ROCKVILLE – A Nov. 17 hearing on the impact of gun violence on public health centered on ways to reduce the number of people dying from being shot, including making guns safer.
The hour-long discussion at the Montgomery County Council Building did not entirely avoid the issue of gun control, as promised by County Councilmember George Leventhal (D-At large), who sponsored the hearing.
Leventhal said members of the public could not comment during the hearing out for fear that the hearing “could get out of control.”
“Gun violence is something we’d like to see diminished,” Leventhal said.
He blamed a lack of information and statistics about gun violence on the shoulders of the Dickey Amendment. Former U.S. Rep. Jay Dickey, (R-Ark.) was the driving force in 1996 behind a measure prohibiting the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention from using any money to advocate for gun control.
The result, according to most of the hearing’s speakers, is statistics are not generated on gun violence the way they are for drug use, traffic safety and many other issues that result in deaths.
Dr. Georges Benjamin, former state secretary of the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, said the CDC needs to study gun violence with regard to violence in movies and television, suicide, racial disparity, mental illness and other occurrences.
“This is a true epidemic,” said Benjamin, executive director of American Public Health Association.
On average, 91 Americans are killed by guns every day in America, Benjamin said. If 91 people died daily from plane crashes, much would be done to improve the safety of planes, he said.
While people are concerned about mass shootings, most deaths by guns are suicides and accidents, Benjamin said.
In 2014, there were 117 suicides in Montgomery County, 25 deaths from heroin overdoses, 36 traffic-related deaths and 19 homicides, according to Leventhal.
According to CourtWatch Montgomery, a non-profit working to reduce domestic violence, guns were the cause of 74 percent of the domestic homicides in Maryland from July 2013 to June 2014.
Several decades ago, the country acted to curtail motor vehicle deaths. Seat belts, air bags and redesigned cars helped reduce the number of deaths, Benjamin said.
He advocated doing the same to guns, stressing that did not include taking away guns.
“We did not ban cars, and yet many (fewer) people have died,” he said. “I would argue we could do the same thing” for guns.
He pointed to fingerprint activation, integrated trigger locks, reduced clip size, background checks and mandatory safety firearm courses.
Cooperation between emergency room doctors also could help as gunshot victims often tell their doctors they intend to “get the guy who shot” them, he said.
“We need to be able to have intelligent discussion on this,” he said.
Representative John Sarbanes (D-3) said if the CDC had been allowed to study gun violence all these years, the statistics would be able to predict where shootings may occur in the near future.
President Barack Obama has tried to “open up the CDC.” However, he said, “the funding hasn’t been there from Congress.”
Gun violence is an epidemic affecting individuals, families and the communities, he said.
Representative-elect Jamie Raskin (D-8) noted individual states have a right to regulate certain guns while still staying true to the Second Amendment.
What is needed, he said, “is the public will” to stand up to the National Rifle Association.
Referring to the limitation on the CDC to conduct research in this area, Raskin asked, “Why would anybody be afraid” to study gun violence?
Following the meeting, Jeff Brown of Gaithersburg, a self-described Second Amendment advocate, said he thought Benjamin’s comments were fair but he would have preferred to have a gun rights’ advocate on the panel.
Raskin “can say whatever he wants,” but he “is never on the Second Amendment side,” Brown said.