Published Op-Ed: Applying the Benefits vs. Risk Standard to Guns in NC


The following is the text of an Op-Ed I authored that was published in the Raleigh News and Observer (N&O).  The piece is a combination of: 1) my work in Geneva, Switzerland on the intersection of race, human rights, and gun violence that led to a committee ruling that the high number of deaths by gunfire in the US constituted not only a human rights violation, but a failure of our government in one of its most fundamental of duties – to protect the life of its citizens (reference the committee report paragraphs 16 and 34): 2) testimony I gave before the NC House Rules Committee on pending gun legislation that weakens the permit process and expands exposure to the carrying of concealed handguns; and 3) legal responsibilities I held as a corporate officer in a publicly-held pharmaceutical corporation for reporting safety information.

As the Op-Ed went into separate circulation, the inclusion of it in this site is for completeness of work.


Applying the Benefits vs. Risk Standard to Guns in NC

Following the death by poisoning of over 100 people from Elixir Sulfanilamide, federal lawmakers passed the Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act in 1938 requiring manufacturers of pharmaceutical products to demonstrate safety prior to marketing.

In response to the thalidomide birth defect tragedy in Europe, the act was amended in 1962, requiring manufacturers to demonstrate that the benefits outweigh the risks.

In enacting these laws, our government was exercising one of its most fundamental duties: protecting the life and well-being of its citizens. It’s a duty North Carolina lawmakers should keep in mind as they debate loosening gun controls.

In the 1990s, the United States ratified the Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Racial Discrimination, thus binding our country to their many provisions. Last summer, legal and academic scholars in the field of human rights reviewed our performance in regards to the treaties and ruled that the substantial loss of life to gunfire in our country – including its disproportionate effect on women, children and racial and ethnic minorities – as well as the proliferation of stand-your-ground laws, “which are used to circumvent the limits of legitimate self-defense,” represented a failure of our government in its duty to protect life.

Life is held to be a fundamental human right – a foundational right of our country, cited in our Declaration of Independence as being unalienable. We fought a war of independence to secure that right.

The opinion levied by these committees is quite American in its values. It was certainly never the intent of the Second Amendment, ironically an element of our Bill of Rights, to justify the willful and intentional loss of life of thousands of our citizens each year. Yet lawmakers have chosen to allow it at the behest of a powerful lobby backed by corporate interests.

The North Carolina legislature is considering HB 562, which expands public exposure to concealed-carry and weakens permit checks. That the concealed-carry population itself increases the risk of serious bodily injury and death to the general public is beyond dispute. This risk has been clearly documented through the efforts of the Violence Policy Center, which has uncovered hundreds of examples of nonself-defense shootings by permit holders in news media reports and subsequent legal proceedings. Because lawmakers at both the federal and state levels have obstructed research efforts, these examples are a considerable underestimate of the actual risk.

Do benefits outweigh the risks? Without understanding the actual extent of the risk, such an assessment becomes difficult. Pharmaceutical manufacturers are required to show consistency of effect both within and across studies, but such a standard does not exist for the claimed benefits of concealed-carry. We don’t even know whether the risks to the public from concealed-carry outweigh the claimed benefit of self-defense.

Consider that data on file with the FBI show that criminal gun homicides have outnumbered justified gun homicides some 40-fold in recent years. Or an FBI report showing that over a 14-year period involving 160 mass murder events involving an active shooter, there was only one instance when a private citizen with a firearms permit participated in the resolution. But during an overlapping eight-year period, news media reports reveal 29 instances when concealed-carry permit-holders have been perpetrators of mass shootings. Yet research on such important matters of public safety remain obstructed by an industry more concerned about product sales than public safety.

And consider the multiple examples of when pharmaceutical executives have been criminally prosecuted by the Department of Justice for failing to bring forward safety information or making false claims of benefit that resulted in public harm. The sentences levied have included personal fines, community service and even imprisonment. Yet the same practices go unpunished for those advocating increased public exposure to concealed weaponry.

As the practice of concealed-carry has not been held to be a protected right under the Second Amendment, the question becomes far more fundamental than just preserving the permit system. In matters of public safety, should there be such a glaring double standard applied to firearms versus other products? If our lawmakers are to be true to their duty to protect life, the answer to that question becomes apparent.

Arthur R. Kamm, Ph.D., of Apex is the former senior vice president and chief development officer for Salix Pharmaceuticals, Inc., who held legal responsibility for elements of product safety reporting.