Gun Control: should Science Communication get Involved?

I live in New Zealand, where two items on the national news over this last week really caught my attention.

The first was a report that a student at a school in Auckland had been punched by another, causing him to fall and hit his head, which required him to be hospitalised. This was just over a week after another student at another school – this one in Texas – used a shotgun and .38 revolver to kill 10 people and injure 10 others.

The second news item occurred just yesterday morning: it was reported that a police dog had been stabbed with a knife. This wasn’t just any news item, it was the lead item. And, for the record, the dog was not killed. This came just three days after a man in Belgium stabbed two policewoman and then shot them dead with their own guns as well as killing a bystander.

There are good scientific reasons why a bullet fired at high velocity is likely to exact more damage to the human body than a stiletto thrust into someone’s stomach

A part of me thinks that I should be immensely grateful to live in a country where a bit of schoolyard bullying or an attack on a canine can be the focus of our collective attentions, the things we warrant as most newsworthy. Without trying to belittle the seriousness of the impacts of either incident on those involved, I suppose some satisfaction with our society in New Zealand could probably be found in that.

However, we are all part of a global community and the real issue is the effect that guns have in any conflict, be it in the schoolyard or on the streets. In 2016, there were 38,658 gun deaths in the United States – or, put another way, over 105 lives lost due to guns every single day: a startling and depressing commentary on any society. The majority of those were the consequence of suicide but – leaving aside, for the moment, the lethality of guns as a means for ending one’s own life – nevertheless, over 15,000 of the deaths were due to homicides where someone deliberately took the life of another. In 2017, such deaths had risen to 15,549. In New Zealand in 2014, the latest year for which I can find figures, just 5 people were murdered using guns.

There is often a presumption that it is access to guns that is the problem but, while that no doubt contributes to the issue, it is not so simple. There are plenty of guns in New Zealand. Certainly, per capita, there are just over 3 times as many guns in the United States, but there the probability of being murdered by someone using a gun is over 30 times higher: an order of magnitude different in proportion to the number of guns available. Factors such as who has access to guns, regulations and requirements for gun registration, the type of guns and the type of ammunition all play a part.

It is easy to dismiss the issue of gun control as a political one. Someone else’s problem. Or, perhaps, a social one. Either way, no place for something like science communication, huh?

However, I beg to differ. A punch or a knife, while damaging and both potentially lethal, have wide areas of tolerance if survival is the measured outcome. By contrast, guns, are much more likely to result in death. That is not just a fact, it is a scientific fact! There are good scientific reasons why a bullet fired at high velocity is likely to exact more damage to the human body than a stiletto thrust into someone’s stomach or a right hook to someone’s jaw.

No one thinks twice about science communicators being involved in health communication about the dangers of smoking. Surely, this is little different and it behoves us science communicators to enter the argument for better gun control by communicating the relevant facts about the gun culture and the effect this technology has on our health.

Countries like New Zealand and Norway, which have relatively high rates of gun ownership but low rates of murder from guns, might make good starting points for comparisons. In New Zealand, the death rate from guns is approximately the same as that likely to result from falling off a ladder.

And, lest we forget: this is not an issue that applies just to the United States. There are many countries in Central and South America (El Salvador and Venezuela being the most horrific examples), Asia (Phillipines and Thailand), the Middle East (Iraq), and Africa (Cape Verde, South Africa and Lesotho) that have much worse records than the USA when it comes to homicides due to guns. This is a global problem.

One unnecessary death, by whatever means, is always lamentable. And violence should never be a cause for rejoicing. Yet, I look forward to the day when CNN might lead with someone being punched at school, or a police dog being stabbed, or someone falling off a ladder.

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