Another Request

Reader David Smith sent me a link to a Harvard Magazine article by Craig Lambert entitled Death by the Barrel with the suggestion:

Being a scientist myself, I take particular offense to the editor’s claim of using the scientific method. Anyway, I thought you might enjoy fisking a Harvard PhD for all he’s worth.

I guess I should be flattered for a reader to suggest that I’m qualified to fisk a Harvard PhD, so I read the article. It’s a review of David Hemenway’s book Private Guns, Public Health: A Dramatic New Plan for Ending America’s Epidemic of Gun Violence. Very skillfully done with virtuoso talent at misdirection, spin, suggestion and exaggeration mixed with just enough accuracy to make it all seem perfectly reasonable. In all, very fiskworthy, so I shall, David. So I shall.

Let us begin:

This particular gun story took place, ironically enough, at the 1997 convention of the American Public Health Association in Indianapolis. There, among a group of white-collar professionals and academics, a seemingly minor incident quickly led to mayhem. While eating dinner at the Planet Hollywood restaurant, a patron bent to pick something up from the floor. A small pistol fell from his pocket, hit the floor, and went off. The bullet struck and injured two convention delegates waiting to be seated; both women went to the hospital.

“Why manufacture guns that go off when you drop them?” asks professor of health policy David Hemenway ’66, Ph.D. ’74. “Kids play with guns. We put childproof safety caps on aspirin bottles because if kids take too many aspirin, they get sick. You could blame the parents for gun accidents but, as with aspirin, manufacturers could help. It’s very easy to make childproof guns.”

Logic like this pervades Hemenway’s new book, Private Guns, Public Health (University of Michigan Press), which takes an original approach to an old problem by applying a scientific perspective to firearms. Hemenway, who directs the Harvard Injury Control Research Center at the School of Public Health ( ), summarizes and interprets findings from hundreds of surveys and from epidemiological and field studies to deliver on the book’s subtitle: A Dramatic New Plan for Ending America’s Epidemic of Gun Violence. The empirical groundwork enables Hemenway, whose doctorate is in economics, to sidestep decades of political arm-wrestling over gun control. “The gun-control debate often makes it look like there are only two options: either take away people’s guns, or not,” he says. “That’s not it at all. This is more like a harm-reduction strategy. Recognize that there are a lot of guns out there, and that reasonable gun policies can minimize the harm that comes from them.”

Let’s start with the first obvious misdirection. Hemenway goes from the question “why manufacture guns that go off when you drop them” – a reasonable question, by the way – to the contention “It’s very easy to make childproof guns.”

This is called “bait and switch.” They’re entirely separate and unrelated questions, and the second one is largely bogus, but because it involves “the Children™” it immediately draws a sympathetic reaction from the average reader. Could “manufacturers help” make guns “childproof”? Probably, but the comparison isn’t a reasonable one. The “childproof cap” law was first passed in 1972 as the Poison Prevention Packaging Act. It mandated that not only drugs, but any poisonous substance be provided in a package

…that is designed or constructed to be significantly difficult for children under five years of age to open or obtain a toxic or harmful amount of the substance contained therein within a reasonable time and not difficult for normal adults to use properly, but does not mean packaging which all such children cannot open or obtain a toxic or harmful amount within a reasonable time.”

First problem? Well, according to this article reviewing the 1995 revision of the act,

While the old caps kept children out, many older people had so much trouble opening them that they either left the caps off or put their medication in non-childproof containers, posing even more of a danger to children, says Jo Reed, senior coordinator of consumer issues for AARP.

That’s known as “The Law of Unintended Consequences.” If I recall correctly, after passage of that law, the number of child poisonings went up for a while. People reasoned “it’s not dangerous, it’s childproof. I don’t have to keep it in the medicine cabinet or store it on a high shelf.”

With guns, the same “unintended consequence” might very well occur. Because the gun is “childproof,” might the owner/parent leave it more accessible? And in a defense gun, what if the gun cannot be made fireable at time of need? Smith & Wesson, for instance, now manufactures their revolvers with an internal lock that requires a key. When locked, the hammer cannot be moved and the cylinder cannot be rotated. That makes the gun “child safe,” (if you actually do lock it) but what if you cannot find the key in the dark when an intruder is attempting to break down your bedroom door? That’s a situation not encountered when discussing the normal use of household poisons.

The next question becomes, “how long would it take for design changes to affect child safety?” Chemicals are consumeables and their containers are disposable. It didn’t take very long after child-protective caps were mandated for them to supplant non-safety caps in circulation. Yet there are over 60 million handguns in private hands today, and they aren’t going to end up in landfills as soon as the owner empties the magazine or fires all the shots in the cylinder. Any law requiring new handguns to be equipped with “child safety” features would be essentially ineffective for decades because of those 60+ million handguns already out there.

And finally, “how big is the problem of children being accidentally shot, anyway?” From this March 19, 2000 Whitehouse press release,

In 1962, almost 450 children died of poisoning after swallowing medicines or household chemicals. By 1996, that tragic statistic had been reduced to 47.

Well, the Centers for Disease Control’s WISQARS tool says the total in 1996 was 60 for children 5 years old and younger, but let’s not quibble. What was the injury mortality for children in that same age bracket by accidental gunshot? According to WISQARS, 19.

Obviously poisoning was a significant problem for very young children that was addressed with some effectiveness by the Poison Prevention Packaging Act, but could we expect a similar reduction in accidental deaths by a “Childproof Gun Act”? There is no reason to believe so. As noted, older guns would still be in circulation, and since an an there are only an additional one million or so new handguns added each year it would take quite a while for them to represent a significant percentage of available guns. Second, people irresponsible enough to leave loaded firearms around where children can access them cannot be expected to be responsible enough to engage the “child safety” feature, can they? Third, “child safety” caps were designed to protect toddlers. Remember, the law was directed to make it “significantly difficult for children under five years of age” to access poisonous substances. Older children were recognized to have the necessary skills to defeat them, but were expected to have the necessary knowledge of the dangers of doing so. The same would be true of firearms. (Anybody remember the joke that “Only kids can open the damned Childproof caps”?)

So Dr. Hemenway has attempted to deceive you by suggesting that “childproof caps” and “childproof guns” would be equivalents, and would prevent many unfortunate accidental deaths. What he doesn’t expect you to understand is that “childproof caps” were only designed to address the accidental poisoning of very young children, and that “childproof guns,” under the same criteria, still wouldn’t “solve” what is, in fact, a statistically very small problem. What Dr. Hemenway also does not tell you is that without “childproof” features, the number of accidental deaths by gunshot has been decreasing ever since we’ve kept track. The WISQARS tool only goes back as far as 1981, but that year there were 51 accidental gunshot deaths of children 0-4 years old. In 1985 there were 43. In 1990, 34. In 1995, 20. In 2001, 17.

Author Craig Lambert tells us that “logic like this pervades Hemenway’s new book”. Of that I have no doubt.

This is long enough as an opening piece. I’ll continue the deconstruction later, if I get enough interested feedback.

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