June 23, 2016

Ignorance Is Killing Us

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By 1900, there had already been some threedozen deaths by motor vehicles. This was at a time when the top speed of the Columbia, made by Hartford-based Pope Manufacturing, was 13 miles an hour.

Cars got faster, and ubiquitous. Just a half century later, the number of motor vehicle deaths had reached epidemic proportions, 53,000 and rising.

logo_ColumnAll along, safety features were being added, from turn signals in the ‘20s to padded dashboards in the ‘40s. But thank Connecticut native Ralph Nader for turning the country’s attention to serious reform with his book “Unsafe At Any Speed: The Designed-In Dangers of the American Automobile.” After Nader weighed in, the U.S. Congress passed the 1966 National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act, which was aimed at reducing the number of injuries and deaths from road accidents.

Add to those early adaptations shatter-proof glass and a collapsible steering column, and there followed a drastic decline in automobile deaths, to just less than 33,000 in 2014.

What happened?

Research happened, and then technology, followed by adaptation of that technology.

And that’s the equation that’s missing from another epidemic: gun violence. It’s not just Orlando (or Sandy Hook or Charleston, S.C.). It’s everyday deaths on the streets—too numerous to name—that should turn our attention to the scourge.

“The example I use when I talk about this is traffic safety,” said Garry Lapidus, University of Connecticut School of Medicine associate professor of pediatrics and public health and a national expert on injury prevention. “There’s been a dramatic decrease in injury and death because of research” on the highways.

Gun researchNot so with gun violence. In 1993, the New England Journal of Medicine published a report that said that guns kept in the home were more often not used for protection, but to commit homicide. The research for the article was funded by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The National Rifle Association, once a respected gun safety organization, lobbied to eliminate the CDC. The U.S. Congress—many of whose members are heavily funded by the NRA—then helpfully stepped in and included in an omnibus funding bill the proviso that “none of the funds made available for injury prevention and control at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention may be used to advocate or promote gun control.”

That was called the Dickey amendment, after its author, former U.S. Rep. Jay Dickey, a Republican from Arkansas, who has since changed his mind. His amendment effectively stopped research into gun violence. Harvard and Johns Hopkins universities have weighed in some, but we’ve mostly gone 20 years without meaty research into one of the most pressing issues of our time. Earlier this month, the American Medical Association said its members will actively lobby Congress to lift the ban, but you have to wonder if that’s going to do any good given the NRA’s funding of politicians, most particularly Republicans. This week, our elected representatives couldn’t bring themselves to approve four relatively benign pieces of gun legislation.

“You get people saying, ‘We don’t want to know what the truth is’,” said Sarah Raskin, Trinity College psychology and neuroscience professor, who has been an outspoken proponent of gun legislation. “The argument goes immediately to confiscation of firearms. We are going in the dark.”

In January 2013, responding to the school shootings in Newtown that left 20 children and six women dead, President Obama issued a memorandum that directed the CDC to get back to researching gun violence prevention, but not much changed. The fear of losing funding made researchers look to other areas—any area but gun violence research.

What are we afraid of? As Lapidus says, research helped us deal with the AIDS virus. It’s helping us with Zika. Between 2010 and 2014, 994 Connecticut residents died from gun-shot events, he said. Forty-three percent died from homicide. Fifty-five percent died from suicide. Isn’t the means by which those people died worth exploring?

“We made advances because we had research,” Lapidus said. “We need to know, most importantly, what works and what doesn’t.”

Susan Campbell is a distinguished lecturer at the University of New Haven. She can be reached at slcampbell417@gmail.com.


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