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Gun Violence Seen as Public Health Problem Whose Solutions Lie in Science

CHICAGO -- Personalized "smart" guns that can only be fired by their rightful owners are already available in Europe and may reduce adolescent suicides, accidental shootings of children and the use of stolen firearms in crimes.

The guns, which require a radio-frequency identification tag -- similar to a building entrance key fob -- or fingerprints and palm prints in order to fire, have been approved for sale by the United States Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. The state of New Jersey already has a law requiring the use of such "child-proof" weapons when they become available.

This technology will only address a tiny fraction of gun violence in the United States, however, one expert said on 15 February at the 2014 AAAS Annual Meeting.

New research is revealing the wide-reaching impact of gun laws. A study presented at the meeting shows that the state of Missouri's 2007 repeal of its permit-to-purchase handgun law led to a 16 percent increase in murder rates and a 23 percent increase in firearm homicide rates between 2008 and 2012. In contrast, the national murder rate dropped by five percent during the same period.

"An additional 60 murders a year were attributable to this policy change," said Daniel Webster, director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research and lead author of the study, which will be published in the Journal of Urban Health. The study also found a doubling of guns diverted to criminals shortly after their sale, and a sharp increase of guns flowing from Missouri to nearby states with tougher gun laws.

There are currently 230 million privately owned firearms in the Unites States, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has reported 11,078 firearm-related homicides in 2010 (the latest statistics available).

Describing gun violence as an epidemic that has received "not even closely comparable" amounts of research as other public health threats, Webster said future discussions and policy changes must be guided by scientific evidence, not politics.

"We have traditionally thought this is a problem with bad people and the solution is just to arrest them all," said Webster, who added that the United States has the highest incarceration rate in the world and yet its gun homicide rates are 20 times higher than other developed countries.

Drawing a comparison to the HIV/AIDS public health challenge, Webster said that great progress was achieved only after science took precedence over demonizing those affected.

"Initially the thought was HIV is affecting bad and immoral people, rather than there's a virus and here's how it's transmitted," said Webster. "We haven't cured this sucker but boy we have made a huge dent in terms of morbidity and mortality. And in my opinion it's because we said: let's look at this as scientists."

"We've always made gun violence a cultural debate and it prevents us from getting to measures that will hold people accountable," said Webster. "When I look into the future, things will change when we stop framing this as a debate between people from blue states and red states.

"We're only going to make ourselves safer when we apply science in the most effective ways to reduce gun violence."