Map of life expectancy at birth from Global Education Project.

Monday, May 27, 2013

The triumph of public health

As a commenter notes, one hypothesis for the decline in violent crime in the past two decades is the removal of lead from gasoline. This was done because of evidence linking lead exposure in infancy and early childhood to reduced IQ and poor school performance. That lead exposure could lower impulse control and social integration was not so widely recognized, but the idea that this was an additional unanticipated benefit is plausible. In fact, Herbert Needleman, the researcher credited with discovering the connection between lead and reduced IQ in the 1970s, in 2002 found an association between adjudicated delinquency and lead exposure

Another important fact about Needleman is that he was subjected to an intense assault on his competence, motives and integrity by the lead industry, which recruited mercenary scientists to criticize his work and launched a massive public relations and lobbying campaign to block restrictions on the use of lead. Heard anything like that before? Oh yeah, tobacco, automobile safety, climate change, pesticides . . . This is what capitalists do when science says their products harm people. They spend whatever money it takes to lie to us so they can keep on profiting from murder for as long as possible.

But, in many of these cases, they have ultimately lost. Not only have we greatly reduced childhood lead poisoning, thanks to Ralph Nader and other activists, motor vehicle travel is much safer; everyone now accepts the harmful effects of tobacco and rates of smoking are down considerably; consumer products in general are safer than before -- children's clothing is less flammable, baby cribs and toys are safer, pharmaceutical regulation is far from perfect but it's much better than we had before Thalidomide. I could go on and on -- the bottom line is we're safer and we're living longer and staying healthier because of effective public health approaches to many dangers.

But few people, and almost no politicians, are talking about a similar approach to firearms. The approaches that are talked about -- banning certain styles of rifles and universal background checks on gun purchasers -- are as feckless as they are unlikely to happen. Most gun accidents, suicides and assaults are not done with so-called assault weapons, but with handguns. In any case, banning "assault weapons" is impossible. The AR-15 is not a particular weapon, it's a kind of kit. Various components essentially snap on to a central unit, called the lower receiver. Once you have one of those you can buy whatever pieces you want, which are not in themselves firearms and can be freely manufactured, bought and sold, and make your own dream rifle. What's more, you can buy a nearly finished lowfer receiver that just needs a few holes drilled in it, and the unfinished piece is also not considered a firearm and not regulated.

The country is saturated with firearms and it's pointless to even think about somehow reversing that situation. There is no particular reason not to have universal background checks but it won't do much good either. It won't stop the daily displays of idiocy by gun owners, the suicides, or even much crime -- many guns used by criminals are stolen. But, a public health approach to gun safety could work.

First of all, we can do what we do with motor vehicles: register guns and license their operators. Every motor vehicle has a unique identification code, in several places, which is difficult to remove. It corresponds to a record of the registered owner of the vehicle. If a car is stolen, it's very difficult to sell, and if the police find it, they can trace it. One would think gun owners would be in favor of that, which would protect their property. In order to operate a motor vehicle, you need to go through training and pass a competency test. Your license is revocable for cause.

Nobody thinks this is oppressive, or that the government ultimately wants to confiscate all of our cars. On the contrary, it enhances our liberty. I would not feel free to drive on the public roads if I didn't know that it was reasonably safe to do so because unsafe vehicles and irresponsible or incompetent drivers are, to the extent possible, barred. My liberty to go to the grocery store or the movie theater, or just to sit unmolested in my own home, similarly depends on knowing that idiotic, irresponsible or antisocial people aren't going to shoot me.

Licensing means knowing that just because the magazine is detached doesn't mean there isn't a round in the chamber. It means having a gun safe and storing weapons where four-year-olds won't start playing with them. No, the cops won't go into your house to check but if something bad does happen because you were irresponsible, you will lose your license. What's wrong with that? Registration means weapons have to be equipped with safeties. It's even possible to make a weapon that won't fire unless the bearer is carrying a RFID device, in other words only you can fire your own gun unless you give permission. There are lots of possible approaches to gun safety, that won't limit anybody's liberty or ability to use guns as they wish in legal and safe ways, but we aren't allowed to talk about them.

*I was at one time very involved in lead poisoning control, which by that time was largely limited to the problem of paint in older housing. We haven't eliminated childhood lead poisoning yet, but we have greatly reduced it.

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