Harvard professors call for 'substantial' new tax on guns, ammo

Three Harvard experts say the best way to curb gun violence in the U.S. is to take a broad public health approach, drawing on proven strategies that have successfully reduced other public health threats like smoking.

A group of Harvard professors is calling for a new national tax on all firearms and ammunition as part of a comprehensive strategy to curb gun violence in America.

The experts note that hefty taxes on tobacco products have funded anti-smoking campaigns and helped to drastically reduce the prevalence of cigarette smoking in the U.S. in the past few decades. Likewise, they say, a “substantial” national tax on all firearms and ammunition “would provide stable revenue to meaningfully target gun violence prevention.”

"Gun violence is a public health crisis, and addressing this will require a comprehensive, multidimensional public health strategy," said Dariush Mozaffarian, associate professor in the Department of Epidemiology at Harvard School of Public Health. "Our past successes in reducing other harmful behaviors and accidents provide a set of evidence-based tools to address the many underlying root causes of gun violence."

Mozaffarian is the lead author of an article published online this week in the Journal of the American Medical Association. The article outlines the case for a comprehensive public health approach to gun violence in the wake of the mass shooting last month at an elementary school in Newtown, Conn., in which 20 children and six adults were killed.

Gun-rights advocates expressed skepticism at the effectiveness and appropriateness of such a national tax.

I don’t know how a tax like that would work,” said Dave Workman, senior editor for TheGunMag, a publication of the Bellevue, Wash.-based Second Amendment Foundation.

“The big issue here is a tax like that penalizes law-abiding gun owners for exercising a constitutionally protected civil right,” Workman told MSN News.“That certainly differs from taxing cigarette smokers because there’s no constitutional right I know of that allows a person to smoke.”

Other ideas proposed by the Harvard professors include the manufacture of "smart guns" with security codes or locking devices to prevent gun-related deaths; routine education and counseling by physicians and national networks for education and prevention; mandatory gun safety classes; penalties for violators of gun safety laws; reduced magazine clip sizes, and restrictions on rapid-fire firearms.
Mozaffarian is a preventive cardiologist with expertise in lifestyle and behavior. His co-authors are David Hemenway, professor of health policy at Harvard School of Public Health and an economist with expertise in gun violence, and David Ludwig, director of the New Balance Foundation Obesity Prevention Center at Boston Children's Hospital and professor of pediatrics at Harvard Medical School.

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More than 31,000 people are killed by guns each year in the U.S., including 11,000 deaths due to gun homicide, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The Harvard professors note that the number of people killed by firearm violence each year is more than all U.S. troops killed throughout the last decade in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.

The authors recommend a broad public health approach using strategies that have worked successfully in the past to reduce other public health threats like smoking and car crashes.

"Changing social norms is a fundamental public health strategy," said Hemenway. "For common products like cigarettes, cars and guns, many individuals, groups and institutions need to become involved. As 'friends don't let friends drive drunk,' similarly friends should help ensure that a friend going through a psychological crisis doesn't have ready access to a firearm until the crisis is over."

"Safety standards for gun ownership still represent one key facet of a comprehensive approach, just as automobiles and medications are widely used but subject to sensible safety policies," the authors conclude. "A coordinated, multidimensional public health strategy, informed by other public health successes, will reduce the risk of future tragedies like the Newtown shooting and the broader scourge of gun violence."

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