Last week in Macon, Georgia, a man was attempting to holster his pistol and accidentally shot himself in the penis. The story quickly became a national one with many blogs and comments focusing on the apparent humor of shooting oneself between the legs. Much hilarity ensued on the Web, particularly after it was discovered that the gentleman had driven himself to a friend’s house before he even noticed the injury.
But clearly, from a public health perspective, this is not funny at all. What’s more, Georgia instituted a “gun’s everywhere” law today, which expands the places Georgians can carry permitted guns. Now they can appear in bars, schools and even some government buildings.
As an academic trauma surgeon in Chicago, I know the true toll of unintentional firearm injuries in America and see them up close nearly every day. Approximately 15,000 people suffer nonfatal, unintentional firearm injuries each year while 600 people die of them. It is an immense tragedy that more than 100 children die annually of accidental gunshot wounds. These deaths are almost assuredly preventable.
Access to firearms increases the prevalence of gun-related injuries. Perhaps unsurprisingly, a largestudy from the United Nations surveying 20 countries found that countries with more restrictive gun ownership laws had lower rates of firearm-related deaths. Though this hasn’t been proven to be causal, it is pretty persuasive.
Perhaps one way to circumvent the contentious and politicized gun ownership dialogue in the United States is to refocus the debate toward public health. Regulating firearms to prevent injury is not an infringement on personal liberties, but an effort to keep us and those we love safe. Education alone has not been demonstrated to effectively help small children discern real guns from toy guns or prevent them from engaging in hazardous play. Incorporating active learning techniques such as modeling and rehearsals may help improve gun safety educational strategies, but more can be done.
Decreasing the burden of death and disability caused by firearms is not only important for families, but it is cost-saving. The average cost of childhood firearm related injuries is nearly $18,000 per incident; this is an extraordinary economic burden for families, hospitals, and communities. Prevention is much less expensive and just makes sense.
Once we understand firearm injuries are a public health problem, we can focus on strategies to help decrease accidental gun deaths. Safe storage practices can reduce the risk of unintentional injuries, particularly among children. These include keeping guns stored locked and unloaded as well and using gun safes and trigger locks. New “smart guns” incorporate safety technology. Owners wear magnetic rings that activate a magnet, which unlocks the trigger. Some guns have trigger fingerprint or grip handprint recognition or even radiofrequency identification technology to only allow the gun owner access to his gun.
Unfortunately, there is opposition to safety practices on both sides of the gun debate; gun rights activists fear the technology would ultimately become mandatory for all weapons and restrict ownership. Gun opponents fear increased gun safety measures would make weapons more appealing to prospective gun owners. Nonetheless, this is a promising area of research and these strategies should become more common.
Sensible restrictions are unlikely to arrive any time soon, especially in Georgia where a new “guns everywhere” law just took effect. However, refocusing the debate as firearm injury prevention from a public health perspective, and not as an infringement on personal liberties, may help build bridges. The fact is, over 300,000 Americans by firearms in the last decade, almost as many as died in World War II. That other countries have not experienced the decimating toll America has indicates that firearm deaths are preventable. This is a winnable battle.
So, while a man shooting himself in the penis may be humorous on the face of it, the larger issue of unintentional firearm injuries and the attendant burden of death and disability is not really funny at all. But if this misfire can spur a conversation encouraging safer practices for and regulation of firearms, then a little gallows humor might not only understandable, but welcome.
Marie Crandall is an Associate Professor of Surgery at the Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine.
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