January 18. 2013 12:22AM

Another View -- Jeanie Holt: A public health response to Newtown and gun violence


Like the rest of the nation, we at the New Hampshire Public Health Association are horrified by the deaths of school children and their caregivers in Newtown. We are reminded that gun violence occurs too frequently in our country, where more than 112 children under age 10 and 11,073 people of all ages die each year due to firearm homicides; more than twice that number die by suicide. Addressing gun violence and finding ways to assure public safety won't be simple. They will require a comprehensive public health approach and firm resolve over many years.

Change is possible, as past successes in addressing public health and safety have shown. Drunk driving is an example. Thirty years ago, drinking and driving were an accepted part of American culture and drunk drivers were responsible for about 60 percent of all traffic fatalities. By 2010, drunk drivers represented less than a third of traffic fatalities. How were we successful? We enacted laws to raise the drinking age and lower the legal blood alcohol content. We strengthened enforcement and penalties. We put strict advertising guidelines in place. We turned to "designated drivers" and adopted the attitude that "Friends don't let friends drive drunk." Over time, all of these policy and cultural changes helped lower alcohol-related fatalities.

It is time to apply the same comprehensive approach to reduce if not end the gun-related violence that we all agree is killing our families and friends and making us feel unsafe. We already know some of the contributing factors:

-- A cultural acceptance of violence in our society, with active promotion of it in entertainment and the news media;

-- Firearm policies that undermine public safety, including inconsistent and weak requirements for permitting and safety training, broad access to firearms including guns and magazines designed for military use, and laws allowing guns in public spaces such as bars, legislatures, parks and school campuses;

-- A popular interpretation of the Second Amendment as absolutely prohibiting any regulation of firearms;

-- The social stigma attached to mental illness and substance abuse coupled with a lack of effective prevention, treatment and support services;

-- A decline in funding for research to better understand the relationships between guns, mental health and violence, and establish evidence for addressing gun violence as a public health problem.

It's true that "guns don't kill people, people kill people," but people with guns can kill people - including themselves - more effectively. We know that states with low gun ownership rates and strong gun laws (New York, New Jersey, Massachusetts) have the lowest rates of firearm-related deaths, and that states with higher rates of gun ownership and weak gun laws (Louisiana, Wyoming, Mississippi) rank first in the nation for gun deaths.

We urge policymakers, gun owners, gun safety advocates and all citizens to join together to seek effective solutions to end gun violence. We need to recognize that guns are weapons, and unrestricted access to them undermines public safety. We also need to recognize that a tiny minority of people are responsible for the vast majority of gun violence, and so we must seek realistic ways to reduce access to firearms for those at risk of harming themselves or others. We must provide appropriate mental health and substance abuse prevention and treatment services. Finally, we need to recognize that the current violence and suffering are largely preventable. With sustained effort, we can shape our policies to better balance individual rights with our collective interest in public safety.

While making these and other changes will not be easy or quick, we have addressed difficult public health problems in the past and can do so again. We must make our communities safer and healthier for all of us.

Jeanie Holt is president of the New Hampshire Public Health Association in Manchester.