By David Michaels
In the U.S., we see an average of one gun-related homicide every 45 minutes, or 32 each day.* These are usually treated as isolated incidents, until a horrific event like the Virginia Tech massacre reawakens the public and strengthens public health advocates who are attempting to prevent gun violence.
That’s what has just happened in Georgia. There, legislation that would allow employees to keep guns in workplace parking lots went down to an unpredicted defeat. Of course, the National Rifle Association “never stopped arm-twisting Georgia lawmakers,” an Atlanta Journal-Constitution editorial reports. Lyle V. Harris, for the editorial board, writes:
With opposition mounting and the session drawing to a close, NRA backers in the state Senate combined portions of [the workplace bill and a bill that would permit motorists to hide guns] and prepared to ram the legislation into law. But after the shooting rampage at Virginia Tech, some supporters of the bill backed off.
“A lot of us don’t believe that a day after the gun shooting at Virginia Tech, the massacre of 30-some students, that it would be appropriate to be taking up really any gun bill right now,” said Sen. Don Balfour, chairman of the Rules Committee.
After that rare moment of legislative pragmatism and moral clarity, the NRA went ballistic. Facing defeat, a top NRA lobbyist from Washington made his rounds at the state capitol where he reportedly issued veiled threats to Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle and other lawmakers, promising political retribution if they dared to disobey the organization’s instructions.
While some Senate Republicans were ready to buckle to blackmail, others refused, maintaining at least a modicum of respect for themselves and the institution in which they serve.
Thankfully, the NRA’s legislation failed. The Florida legislature also voted down a similar bill this week. Given this week’s events, the results weren’t surprising. When the toll of preventable and pointless deaths or injuries from any single event or related events becomes so great, or particular aspects of the story bring it to the public’s attention, our nation invariably demands more and stronger regulation, not less.
We saw this recently with the disaster at West Virginia’s Sago Mine, when a mine explosion and failed rescue attempts resulted in the deaths of 14 miners. Within months,Congress passed the Mine Improvement and New Emergency Response (MINER) Act.
Many important laws that strengthened our regulatory system were enacted after disasters. The Federal Coal Mine Safety and Health Act of 1969 was passed soon after the Farmington Mine Disaster (78 deaths), and the Scotia Mine Disaster in 1976 (26 deaths) was soon followed by the passage of Federal Mine Safety and Health Act Of 1977.
This is not true only of recent times. On the heels of the Elixir Sulfanilamide scandal, in which a medicine manufactured with antifreeze killed scores of children, Congress passed the Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act of 1938, requiring for the first time that pharmaceutical manufacturers prove the safety of their products before marketing them.
It’s hard to count all of the lives that this Act has saved, but one example stands out: The United States avoided the plague of thalidomide-related birth defects that ravaged Europe in the early 1960s as a result of controls granted the FDA under that legislation. A regulatory hero, FDA medical officer Dr. Frances Kelsey, had blocked U.S. licensing of thalidomide on the basis of inadequate safety data.
Still, the European debacle was sufficiently alarming that Congress amended the Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act (with the 1962 Kefauver Harris Amendment) requiring for the first time that drug manufacturers prove their products were both effective and safe before the FDA would license them.
It is not surprising that, in the wake of the Virginia Tech tragedy, the NRA’s initiatives failed. But weeks and months from now, as the pain and anguish we all felt watching reports of the Blacksburg killings fade, the NRA will no doubt be back, pushing legislation that stands in the way of preventing gun violence.
* Calculation derived from 2004 homicide deaths involving firearms (data source: CDC’s WISQARS Injury Mortality Reports).
David Michaels heads the Project on Scientific Knowledge and Public Policy (SKAPP) and is Professor and Associate Chairman in the Department of Environmental and Occupational Health, the George Washington University School of Public Health and Health Services.