The McGill Report

A Global Killer Comes to Minnesota

ROCHESTER, MN -- Handguns are a global virus every bit as deadly as SARS.

Around the world, about a half billion handguns and small arms cause about 10,000 deaths a week, or 500,000 deaths a year.

The World Health Organization classifies the spread of small arms and the subsequent violence it causes as a global health threat on the level of AIDS and infectious diseases like hepatitis, yellow fever and plague.

The passage last week of a new Minnesota handgun law makes the state more vulnerable than ever to this global contagion. The state estimates that the number of Minnesotans carrying handguns around in public will rise in the next three years from 11,000 to 90,000.

So far, debate about the law has centered around opinions pro and con in the state, while sometimes looking at other states' experiences with conceal-carry handgun laws.

But we've never really looked at the handgun issue in a global context, as the World Health Organization does. We should.

In at least two important ways, gun violence burdens the state's health care system just as severely as bug-caused illnesses do. For one thing, the psychological trauma caused by gun violence stresses health care givers, social services, and society at large.

And for another, a person sickened by a speeding bullet racks up health care costs just as fast as any patient -- or, as in the case of head injuries or multiple wounds, much faster and over a longer time. The World Health Organization calculates that in the late 1990s, the cost of health care provided to gunshot victims in the United States totaled more than $126 billion.

Let's divide that number by 50 for a rough estimate of annual Minnesota health care expense on treating gun-related injuries: $2.5 billion.

Governor Pawlenty, have you considered imposing stricter gun control laws in Minnesota as a way to trim the state's enormous budget deficits?

The global health model as applied to gun violence suggests that extremely strong gun control measures are the best way to stop the problem.

A virus like SARS is killed by trapping it and eradicating it.

As with the corona virus, why not with the Colt?

As with HIV/AIDS, why not with handguns?

Japan has already done it. Private handgun ownership in Japan is banned. Less than 1 percent of Japanese households own a gun, while up to 48 percent of American households do.

As a result, Japan has the world's lowest "intentional gun death rate" in the world (less than one tenth of one percent per hundred thousand people), while the United States has by far the highest (13.5 per hundred thousand).

I lived in Japan for four years, from 1989 to 1993, in Tokyo, and I cannot tell you how safe I felt in that country. It's a very definite and a very alien sensation that all Americans who live in Japan -- especially American women -- notice immediately. When you live in Japan you feel utterly safe on the streets, for the first time in your life. A woman can walk through the toughest neighborhood of Tokyo at 3 a.m., or stand alone at any subway station at any time, and have not the slightest worry for her safety.

Would we feel the same standing at the corner of Broadway and Second Street in Rochester, or at Hennepin and Fifth in Minneapolis, at any hour of the night?

One more lesson from abroad. From Sudan to Colombia, from Afghanistan to Germany (where the smuggled handgun trade is a growing public health threat), experts who study the global handgun virus point to a self-perpetuating cycle by which the virus divides, replicates and spreads.

"Fear leads to arming, which breeds violence, which leads to insecurity, which leads to further arming," writes Wendy Cukier, coordinator of the Small Arms/Firearms Education and Research Network.

Is it happening in Minnesota?

When we passed the "conceal-carry" law last week, we caught the bug.

Copyright @ 2003 The McGill Report
Published 5.7.03 in The Rochester Post-Bulletin