The US suffers far more violent deaths than any other wealthy nation, due in part to the widespread possession of firearms and the practice of storing them at home in a place that is often unlocked, a report has found released amid a fierce debate over gun control in the country.
The findings, released on Wednesday last week by two leading US health research institutions, took on urgency because they come less than a month after 20 children and six adults were shot to death at an elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut.
The tragedy has fired-up both sides of the gun control debate in a way that other recent mass shootings in the US could not. US President Barack Obama promised swift action to curb gun violence and vowed his administration would not shy away from an issue that is one of the most divisive in the country.
Trying to keep up the momentum before the shock over the massacre fades, US Vice President Joe Biden heard on Wednesday from representatives of victims’ groups and gun-safety organizations. The talks were part of a series of meetings the vice president held last week in an effort to build consensus around proposals to curb arms violence. He also met on Thursday with the powerful National Rifle Association (NRA) and other gun-owner groups, who are digging in against tighter gun restrictions.
Obama, who has remaining largely silent on gun control after previous mass shootings, demanded change and tasked Biden with heading a commission to come up with recommendations on gun policy by the end of this month.
“Every once in a while, there’s something that awakens the conscience of the country and that tragic event did it in a way like nothing I’ve seen in my career,” Biden said at the White House, referring to the Newtown shootings. “The president and I are determined to take action.”
Against that backdrop, the report from the National Research Council and the Institute of Medicine found that gun violence was a contributing factor in lower life expectancy in the US compared to other wealthy countries.
The NRA, the country’s most powerful gun lobby, did not immediately return calls seeking comment about the report, but in the past gun-rights advocates have fought any suggestion that firearms ownership has public health implications, and they have won cuts in the government’s budget for such research.
The US has about six violent deaths per 100,000 residents. None of the 16 other countries included in the review came anywhere close to that ratio. Finland was closest to the US ranking with slightly more than two violent deaths per 100,000 residents.
For many years, US citizens have been dying at younger ages than people in almost all other wealthy countries. In addition to the impact of gun violence, US citizens consume the most calories among peer countries and get involved in more accidents that involve alcohol. The US also suffers higher rates of drug-related deaths, infant mortality and AIDS.
The result is that the life expectancy for men in the US ranked the lowest among the 17 countries reviewed, at 75.6 years, while the life expectancy for US women ranked second lowest at 80.7 years. The countries reviewed included Canada, Japan, Australia and much of Western Europe.
The nation’s health disadvantages have economic consequences. They lead to higher costs for consumers and taxpayers as well as a workforce that remains less healthy than that of other high-income countries.