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After Newtown, many turn to Duke expert on gun violence

December 29, 2012 

Philip J. Cook grew up on a farm near Buffalo, N.Y., and he occasionally used a .22 rifle to shoot at woodchucks “without much effect.” And he was on the wrong end of a gun once when a neighbor kid plunked him with a BB gun. It left only a blood blister.

That slender background hardly suggests how big a role guns would come to play in Cook’s life. Cook, 66, a professor of public policy at Duke University, has been studying the nature and economic costs of gun violence since he came to the university in 1973. He is the author, with Jens Ludwig, of “Gun Violence: The Real Costs.”

Cook’s expertise has made him much in demand in the wake of the shooting massacre of elementary school students and adults in Newtown, Conn. He has been interviewed by U.S. and international media. He reviewed Craig R. Whitney’s new book “Living With Guns” in The New York Times, wrote an op-ed on gun violence for the Times of India and has gone on camera for Turkish televsion and Al Jazeera news.

Cook responds to as many requests to comment on or write about gun violence as he can. After decades of exploring an issue to which Americans have given scant or sporadic attention, he knows this is a moment of intense focus on U.S. gun policy and perhaps the start of a change.

When he heard of the shootings, Cook says, “My first thought was, ‘Oh, no. This is a tragedy beyond even the tragedies we had seen.’ I was terribly sad and upset about it as was true for most of the nation. The massacre of so many completely innocent 6- and 7-year-olds tore at my heart strings.”

In the nation’s reaction, Cook saw “perhaps the seed of a revival for doing something about guns.”

“We have had the beginning of what could be a hopeful national discussion about what could be done,” Cook says. He’s particularly encouraged that President Obama appears committed to act and has asked Vice President Joe Biden to gather ideas about ending gun violence.

“I think (Obama) has already staked out a very strong position, which is quite a turnabout for him. We didn’t hear him talking about guns during the campaign,” Cook says. “It has been a non-issue for four years.”

It’s an issue now, but it’s stubbornly one without clear consensus among those who favor more restrictions on gun types, gun sales and the of size of ammunition clips. The only unified position about more rules seems to be among those who absolutely oppose them.

As Cook wrote in his New York Times review, there is no stalemate on guns. There is only a general dismay at the hazards versus a vigorous, broad and well-funded effort not only to prevent new gun laws but also to relax existing ones.

“The gun-rights side has the strong upper hand and no apparent need for, or interest in, compromise,” Cook wrote. “In recent decades the National Rifle Association’s state legislative agenda, successful in all but the bluest of blue states, has eased restrictions on carrying concealed weapons and has expanded the right to self-defense. ... The Democrats have ducked or joined the Republicans; the only notable gun-related action in President Obama’s first term was the bill he signed to allow guns in the national parks.”

One force behind the gun-lobby’s success may be that violent crime in the U.S. has dropped considerably. New York City, for instance, is reporting its lowest number of murders in 50 years. The change may reflect an aging population and better crime prevention, but its effect may be that America has dropped its guard on guns.

“In the last 20 years, there has been this remarkable sea change in the amount of street violence and routine crime. That has been a huge improvement in our standard of living,” Cook says. “Perhaps that opened the door to removing all the restrictions on guns because they are not the problem they were 20 years ago.”

But one crime is going against that trend: rampage shootings.

Cook says the most encouraging prospect for more federal involvement in gun control could be not in the regulation of guns, but in the creation of deep, accurate, nationwide data bases that would flag efforts by criminals and the mentally ill to obtain guns.

“The record checks are only as good as the records being checked,” he says.

While gun control focuses on street crime, Cook says access to guns also greatly raises the toll of depression and killings through suicide – guns are used 50 percent of the time – and domestic violence.

“Anyone thinking of bringing a handgun into their home should think carefully because it creates access to a suicide instrument. If there is someone in the home who is depressed, that could create an extra hazard,” he says. “Or if there is domestic violence, it increases the chance someone is going to die.”

Editorial page editor Ned Barnett can be reached at nbarnett@newsobserver.com or 919-829-4512.

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