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Focus on the Real Terror: Gun Violence
6 November 2001
HOW MUCH of our national resources -- money, research, work hours -- would you have been willing to spend if it meant saving the thousands of Americans who died from terrorist attacks on September 11? And what resources would you now allocate to lift the anxiety that those deaths, and the subsequent deaths from anthrax, have generated across the country? Most of us, I imagine, would spend whatever it would take. What is more valuable than the lives of fathers and mothers and best friends and sons and daughters? What is more precious than living free from daily fear?
Yet, Americans are killed every day on our streets. Their deaths are no less debilitating and tragic to their friends and families than those on September 11. The fear left behind is no less chilling. Last year alone, more than 10,000 Americans were murdered by gunshots. More than 530,000 victims of violent crimes faced attackers carrying guns. These terrorists don't fit a particular profile. They don't slip into the country on student visas. They don't subscribe to a common set of twisted religious beliefs. But they take more American lives every single year than any outside terrorists ever have.
In fact, since 1965 about 1 million Americans have died of gunshot wounds in our homeland, more than the number of American who were killed in all foreign wars during the 20th century (617,000). "Whole communities have been terrorized by gunfire for a very, very long time," said Philip Cook, Duke University professor and co-author of "Gun Violence: The Real Costs." "But this is not just a problem for the poor and disenfranchised. The impact is much broader than the people who are killed. It affects property values, taxes, schools, quality of life."
In the wake of the 5,000 or so deaths on September 11, President Bush allocated $11 billion for anti-terrorism efforts, which included the creation of a new Office of Homeland Security headed by Tom Ridge. Yet,the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention can't get even $10 million from the president to create a national, centralized database on homicides and suicides. It's astonishing that such a system doesn't yet exist. Researchers and policymakers looking for information on violent deaths have to piece together reports from medical examiners, coroners, police, crime labs, the FBI, the Department of Justice, the death-certificate registrars and the CDC.
"The federal government can tell you how many women dye their hair each year but can't tell you how many women are killed by guns in domestic violence situations," said Stephen Hargarten, director of the Firearm Injury Center at the Medical College of Wisconsin. Comprehensive information is crucial to formulating policies that would decrease gun violence.
"Right now, we're dealing with a lot of rhetoric without any real facts," said David Hemenway, director of the Harvard Injury Control Research Center at the Harvard School of Public Health. "How many assault-weapon killings are there? Where do teen suicide victims get their guns?" And why, for example, were just two people killed with handguns in New Zealand in 1996, 13 in Australia, 15 in Japan, 30 in Britain and 9,390 in the United States?
When the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration began collecting data on every highway death, the number of deaths dramatically decreased. Policymakers could pinpoint how and why people died in cars and advocate specific reforms, such as seat-belt laws and collapsible steering columns. Clearly, the feds know no battle can be won without solid facts. Right now, they are desperate for information about the foreign terrorists and the anthrax attacks. Without good info, they can't know who or what they're fighting.
By contrast, information about gun violence is easily attainable, but is too scattered to be of much use. The CDC is pushing for $10 million in the 2002 budget for the Firearm Injury Center National Violent Injury Statistics System, increasing to $20 million a year thereafter when it is fully operational. It won't eliminate gun violence. But it might finally give us a fighting chance against a terrorism that is, unfortunately, too distinctly American.