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Mark A. Strand, Published December 29 2012

Letter: Public health vital factor in gun debate

Until now, the discussion about guns in our country has largely focused on the individual right to own and use a gun. It is time we add public health to the discussion.

The best framework to assess the public health impact of guns is one that considers multiple influences on a person’s behavior. First is the individual level. Until now, it has been too easy to limit discussion to the one fact: “This person chose to commit this crime.” But individual choice is only one of five factors that influence decision-making.

Second is the interpersonal level. What responsibility did the Newtown, Conn., killer’s mother bear, having introduced her son to the use of weapons and kept her home stocked with them?

Third is the organizational level. How do legitimate organizations conduct themselves in a way that reduces gun violence and gun accidents in society? Is the “fight fire with fire” position of the NRA in the public’s best interests?

Fourth is the community level. While many North Dakotans own and use guns for hobby or sport, in many communities in our country, guns are the ultimate show of power in complex social wars. Most gun deaths are to innocent victims caught in the crossfire of such battles. How might communities and families work together to identify and disarm individuals determined too risky to possess a gun?

The final level is public policy, including regulating the purchase and use of guns. While the individual killer is responsible for what he or she has done, a society with laws making it legal to own an assault rifle that can bring such carnage also bears some responsibility for the consequences of that law.

To reduce the collateral damage in our country that is happening as a result of gun violence, individual rights will have to be balanced with concern for the public’s welfare. Reining in the damage that results from inappropriate gun use requires reflection and intervention at all five levels – individual, interpersonal, organizational, community and public policy. I respect people who responsibly use guns for sport, but I believe it is time we focus the discussion on public health and not only on individual rights.

Strand, Ph.D., is associate professor, Pharmacy Practice and Masters in Public Health program, North Dakota State University.