Center for Gun Policy and Research Hopes to Alter Public Perceptions By Mike Field A new center devoted to the study of gun violence was established Jan. 1 at the School of Public Health. The first academic center in the nation devoted exclusively to gun policy, the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research was created through a two-year, $500,000 grant by the Chicago-based Joyce Foundation. "We have been at work on gun policy and research for a number of years," said Stephen Teret, professor of health policy and management and director of the new center. "But in the last two years there has been an increase in interest in funding a center like this because of a growing perception that the gun problem is a public health problem." The new center is dedicated to reducing the toll guns take on the lives of Americans. A key part of its mission will be to make unbiased firearm information available to policy-makers, the media, scholars, gun safety advocates and the public. "There are a lot of misconceptions regarding guns," Teret said. "Unfortunately, some of them have been deliberately created by advocacy groups associated with this issue." One common misconception, said Jon Vernick, research associate in health policy and management and associate director of the new center, is that keeping a loaded handgun in the home is, on balance, safe for the occupants. "There is an idea that keeping a handgun at home is more protective than perilous," Vernick said, "when in fact, just the opposite is true." According to studies published in The New England Journal of Medicine, a handgun in the home makes it three times more likely that someone in the home will be a victim of homicide and five times more likely they will be a victim of suicide. Current estimates indicate half of all households in America have at least one gun, with about 25 to 30 percent of all homes having a handgun. There are more gun suicides each year than gun homicides. Since the early 1980s, Teret and his associates have looked at guns from a public health perspective, a unique vantage point outside the highly charged political debates that accompany most gun control discussions. It is a perspective that brings some surprising insights into the more than 38,000 gun deaths that occur each year. "Guns are generally not considered a consumer product even though they are advertised and marketed, and you can go into a store and buy one like any other consumer product," Teret said. "The most important aspect of this is that they are not regulated as a consumer product. The Consumer Product Safety Commission is expressly forbidden by Congress to regulate either guns or ammunition." Looking at guns as consumer products may be one way to begin to reduce the nation's high annual toll of deaths and injuries, suggests Teret: "Why should a 2-year-old be able to operate your handgun when that same 2-year-old cannot open a bottle of aspirin? Aspirin manufacturers are required to produce childproof containers for their product, yet no one is telling the gun manufacturers to childproof their product." Many researchers and inventors have suggested ways in which guns--particularly handguns--could be childproofed. From the 1880s through the 1930s, Smith and Wesson marketed a handgun claimed to be childproof. The gun required the user to depress a metal lever on the handle of the gun while pulling the trigger, a feat requiring more strength and bigger hands than most children possess. In 1994 the Baltimore Sun ran a story featuring a student-led Hopkins engineering project that designed a handgun that would only fire when held by someone wearing a special ring on one finger. In addition to disseminating the latest findings in gun-related injury and death, the center will provide resources for legislative support and testimony, conduct applied research and help educate the next generation of scholars in the field. "We will not be directly engaged in litigation, but we will be able to support legal efforts with our resources," Vernick said. The Joyce Foundation, with assets exceeding $470 million, supports efforts in conservation, education, economic development and gun violence, among other projects. For a number of years it has helped support gun violence research conducted at Johns Hopkins. "I think Johns Hopkins School of Public Health is one of the first to realize the key to this problem lies in focusing on prevention rather than punishment," said Joyce Foundation president Deborah Leff. "Stephen Teret has done some of the most important work being conducted today on the impact of gun policy. Strong data and totally reliable information are essential if the public and policy-makers are to make informed decisions. We are very pleased to be associated with Hopkins in this effort."
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