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Panel to confront public-health enemy #1



As the battle over the right to bear arms rages on, a whole generation of Americans are marinating in a gun culture that has left much of our youth numb to violence, and a public cowering in fear of pistol-wielding criminals.

The casualties are the injured and dying who are left to doctors and nurses who try to piece back together broken bodies and shattered lives.

Taxpayers, meanwhile, are paying the price for the war. The Journal of the American Medical Society estimates that, at a cost of about $37,000 a gunshot, Americans absorb billions of dollars every year in uninsured medical and hospital costs related to gun-inflicted injuries.

An upcoming panel discussion is designed to explore the effects of guns, not only on our culture, but on our health.

"Over the past decade, there's been a movement to look at firearms issues as a public-health issue," said Dr. Ted Eastburn, a cardiologist and City Council member who organized the panel. "Instead of having the conversation be about constitutional issues, we're asking the community to look at the problem a little differently -- in terms of epidemiology and public health."

22 times more likely to kill or maim

The panel's keynote speaker is Dr. Arthur Kellerman, an emergency-room doctor and head of Emory University's Center for Injury Control in Atlanta.

Kellerman's studies on gun-related violence have made him controversial among gun advocates. But, from a public-health standpoint, his findings are staggering. For example, his 1998 study found that a gun in someone's home is at least 22 times more likely to kill or injure a member of the household than to be used in self-defense against an intruder.

Another of his findings indicates that people are three times as likely to be killed if they live in a home with a gun, are present are five times as likely to commit suicide.

The panel includes a list of local heavy-hitters: Colorado Springs Police Chief Lorne Kramer; Sheriff John Anderson; ATF Agent-in-charge Rich Marianos; District Attorney Jeanne Smith; Juvenile Magistrate Regina M. Walter; D-11 Superintendent Kenneth Burnley; USAA Senior Vice President Mike Quinlan; and Garry Butcher of the "Streetwise" crime-awareness program. The program will be moderated by retired District Judge Matt Railey.

All at once

The debate comes amid a new willingness to discuss the complex issue -- particularly by previously gun-loving conservatives who are under pressure after a spring-session, which begins in January. Unlike numerous pro-gun bills that have been reintroduced in various forms by Republican lawmakers for the past several years, the state's majority party has shifted its emphasis.

Rather than vowing to pass concealed-weapons carry laws, lawmakers are now getting ready to consider bills that would:

Raise the legal age for buying a handgun from 18 to 21.

Hold parents legally responsible if their children find guns in the house.

Require criminal background checks at gun shows.

Outlaw "straw" purchasers who buy guns for children or criminals.

Mandate video instruction in schools telling kids what to do if they find a gun.

Restrict people from buying more than one gun a month.

Make it a felony, rather than a misdemeanor, for criminals caught carrying guns.

Busting the bad guys

The panel comes on the heels of a just-completed report compiled by the Pikes Peak Region Violence Data Exchange Team. The group of educators, health-department officials and law-enforcement officers has spent the past year collecting and interpreting local data related to homicide, suicide, youth and gang violence, domestic violence and drug- and alcohol-related violence.

Among the group's recommendations: more effective restriction on the availability of firearms, especially to youth.

The team also considers it very important that the community be educated to view homicide and violent crime as public-health issues -- "as leading causes of fatal and non-fatal injury," according to its report.

In addition, the local branch of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, working with the Colorado Springs Police Department, has received widespread publicity over a program targeting criminals with firearms that was launched in April.

As of last week, the two agencies have taken 155 illegal guns off the streets and made 207 felony arrests -- 113 of them gang-related -- as part of the ongoing operation.

"It's the most organized campaign to get guns out of the hands of criminals in Colorado's history," said the ATF's Marianos.

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