Can Science Cure Shootings? Fighting Gun Violence With Medicine

By Amir Khan on August 13, 2012 1:01 AM EDT

Shooting
In the wake of the recent mass shootings in Colorado and Wisconsin, scientists are looking at whether gun violence can be treated like a disease -- and experts are optimistic that it can. (Photo: Creative Commons)

In the wake of the recent mass shootings in Colorado and Wisconsin, scientists are looking at whether gun violence can be treated like a disease -- and experts are optimistic that it can. While it may not be as simple as taking a pill, by looking at gun violence as a "social disease," a treatment can be developed that would curb the number of shootings, experts said.

Public health officials are advocating that shootings be looked at as a public health problem in the same vein as highway safety. For example, researchers pointed to guardrails on highways, which instead of having sharp metal ends, now curve into the pavement -- a change which cut the number of deaths from car crashes drastically.

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"People used to spear themselves and we blamed the drivers for that," Dr. Garen Wintemute, an emergency medicine professor who directs the Violence Prevention Research Program at the University of California, Davis, told USA Today.

Dr. Stephen Hargarten, who treated victims of the recent Sikh temple shooting that left six dead and 13 wounded, said the recent rash of shootings is endemic of a potentially larger problem.

"What I'm struggling with is, is this the new social norm? This is what we're going to have to live with if we have more personal access to firearms," he told USA Today. "We have a public health issue to discuss. Do we wait for the next outbreak or is there something we can do to prevent it?"

There are several tactics that could be reduce shootings, experts said. One is identifying who is more likely to become a shooter. One study found that people who own a gun are more likely to binge drink or drink and drive, according to the Associated Press.

Another tactic is looking at gun ownership like a disease. Daniel Webster, a health policy expert and co-director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research in Baltimore, told USA Today that gun ownership can spread ""much like an infectious disease circulates."

"There's sort of a contagion phenomenon," he said. After a mass shooting, people feel they need to own a gun for protection, which leads to more gun violence. Tracking the trend could help buck it, researchers said.

In addition, experts said more laws and oversight could be beneficial.

"Unlike almost all other consumer products, there is no national product safety oversight of firearms," Hargarten said.

However, Paul Barrett, author of a book on the famous Glock handgun, told NPR that more laws would not work, since current laws are ineffective as it is.

"Criminologists have studied it, and the consensus is that those laws simply did not have a statistically meaningful effect on crime rates," he said.

In addition, he said focusing on mass shootings is ignoring the larger problem.

"We fixate, understandably, on the aberrational mass-shooting events, but they're actually not our main social problem," he said. "Our main social problem is the overall gun homicide rate."

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