January 13, 2016

Howard Speaks Out on Gun Control, Backs Strong Measures to Counter Violence 

Aurora, Newtown, Fort Hood, Charleston, San Bernardino, and so many other place names resonate with the shock waves of gun violence in America.

“We are the only advanced country on earth that sees this kind of mass violence erupt with this kind of frequency,” President Barack Obama stated last week from his podium in the East Room of the White House. “It doesn’t happen in other countries. It’s not even close.”

As Mr. Obama pressed new executive actions to reduce gun violence, and presidential candidates debated gun control issues, Princeton Council member Heather Howard, director of the State Health Assistance Network and lecturer in public affairs at Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs, saw the epidemic of gun violence as a public health issue, with the “need for a multifaceted response.”

“I’m glad he took those steps,” Ms. Howard said, in reference to Mr. Obama’s call for tightening background checks, making communities safer through stronger enforcement, increasing mental health treatment and reporting to the background check system, and enhancing gun safety technology. “I wish he could take bigger steps, but the president’s relentless focus on this issue is encouraging. It’s exciting to see him say ‘Enough is enough. This is unacceptable.’ These are very important steps.” Ms. Howard said she is also “heartened by the fact that the Democratic candidates are speaking out on the need for more gun control. Gun control will definitely be an issue in the presidential election. We’ll be having that debate.”

Ms. Howard emphasized that although incidents of mass violence get extensive media coverage, they are only part of the picture. “According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC),” she said, “there were 11,200 firearm homicides in 2013, and almost 21,000 firearm suicides. We have a complicated relationship with guns; no other country has such high rates of gun ownership, and no other country has such high rates of gun violence. Quite simply, research has found that where there are more guns, there are more homicides, suicides and accidents involving guns.”

Focusing on gun violence as a public health issue, rather than an issue of individual rights, Ms. Howard suggested, could “change the conversation” and bring the nation to address the “collective harm and prevention.”

She declared that “public health successes in addressing other harms offer promise,” and compared guns to cars as health hazards. “Deploying various public health tools has helped dramatically reduce motor-vehicle-related fatalities,” she said.

“Making the product safer through car and road design, making the user safer through education and enforcement, developing safety standards, and adopting new laws (e.g. driving under the influence, graduated licenses requiring three stages of driving instruction) have resulted in a decline of more than 75 percent in motor vehicle crash deaths.”

The country could effectively combat gun violence through the use of similar methods, she said. “We could make the product safer (smart gun technology), make users safer (training and licensing), enact safety standards, and limit access for certain users.”

“Gun deaths are now poised to surpass automobile deaths,” she added, “a sign both of the progress we’ve made on motor vehicle safety but also the need for action on gun violence.”

Also responding positively to Mr. Obama’s initiatives was Princeton-based Ceasefire NJ , New Jersey’s oldest and largest gun violence prevention group.

“We applaud President Obama for taking concrete action to reduce the epidemic of gun violence in America,” said Reverend Robert Moore, executive director of the Coalition for Peace Action, of which Ceasefire NJ is a project.

Ms. Howard spoke optimistically of the potential for local action to help advance the national discussion on gun control. She cited how in New Jersey there are strong gun control laws, “but guns come in from other states with weaker laws.”

“Princeton has a role to play,” she said. Locally we have taken a stand in joining Mayors Against Illegal Guns, and there may be more we can do.”

In a course she teaches at Princeton on state and local health policy, Ms. Howard said, she makes the case for the power of innovation at the local level. “A lot of innovation bubbles up from the state and local level and influences the national debate.”