Guns, Public Health, and the Consumer Products Safety Commission

Written by Cheryl Bettigole, MD, MPH, NPA President
The Consumer Products Safety Commission regulates flammability standards for mattresses, estimating that by doing so it saves 270 lives each year.  The CPSC also regulates hair dryers after observing 43 reported injuries over a 20 year period, requiring safety devices on hand held hair dryers to prevent accidental electrocution if a hairdryer is dropped into water.  Children’s toys, household products, all sorts of items we use daily are regulated to ensure that they will not cause us harm.  Yet one very common product, responsible for 30,000 deaths every year, goes unregulated:  guns.  Why?  Because Congress has forbidden the CPSC from regulating firearms in any way.  So we can feel safe that our children’s pacifiers are safe, that our refrigerators, mouthwash, and other products won’t hurt us or our families.  But one of the most dangerous and ubiquitous products in American homes, the firearm, goes untested and unregulated thanks to Congress’s prohibition.  Not only are guns unregulated, but thanks to a law signed by George Bush in 2005, the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act, gunmakers are protected from liability for their products – they can’t be sued for negligence when their products are used to commit acts of violence.
About two thirds of gun deaths are suicides and most of the rest are homicides with a small (but important) percentage of accidental gun deaths each year.  Many solutions have been proposed, but the one thing that is clear is that the US has a far greater problem with gun violence than any other nation.  In fact, more people die from gun violence in the US than in all of the other developed nations put together.  Our 10,000 gun homicides each year is startling when compared with Britain (41), Japan (11) or Canada (173) or really any other industrialized country (if you’re curious to see the numbers, take a look at the table in this Politifact post).  Regulations on guns including requiring trigger locks and chamber indicators as well as the use of personalized gun technology could help to reduce both accidental deaths and suicides by teenagers using a parent’s gun, a scenario which is all-too common.  Universal background checks would put another dent in these appalling statistics.  Neither would fully solve the problem, but they would likely reduce deaths by several thousand each year.  As a nation, we have considered the prevention of avoidable deaths a priority for every other product on our markets.  We need to step aside from the political fray and tackle the interventions already available to us that will start to decrease these needless deaths.
We also need to agree to work together to find more and better solutions to the rest of the problem.  This means building our injury prevention research programs to generate ideas that work to prevent gun violence rather than allowing politicians beholden to NRA leaders to block and defund that research.  It means repealing the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act so that gun manufacturers can be held accountable for the deaths caused by use of their products.  Then, and perhaps only then, will we see guns on the market with well-designed and effective safety devices and pressure from gun manufacturers to limit sales to convicted felons and violent offenders.  It also means looking at who is allowed to buy a gun and considering whether those convicted of violent misdemeanors (often after being arrested for a felony and making  a plea bargain) and those with documented alcoholism should be added to this list given their much high rates of violent gun related offenses.  Our priorities need to shift from protecting gun manufacturers and NRA organizational priorities to protecting Americans.  We do not tolerate preventable deaths from any other consumer product, yet we continue to be able to dry our hair, feed our children, drive our cars, and mow our lawns.  It is time to stop tolerating the deaths of our children in deference to the gun industry.  It is time to act.
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