On the problem of gun violence in the United States

18Nov13

How do we address gun violence in our society?

The truth is, we need to study violence from the aspect of public health. Members of the Pennsylvania Medical Society say that doing this will be far more effective than treating the symptoms (such as the prevalence of guns out there, the types of guns available to the general public, and other “gun” measures). Dr. Bruce McLeod, president of the Society, says that looking at the problem this way could mean finding real solutions that will significantly reduce gun deaths without the need for more gun laws.

An analogy (maybe a good one, maybe not) is cholera. How did we get rid of cholera in the industrialized world? Better medicines? Better hospitals? Better trained doctors and nurses? Vaccines? No. We studied how it spread, places where it seemed to be most prevalent, explored the possible underlying causes, discovered that sanitation problems that contaminated the water supply were the main cause, and created ways to better dispose of waste so people weren’t ingesting the bacteria that caused the disease.

According to epidemiologist Gary Slutkin, maps showing gun violence incidence resemble maps showing outbreaks of infectious disease. When he founded CeaseFire, which now goes by the name Cure Violence, in Chicago’s West Garfield neighborhood, the incidence of gun violence dropped dramatically.

Thus, gun violence (all violence, really) has deeper causes. The best way to address it is to stop looking at the instruments of violence (guns, knives, etc.) and to start looking for what makes a criminal a criminal. Start looking for what makes people think crime is the answer. Start looking at what makes children join gangs, or simply turn to crime while still so young. Start looking for what makes a mass shooter snap and start shooting up schools and crowded areas. And STOP looking for a catch-all that will make everything go away in one fell swoop immediately.

Conservatives tend to say any, or all, of the following:

  • “We need better armed security.”
  • “Someone with a gun could have stopped this.”
  • “Requiring background checks just harms law-abiding citizens.”
  • “Violent video games are to blame for this.”
  • “Violence in the media is to blame for this; the media should be held responsible.”
  • “The problem is mental health, and our mental healthcare system.”
  • “We want to go after how criminals get guns without in any way imposing on law-abiding citizens.”

While liberals tend to say:

  • “We need fewer guns.”
  • “We need stronger background checks.”
  • “We need better mental health care to identify these people before they can kill people.”
  • “If we ban assault weapons, mass shootings will stop.”
  • “More gun-free zones would stop this.”

In other words, our lawmakers look at the issue as one of either guns or criminals, with the only agreement being that we need better mental health care. It doesn’t occur to them to think of deeper causes of this.

The media doesn’t help; the pundits and commentators that talk about this stuff all parrot what our lawmakers say (or do our lawmakers parrot what the press says?). People get their news primarily from the Internet and television, which perpetuate these views ad nauseam. Nobody really tries to make a point of public health, except maybe to mention that Congress cut the CDC’s funding for such research in the mid-1990s, and President Obama has tried to reinstate at least some of it.

The media does glorify what already happens, though. They feed on it and make it bigger because that brings ratings, readers, and page views, but they don’t create it. It’s doubtful they make a significant enough contribution to the problem to warrant all the negative attention they get whenever there’s a mass shooting that they report on for days.

When people point at mental health, they often ask, “How did these sickos go unnoticed for so long?” Mass shootings, as the media and our society likes to define them, are but a small percentage of our gun violence problem. Very few people who commit violent crimes can actually be defined as psychotic, and in fact, people who are actually suffering from an untreated psychotic illness are more likely to be victims of violent crime than they are to commit violent crime. This perception stigmatizes something that shouldn’t have a stigma.

It’s true that our mental health system falls far short of what’s needed here. People with everything from unmanageable stress to depression to psychotic illnesses have trouble finding access to good mental health care. However, tying mental health to the problem of gun violence, and using that as the cause, will only address a tiny fraction of all gun violence here.

Basically, the whole issue of violence comes down to this: When trying to figure out how to solve the problem, the key is to ask why, not look at each individual case, from the home invasion to the liquor store robbery to the school shooting, and think up stronger punishment as a deterrent. We need to ask questions like the following:

  • Why does someone think robbing a store or a bank is the best solution to their problem?
  • Why does someone think breaking into a house is the best solution to their problem?
  • Why does someone think that assault and battery, or worse, murder, is the best solution to their problem?
  • Why are they driven to commit these crimes?
  • What makes them do it in the first place?
  • Where should we look most closely across the country, and in cities, to identify underlying causes of violence and answer the above questions?

There may be one answer to all of that, but there are more likely several. Violence is a disease on our society. You can’t get rid of a disease by prescribing medicines that only treat the symptoms. To effectively address violent crime in this country, we need to find those reasons and then address them, instead of slapping more laws on the symptoms.

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