WASHINGTON – Firearms surpassed motor vehicles as the leading cause of injury-related death in Maryland in 1990, and the gap widened through 1996, according to a soon-to-be-released state report.
Experts blame it on Maryland’s relatively high homicide rate, coupled with a decline in motor vehicle deaths both nationally and in the state.
“There continues to be good and successful efforts to decrease the motor vehicle-related injury rate … but we don’t have the same degree of success with firearm-injury prevention,” said Erich Daub, director of Maryland’s Office of Injury and Disability Prevention.
Gun fatalities outnumbered motor vehicle deaths in only five other states in 1996 — Virginia, Alaska, California, Louisiana and Nevada.
But the Centers for Disease Control has predicted that the national trend will follow those six states by 2003, despite a gun-death rate that has fallen by 14 percent since 1993.
“There is essentially 30 years of work from a public health perspective on motor vehicle injuries,” said Emile LeBrun, spokesman for the Handgun Epidemic Lowering Plan Network in Chicago. “(But) guns have no regulation, no public health infrastructure to track what’s going on.”
Researchers are not sure why the national firearms-related death rate has dropped because a number of factors — such as a booming economy and the federal assault-weapon ban — have come into play since the drug wars of the late 1980s.
Similarly, they said, they do not know why the gun-death rate inches up in Maryland, which has some of the strictest gun-control laws in the nation, while the national rate declines.
But a large number of gun homicides, coupled with the “geographic, demographic and economic mix” has kept Maryland’s gun death rate high, Daub said.
“We have two very large urban areas — Washington, D.C., and Baltimore — with a lot of criminal homicides,” said Brian Wiersema, research coordinator for the University of Maryland’s Violence Research Group.
Daub said Maryland’s proximity to these “major urban metropolitan areas” increased drug activity, which, in turn, made homicides more likely.
Maryland’s homicide rate consistently surpassed the national average since 1989, while the state’s suicide rate was lower than average. Nationally, suicides comprised 53 percent of gun-related deaths in 1996. In Maryland, suicides accounted for about 35 percent of firearms deaths.
Daub, Wiersema and others blamed the high homicide numbers on Baltimore and Prince George’s County, where 68 percent of the state’s gun-related homicides occurred in 1996.
A Prince George’s County Police Department spokesman said proximity to Washington brings more drug activity and homicides to his county. But Royce Holloway said the county cannot take all the blame for the imbalance between motor vehicle and firearms deaths in the state, noting that deaths from those two sources in Prince George’s have been similar for the last several years.
“I don’t think you can just make a blanket statement that Prince George’s County is the reason,” said Holloway. “In this county, that doesn’t hold true.”
Ginni Wolf of Marylanders Against Handgun Abuse maintains that firearms- related deaths could be reduced with better product regulations and technology that allows a gun to be fired only by its owner.
“Legislatively, there needs to be more responsibility put on manufacturers to make guns safer,” Wolf said.
But Ed Kiser of the Maryland State Rifle and Pistol Association said Maryland needs to crack down on crime instead of going after gun owners or the gun industry.
“It’s not the law-abiding citizen that’s the problem. It’s the inability to treat the criminal as a criminal,” Kiser said. “If they would address the criminal action in Maryland, they would do a great deal to cut the problem out.”
Gun control advocates said not everyone using a gun is a criminal, however.
“Incident upon incident shows people who get into arguments and shoot each other,” said Nancy Hwa, spokeswoman for Handgun Control Inc. “Up to that moment, they were law-abiding citizens.”