The Surprisingly Tangled Politics of 'Gun Safety,' Starring Wikipedia

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Last week I argued that people who want to reduce gun carnage should start talking about "gun safety," rather than "gun control." The newly reinforced no-compromise position of Wayne LaPierre and the NRA may make the distinction moot. But for those gun-owners who recognize that there is a problem to be solved -- and that the solution might involve something more than all school teachers carrying guns to work -- and emphasis on safety rather than control might conceivably do some good.

A reader who was trained as a physician and works as an epidemiologist tried to put this policy into effect. He started editing the Wikipedia page on "gun safety" to reflect this broader view. Here's what happened:

1) The reader's initial message:

I appreciate ... talking about 'gun safety' as a goal for America...

This approach makes complete sense to me. America's outlier rates of firearms homicides and suicide are almost certainly the direct result of the overwhelming number of guns carelessly owned.  Hence, the long-term goal must be either a radical change in safety practices (as in Switzerland and Israel) or a radical reduction in gun ownership by persons not prepared to keep them safe.
 
In the short-term, a much more modest change is required:  a transition in the common meaning of the term "gun safety".  Until now, "gun safety" has been a topic dominated by proponents of gun ownership.  Take for example the definition of gun safety provided by the wiki page (until I added a sentence - which may be deleted as too "political"):  "Gun safety is a collection of rules and recommendations that can be applied when handling firearms. The purpose of gun safety is to eliminate or minimize the risks of unintentional death, injury or damage caused by improper handling of firearms."  This overly narrow definition excludes efforts to persuade people to forego firearms purchases or to dispose of weapons if they can no longer prevent the firearms from being misused.  This, I am convinced, is what will be required for effective gun safety - fewer households like the Lanza's.

2) Wikipedia pushback. The reader then reported:

Here are the 3 sentences I added this morning to the Wikipedia "Gun safety" article:
'The phrase "gun safety" is now frequently used to refer to measures that go beyond the prevention of unintentional injury. This includes efforts to reduce gun ownership by persons not prepared to assure safe use of guns and policies aimed to reduce firearms homicides and suicides. Please refer to the wikipedia article on Gun Politics for further discussion of this broader concept of gun safety.' ...
My additional 3 sentences lasted about 1 hour.  To see the justification for the deletion of these sentences you can look at the "Talk" page, then  "The scope of gun safety".  The justifications for deleting my comments appear below the 20 references (which may be of interest to anyone studying current usage of the phrase "gun safety". I have since compiled another 20).
 
After one editor complained that all of the references were from the US, I added the following:
Please review the following document from 2007: "A Review of Literature on 'Gun Safety' Education Programmes" by the South Eastern and Eastern Europe Clearinghouse for the Control of Small Arms and Light Weapons. 14 March 2007. This review begins by stating that "The USA is the only country where there are programmes related to gun safety for pre-school children (four to five) and for primary and secondary children. There is no evidence of the effectiveness of these programmes; this is hardly surprising, as they are not based on a solid foundation of knowledge about child development. Unfortunately there is also little evidence from the USA that attempts to educate parents are very successful. This seems to be due to the strength of the belief that guns protect individuals and families, and misperceptions about the ability of children to engage in safe behaviours." http://www.seesac.org/uploads/documents/Gun%20safety1.pdf
I have elevated the debate to another level by posting a notice on Wikipedia's dispute resolution notice board.  I am a Wikipedia newbie (believe it or not) so I don't know what comes next.  My immediate objective is to get a notice posted on the article itself saying that it is being reviewed for neutrality....

Also of great relevance is this piece suggesting that "gun safety" education is being used by proponents of gun ownership to convince children to become future gun owners:
"Joe Camel with Feathers --  How the NRA with Gun and Tobacco Industry Dollars Uses its Eddie Eagle Program to Market Guns to Kids.  Section Three: "The Safest Thing is to Not Keep a Gun at Home""  by the Viloence Policy Center, undated.

3) Finis. The reader learns a lesson, which he shares with us:

Since I filled your inbox with several previous emails on my experience with updating the Wikipedia article on "Gun safety", I feel I should let you know how the issue has been addressed.
 
Basically, the authors of the article have agreed to be explicit from the outset that their discussion is restricted to safe handling of firearms.  My (hopefully) final comments on the article are given on the accompanying Talk page.
 
From this experience I have learned that a restricted understanding of "Gun safety" is likely to be very vigorously defended.  In the process, I have compiled URLs for about 50 web sites with titles that include "Gun safety" or "Firearms safety" and content that includes a discussion of broader measures that might reduce firearms homicides and suicides.  If anyone is interested in this collection, I am happy to share it.
 
I conclude my comments on the Wikipedia Talk page as follows:
Since the above Talk discussion has raised the issue of my personal intentions, I would like to close by elaborating on said intentions.  As a health professional, and as someone frustrated with "gun politics", I am interested in peoples' personal decisions to own a gun.  I believe that the peer reviewed research on the topic (which is dealt with in a very incomplete and non-neutral way in the Gun Politics article) provides overwhelming evidence that the risk of homicide and suicide is substantially higher for households owning a gun.  I won't rehash here the complexity of this issue. As we all agree, this is best dealt with in the Gun Politics article.  But the personal decision to own a gun and the personal decision to take all necessary precautions to keep safe the firearms in your possession fall within the purview of this article on safe handling of firearms.  This decision has been politicized but it is not a political decision.  It is a personal decision.  And, as difficult as that is, Wikipedia should endeavor to provide readers with neutral and complete information to help them to make that personal decision.  It is my intention to help Wikipedia with that effort.

What a complex, long effort this will be -- in keeping with most other large-scale social changes that have mattered.

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.
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