In December of 2012, I was asked my thoughts on the Sandy Hook shooting on Twitter, and if I was going to write about it through a public health lens. I said no – I didn’t want to weigh in so soon, and I didn’t really know where to start. Sandy Hook capped off a year where 130,437 people were shot by firearms. Of these, 31,672 people died, with almost 60% listed as suicides. Since that exchange, there have been several more mass shootings (defined as 4 or more fatalities in one instance - not including the shooter), and I kept surfing the internet to explore the arguments on both sides of the gun control debate. As pointed out by Kathleen Bachynski over on The 2×2 Project’s series on gun violence, aptly titled “Fully Loaded“, if “measles or mumps killed 31,672 people a year, we would undoubtedly consider the situation to be a public health emergency.”
The issue is, I’m not inherently against owning firearms. Sure, I don’t understand it, and it makes little to no sense to me how owning a gun makes you feel safer given how every other country in the Western world doesn’t and they seem to be getting along just fine, but that’s not the point. Many gun owners own firearms for self-defence, but use them mainly for fun and recreation – shooting targets and hunting are two of the major uses. More importantly though, Americans don’t want to give up their firearms, and that attitude isn’t going away any time soon: Anyone who thinks advocating for a universal ban on firearms in the US is wasting their time.
The support for firearms is highlighted by the NRA and their attitude following any mass shooting. When the NRA can stand up and brazenly declare that this would never have happened if everyone else was armed, and, more importantly, have people believe them, the mere idea that firearms are the problem is a non-starter. The whole idea that “the only thing that can stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun” is unbelievably foreign and alien to me. It sounds like a cheesy line in a 1980s action movie, where the city has been overrun by crime and the only thing between civilization and chaos is one lone officer who doesn’t care for regulations – not the speech you give following a mass shooting where 20 children and 6 teachers died. It all feeds into a belief that we’re all fighting against each other rather than being on the same side, which is exactly what the NRA and gun manufacturers want.
While exploring this issue further, the biggest obstacle I found in reducing gun violence is how much of a hot button issue this is. The issue is often painted as an “us vs them” battle, with strong militaristic language, and hyperbole in spades, exacerbated by the fact that one side is literally pointing guns at the other. When a discussion around gun control is met with “I’ll give you my gun when you take it from my cold, dead hands,” there’s no sense in engaging. And politicians aren’t going to either – the NRA donated $650,000 to congressional candidates in the 2012 election, effectively ensuring that no real change happens, and any objections to current policies are met with swift and immediate condemnation. In fact, the only major federal piece of gun legislation that has been enacted in the past 10 years was the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act, which, I kid you not, prevents gun manufacturers and dealers from being held liable if their products were used in crimes. Now while this makes sense (you’d never sue Chevrolet if you were hit by an Impala), the fact that this is the only piece of federal legislation that has been passed is a telling indication of the priorities that exist at the highest levels of government. Even something as simple as forcing mandatory background checks is met with resistance at the Senate, being voted down 54-46, despite 91% of Americans being in support of criminal background checks.
But is polarization this the only way forward? Are we truly okay with the status quo as it stands right now? We don’t need or want extreme solutions – arming everyone or removing all guns are not feasible options. However, there has to be a middle ground, where rational minds sit down and determine how can we best approach this problem, and what would be a viable solution.
Quality of the data
A major issue in the discussion of gun violence is that we simply don’t know what works as the data on gun violence is sorely lacking. This is largely driven by the fact that the CDC hasn’t been allowed to conduct research on firearms since 1993. The fascinatingly titled Omnibus Consolidated Appropriations Bill states on page 245 “none of the funds made available for injury prevention and control at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention may be used to advocate or promote gun control.” So we have very little data available about firearms, and the largest organization in the US that could research it was effectively muzzled from being able to explore this issue and provide us with (any) options. Now, some stats do remain, such as those collected by the FBI, or by private citizens. However, the elimination of a whole area of public health from the CDC’s mandate is a decision that is almost Machiavellian in nature. My colleague Margaret Winker at Speaking of Medicine weighed in on this last January, and summed the practicalities of the situation up well:
“Research that had been conducted to date found that a major argument for gun ownership, protecting oneself at home, was not effective, and gun ownership was in fact associated with an increased risk of homicide. This threat to pro-gun lobbyists was blocked through NRA lobbying Congress, preventing research on a public health threat that claims 30,000 lives a year in the United States. Lifting the ban will reinvigorate this critical area of research; unfortunately, few researchers would pursue a career path with essentially no steady source of funding, so much-needed gun research will not happen overnight.” (Emphasis mine, from Speaking of Medicine)
Without good data, how can we possible make good decisions?
Bringing people together
Finally, if there was an easy solution to the gun violence epidemic, it would have come about by now. But the solution requires us to sit down at a table together and discuss what is going on, and if there’s a way to stop these senseless deaths from occurring. This doesn’t just refer to the mass shootings – most gun-related fatalities are suicides. How can we prevent these deaths from happening, and how can we get these people the help they might need? This isn’t a “new” problem by any stretch – the number of deaths due to firearms has stayed relatively constant at 10.3 per 100,000 every year since 1999. Solving the gun violence epidemic will require leadership, commitment from those from both the pro-gun and pro-regulation sides, and above all, putting petty politics aside to prevent these senseless deaths from occurring. Part of the issue here will require investing money into research as to why people are using guns in this manner, and if there are ways we can get them help before they decide to use them to kill themselves and others. The role of public health in the gun violence sphere is really in figuring out why, creating interventions that will ensure that it never gets to the point of a gun being used.