement of the above measures at local, state, and federal levels;

10. An end to the ban on federal funding for research on gun violence, which muzzles public health research, depriving society and policymakers the evidence needed to make informed policy decisions.

None of these actions alone will end the gun carnage that makes the U.S. an outlier among developed nations. But, as we have learned with tobacco, a wide array of evidence-based public health interventions, designed to counter the power of an industry that profits from lethal but legal products can, over time, reduce premature deaths and preventable harm.

What can public health professionals do now to support and amplify public pressure for action to protect the public against the harmful practices of the gun industry and its supporters? First, we can educate ourselves. Just as thousands of public health researchers and professionals can now discuss the science and politics of the tobacco industry efforts to undermine health, we need a similar effort to educate the public about the gun industry. The resources below are a few places to start.

Second, we need to take on the collective gun lobby: the National Rifle Association, the National Shooting Sports Foundation, and the gun companies. Like the climate deniers, these groups seek to obfuscate the science about gun control, discredit effective public health measures and stoke fears. In a recent commentary the journalist Bill Moyers called the NRA “the enabler of death—paranoid, delusional and venomous as a scorpion.” This report, Blood Money: How the Gun Industry Bankrolls the NRA examines the close relationship between industry and the NRA.

Third, we need to mobilize support for specific legislative proposals. It’s not enough to just have the information and educate others, we also need to enact meaningful policy reform. The public health profession is great at collecting data and publishing academic articles, but miserable at taking political action. This requires a fundamental shift in both allocation of resources and in attitude.

Of course, many other important public health measures can also help reduce gun violence, such as better prevention and treatment of mental illness and efforts to reduce violent media and violence of all kinds. But we can have the greatest impact by prioritizing the safety of people over the economic interests of the gun industry. Let’s make sure that the unfortunate window the Newtown massacre has opened does not close before another town has to bury its children.

Books on Gun Violence

  • Barrett PM. Glock: The Rise of America’s Gun. New York, NY: Crown; 2012
  • Spitzer RJ. The Politics of Gun Control, 5th Edition, Paradigm, 2011
  • Hemenway D. Private Guns, Public Health.  Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press; 2004
  • Diaz T. Making a Killing: The Business of Guns in America. New York, NY: New Press; 1999

Organizations and Campaigns Challenging Industry

Violence Policy Center
The Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence
Coalition to Stop Gun Violence
Where Did the Gun Come From?
Harvard Injury Control Research Center
Means Matter Suicide, Guns, and Public Health
Stop Handgun Violence

*Nicholas Freudenberg is Distinguished Professor of Urban Public Health at Hunter College, City University of New York and directs Corporations and Health Watch. He is currently completing a book, Lethal but Legal: How Corporations Make us Sick and What to Do about, It, for Oxford University Press.


3 Responses to “Newtown Massacre as a Public Health Failure—and Opportunity”

  1. Thank you for this article, Michele. I agree 100 %!
    We wrote a letter to the Senators of our state and the Representative and posted a template of this letter on my blog for everyone to use. Until we change the gun laws, no one will feel safe in this country..
    The letter template is here, please everyone write to your Senator ASAP:
    http://raw.marinasommers.com/2012/12/what-to-do-in-aftermath-of-newtown-ct.html

  2. John Eisloeffel says:

    Thank you Michele. I was completing a graduate course on Complex Humanitarian Emergencies and it occurred to me that gun violence in America should be framed as a syndrome that fits this rubric. Then Sandy Hook happened, not that anyone should need any more convincing that this is public health issue.

  3. Yep. All those problems originate from weapon market liberalisation. I am very happy because I am not US citizen.
    This morning I saw on news that one kid start shooting on his own friends in some US school.

    Few days ago I watched TV show about people who are preparing for the end of the world, and one of the actors in that TV show was teaching 10 year old kid on how to shoot from automatic weapon, so kid can be prepared to gard his own property if somebody want to steal food from them.

    Problem is not just in laws. There is also a problem in people’s heads.

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