Opinion: Preventable deaths in America
Special to the Tribune
More than 2.5 million Americans die every year, the vast majority from “natural” causes. The biggest killers are heart disease and cancer, which together account for about half of all deaths. The next most common natural causes of death are COPD, stroke, Alzheimer’s, diabetes, influenza, pneumonia and kidney failure. Medical science is devoting major research efforts to finding ways to delay or defeat these diseases, but nothing will prevent people from eventually dying.
But each year at least 170,000 Americans die from suicides and homicides. Suicides lead with 41,000 per year. Automobile accidents and firearms are tied for second, each causing 34,000 deaths per year. More effort to reduce these figures is also needed.
By comparison, the commercial airline death rate has been zero in several recent years, but a single fatal crash gets front page news coverage. And think of the tremendous effort and cost we expend to keep deaths from terrorism in the U.S. in the range of just 20 per year. Deaths from automobile accidents have been in decline for the past 25 years due to the use of airbags and the efforts of the auto industry to build safer cars.
Suicide is the 10th-leading cause of death in the U.S., the second-leading cause of death for those aged 15-24 and fourth for adults aged 18-65. It is the neglected killer and receives little attention compared with others such as Alzheimer’s and diabetes. Suicide rates have increased with the perceived lack of opportunity for the young, and the loss of savings and homes as a result of the Great Recession and decline of the middle class, both arising from the greed of the top 1 percent. We need both economic reform measures as espoused by presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, and improved social awareness and support for those sliding into despair.
One-third of all deaths from automobile accidents (11,000 per year) and more than 200,000 injuries are caused by drunken drivers. It is estimated that 4 million of the nation’s 200 million drivers frequently drive while intoxicated, and may be driving while under the influence of alcohol (or drugs) anywhere from 10 to 25 percent of their driving time.
This makes them from 100 to 250 times as liable to cause a fatal accident as those who do not drive impaired. Yet the penalty for drunken driving is woefully inadequate, usually amounting to little more than a slap on the wrist, even for accidents involving serious injury or death.
Other countries, particularly in Europe, have much stricter laws, including lower blood alcohol limits (zero tolerance in some countries), and severe penalties, including major fines and jail times, revocation of licenses, and confiscation of automobiles. An automobile in the hands of an impaired driver is a lethal weapon with a high likelihood of death, and should be treated as such.
Finally, we come to firearms, the cause of 34,000 deaths every year. Background checks to prevent mentally unstable people from obtaining guns are a leaky sieve, and will never prevent mass killings, which are becoming increasingly common. In the first nine months of 2015, there were 293 mass shootings with three or more victims in 273 days, with three of those days having five mass shootings.
The only way to prevent these massacres is to make both the sale and ownership by the public of multiple-round assault weapons (which are designed to kill as many people as possible in the shortest time) illegal. Guns should be registered and licensed for the same reason automobiles are, providing a record of ownership and permitting licenses to be revoked and guns confiscated for irresponsible use.
And since more than a quarter of all suicides — about 11,000 annually — are committed with firearms, the National Rifle Association, if it is really concerned about gun deaths, should be as strongly involved in suicide prevention as it is in fighting any and every kind of gun control legislation.
The United States is the only advanced country in the world where mass shootings occur on a regular basis — and is the only one without strict gun laws. Japan, every Western European country and Canada, all of which have strict gun ownership laws, respectively have fewer than 50, 150 and 200 gun homicides annually, compared with 12,000 in the U.S. Isn’t there a message here, telling us something we should not be ignoring and doing nothing to resolve?
Hal Sundin’s “As I See It” column appears in the Glenwood Springs Post Independent, a sister paper to Tahoe Daily Tribune in Glenwood Springs, Colorado.