Learning to Live with Guns — Advocates Urge a Public Health Campaign

By Mina Kim

Editor’s note: State lawmakers are expected to hold a joint legislative hearing on guns and gun laws Tuesday. 

Sandra Macias of Fairfield looks at posters she's made over the years for marches and rallies demanding more gun control. In 1995, Macias's 14-year-old son Alex Stasenka was shot and killed accidentally by the brother of a friend of his. (Photo/Mina Kim)

Sandra Macias of Fairfield looks at posters she’s made for marches and rallies demanding more gun control. In 1995, Macias’s 14-year-old son Alex Stasenka was accidentally shot and killed. (Photo/Mina Kim)

Remember those ads from the early 1990s that encouraged people to intervene if a friend who had been drinking was about to get behind the wheel? ‘When friends don’t stop friends from drinking and driving, friends die. Friends don’t let friends drive drunk.’

Researchers believe this type of public health campaign that was successful at reducing motor vehicle fatalities could also be used to reduce the number of gun deaths and injuries, including suicides. David Hemenway is a professor of health policy at Harvard and director of the Harvard Injury Control Research Center.

“What we want to be able to do is figure out a way to live with our guns. Right now we are dying with our guns.”
“It’s the notion ‘friends don’t let friends drive drunk’, ‘friends don’t let friends who are going through a bad patch have easy access to a gun,’” Hemenway said. “If a close friend you can see has just got a divorce, he’s started drinking, he’s started talking crazy, try to figure out a way to get the gun out of the house for a few months until things get better.”

In California there were more than 1,300 gun related homicides in 2010 according to data from the Centers for Disease Control. Yet more people — nearly 1,500 — died from gun suicides. Hemenway said an effective awareness-raising campaign could reduce the number of suicides or fuel demands for better gun safety standards, including safer gun storage practices.

“We are in a society where we have lots of guns, and for a variety of reasons we will always have lots of guns,” Hemenway said. “What we want to be able to do is figure out a way to live with our guns. Right now we are dying with our guns.”

Sandra Macias’s 14-year-old son Alex Stasenka was shot dead —  accidentally — by the brother of one of his friends. The Fairfield mother of three –- including Alex — said the brother was playing with a shotgun he had found in the garage when he pointed it at Alex and pulled the trigger.

“Time passes and you continue to live your life, but it’s never the same,” Macias said.

Macias wasn’t there when her son was shot 18 years ago. But she said she knows the moment it happened.

“I was at a conference, and I just felt this surge of energy and I just jumped up out of my chair and walked to the back of the room,” Macias said. “I just felt like something was wrong, but I just didn’t know what it was.”

While most of the gun debate has centered on banning weapons or high capacity magazines, or controlling other aspects of gun ownership, Harvard’s David Hemenway said more research is needed on whether easy access to guns contributes to injuries and deaths.

“The [CDC] is afraid to even say the word guns, let alone do any research in guns, even though this is an enormous public health problem,” Hemenway said. “There’s very little money out of foundations. So we really lack a lot of good research.”

But Hemenway is hopeful. President Obama recently directed the CDC to support research into the causes of gun violence and ways to prevent it. The president also clarified that doctors could discuss gun ownership with patients. Hemenway said he’s working with pro-gun groups to see what public health strategies might appeal to gun owners.

“Certainly this is our big opportunity here, so it really behooves us to take advantage of this,” Hemenway said. “We can really do so much better as a country protecting our children, protecting our young people, than we are currently doing.”

Fairfield’s Sandra Macias was less optimistic as she looked through posters she made after her son’s death, for rallies and marches that demanded more state and federal regulations on guns.

“It’s been seventeen years, and we’re still talking about the same things.”

Among other things, Macias wants to see stiffer penalties for gun owners who don’t use or store their weapons responsibly.

“I’m a very angry person. I don’t think I was before,” Macias said. “The fact that people can own guns and not be responsible when something like this happens I mean, and my son is dead, my son is gone.”

Macias said her son Alex would have turned 33 years old this year.

Gina Scialabba contributed to this report.

Mina Kim reported this story as part of KQED’s ongoing coverage of gun violence. Learn more:

Oakland Residents Plead: Pay Attention to Killings

Among Oakland’s Dead, What’s a ‘Typical’ Case?

Oakland’s Gun Problem: 11 Firearm Crimes a Day

Listen to Mina Kim’s story:

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