BALTIMORE – Gun violence is usually the province of policemen and politicians, but the problem was called a disease Wednesday at a gathering of public health officials.
Among the medicines prescribed at the “Gun Violence as a Public Health” conference were new laws requiring gun makers to child-proof their products and campaigns encouraging children to surrender their toy firearms.
Held at the Johns Hopkins University School of Public Health, the event was the latest in a series the university’s Center for Gun Policy and Research has sponsored to promote the idea of gun violence as a public health problem, said Stephen Teret, center director.
The Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene was also a sponsor.
The idea of gun violence as a disease – with triggermen as “hosts” and guns as “agencies” – goes back at least a decade to when former Surgeon General C. Everett Koop held the first summit on the subject, Martin Wasserman, secretary of the Maryland health department, told conferees.
Wasserman said taxpayers pick up 80 percent of the health costs of gun violence, estimated to be $4 billion across the country last year.
Teret, in his remarks, suggested new laws to make gun makers more responsible.
For instance, a bill mandating child-proof guns was introduced in the Maryland General Assembly this year, Teret said, but stands little chance of passage. Under a bill considered by Massachusetts, gun makers would be liable for injuries caused by their products unless they adopted child-proof designs.
“There’s a movement that’s beginning to change the product,” Teret said. “And by changing the product, we’re going to change the death rate.”
Teret said Smith & Wesson made a childproof gun more than a century ago. It was called a “lemon squeezer” because it required an adult’s grip to fire.
Teret also advocated holding gun makers accountable for irresponsible advertisements, such as one that touted a firearm with a fingerprint-resistant finish.
Peter Beilenson, commissioner of the Baltimore City Health Department, said city officials were considering a measure mandating so-called “personalized” guns that cannot be fired unless the shooter is wearing a special ring. City officials are exploring whether state law permits such local initiatives, he said.
Beilenson said city officials also plan to meet with Kweisi Mfume, former congressman from Baltimore and the new leader of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, to start mentoring programs for youths who might otherwise commit gun crimes.
While conferees spoke, about 40 children from Luther C. Mitchell Elementary School in East Baltimore surrendered their toy guns to adult supervisors in a room across the hall.
The idea of toy-gun turn-ins is the brainchild of Merele Forney of Columbia, who said he thought of it after his pastor preached four sermons about violence, urging the 45-member congregation to do something about it.
The first turn-in was held last year in Columbia, Forney said. Since then, he said, turn-ins have been held in Montgomery County and Washington, D.C. Others are planned in four states.
Forney said his church, Columbia United Methodist Christian Church, has mailed out 250 information packets about organizing turn-ins. “The idea is spreading,” he said. -30-