Sunday, January 19, 2014

More guns and less education is a prescription for poor health

Within the span of one week, my state of Kansas was headlined in two pieces in the New York Times, unusual for a small state. Unfortunately, neither was meant to be complimentary. “What’s the matter with Kansas Schools?” by David Sciarra and Wade Henderson appeared as an op-ed on January 8, 2014, and “Keeping Public Buildings Free of Guns Proves Too Costly for Kansas Towns”, by Steve Yaccino, was a news article (middle of the main section but top of the web page!) on January 12. Both are political and social issues; for example, the thrust of the “guns” article is that Kansas municipalities (like Wichita) that want to keep guns out of public buildings (like the library) are financially stymied by the cost of the security requirements the legislature has put in place in areas where carrying guns is not permitted. Like abortion (and neither of these pieces addresses Kansas’ virulent anti-abortion laws), guns are a very hot-button issue that inflames deep-seated passion in places like Kansas, and so is (sometimes) education. I will, however, focus my comments on the health impacts of these laws.

First, guns. Guns are, very simply, bad for people’s health. (Obviously, even when used as “intended”, for hunting, they are bad for some animals’ health, but this is not my focus.) Having guns around increases the risk of death or injury from them. Having guns intended for hunting stored locked and unloaded is the safest, but this doesn’t work for guns intended for self-defense since that renders them less available for that purpose. Carrying guns on your person, in your car, in public, on the street, and into businesses, public buildings, schools, and health care settings increases the risk. This is not what gun advocates, and concealed-carry advocates believe. Their idea is that there are bad guys out there carrying guns, either criminals who might want to rob you or crazy people who might want to shoot up your school or post office, and that carrying a gun allows one to protect oneself, and possibly others, by shooting down the perpetrator before more damage can be done. Thus, it protects your health, and that of others.

Nice idea, but completely unsupported by the facts.  Guns kill lots of people, injure many more, and virtually never save lives. This is the case even when used by police, and even more true when use of guns by police officers is excluded. It is true despite the widely-publicized, often repeated on the internet, and frequently invented stories about a virtuous homeowner shooting an armed robber. I have no doubt that such cases occur, but with such rarity as to be smaller than rounding error on the number of deaths and serious injuries inflicted by guns.  Suicides and homicides are among the leading causes of death in the US, most are caused by guns, and almost none of the homicides are “justifiable manslaughter” from a person protecting him/herself from an armed invader. The mere presence of easy-to-access guns in the environment increases dramatically the risk of successful suicide (see my blog, Suicide: What can we say?, December 12, 2013, with data from David Hemenway’s “Private Guns, Public Health”[1]). In addition, the number of “accidental” deaths (where someone other than the intended victim was shot, or someone was shot when the intent was “just” to threaten or show off, or by complete accident, sometimes when an unintended user – say a child – gets hold of a loaded gun) from guns is way ahead of any other method of harm (knives, bats, etc.)

When we go beyond having guns to carrying guns in public places, the data is less well collected. However, the trope of the heroic law-abiding, gun-carrying citizen drawing down on the evildoer in a public place, like say a movie theater or the waiting room of your clinic, is a terrifying thought. First of all, almost none of them are Bat Masterson or Wyatt Earp or Annie Oakley (except maybe in their own minds) and the idea that they will hit who they are aiming at is wishful thinking; the rest of the folks are caught in a gunfight. It is scary enough when this involves police officers, but if half the waiting room pulls out pieces, the results will be, um, chaotic. Harmful. Not to mention what happens when the police show and don’t know who to shoot at (maybe if you are a gun-toting good guy you can wear a white hat…).

So, having guns around, and the more easily they are available, is absolutely harmful to the health of the population, and generally you as an individual. If people, including legislators, and Kansas legislators in particular, want to encourage gun carrying for other reasons, they should at least be aware of and acknowledge the health risks. But what about education? The cuts in state education will, quite likely, harm the education of children (or if, as the article notes, the state Supreme Court forces the legislature to fund K-12, the education of young adults since the money will likely come from higher education), but what about health?

There is a remarkable relationship. More education leads to better health. Better educated people are healthier. The relationship is undoubtedly complex, because better educated people also have better jobs and higher incomes, which is also associated with health. This is addressed with great force in a recent policy brief “Education: It Matters More to Health than Ever Before”, by the Virginia Commonwealth University Center for Society and Health sponsored by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation; for example, while lifespan overall in the US continues to increase, for white women with less than 12 years of education, it is currently decreasing! The RWJ site also includes an important interview with Steven Woolf, MD MPH, Director of the Center. “I don’t think most Americans know that children with less education are destined to live sicker and die sooner,” Dr. Woolf says. He discusses both the “downstream” benefits of education: “getting good jobs, jobs that have better benefits including health insurance coverage, and higher earnings that allow people to afford a healthier lifestyle and to live in healthier neighborhood,” and the “upstream” issues, “factors before children ever reach school age, which may be important root causes for the relationship between education and health. Imagine a child growing up in a stressful environment,” that increase the risk of unhealthy habits, poor coping skills and violent injuries.

In several previous blogs I have cited earlier work by Dr. Woolf, one of the nation’s most important researchers on society and health, notably in "Health in All" policies to eliminate health disparities are a real answer, August 18, 2011. I included this graph, in which the small blue bars indicate the deaths averted by medical advances (liberally interpreted) and the purple bars represent the potential deaths that could be averted if all Americans had the death rates of the most educated. I also included a link to the incredible County Health Calculator ( which allows you to look at any state or county, find out how the education or income level compares to others, and use an interactive slider to find out how mortality and other health indicators would change if the income or education level were higher or lower.

In the US, the quality of one’s education is very much tied to the neighborhood you live in, since much of school funding is from local tax districts and wealthier communities have, simply, better schools. (This last is completely obvious to Americans, but not necessarily to foreigners. A friend from Taiwan was looking at houses and was told by the realtor that a particular house was a good value because it was in a good school district. She called us an asked what that meant; “In Taiwan, all schools are the same; they are funded by the government. No one would choose where to live based on the school.”) This difference could be partially compensated for by state funding for education, which is why cuts in this area are particularly harmful, including to our people’s health. In fact the most effective investment that a society can make in the health of its people is in the education of its young.

An educated population is healthier. Wide availability and carrying of guns decreases a population’s health. Unfortunately, the public’s health seems to carry little weight in these political decisions.

[1] Hemenway, David. Private Guns, Public Health. University of Michigan Press. Ann Arbor. 2007.

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