Better than a thought and a prayer: Treat gun violence as a public health crisis

With estimates that more than 150,000 of America’s young have been exposed to campus shootings since 1979, it seems curious, to be generous, for so many to just bend a knee and not see that the nation is in the grip of a public health crisis — a crisis that with clear thinking could be stopped.

If Americans of another age got “scared straight” about the dangers of intoxicated driving by seeing gruesome educational movies, well, then, it might be worth getting more people to read the post-mortem, detailing the human carnage caused just a few months ago by a psychotic’s firing from a hotel perch into a music festival crowd below in Las Vegas. See, for example, the video above showing the damage caused by assault-style weapons.

Some politicians argue that mass shootings should be dealt with chiefly by emphasizing better mental health care for the troubled, without funding such approaches, or doing much to lift the stigma of mental disease or treatment. They don’t grapple with major obstacles that make this singular strategy insufficient.

What about treating gun violence as a public health issue, lifting a long-standing and unhelpful ban on rigorous scientific research in this area, and at least examining and debating, productively, some ways to deal with a menace that claims more than 33,000 lives annually and which is a growing and not receding bane?

Is it part of a reasonable discussion of the need for effective health insurance to ask whether people whose lives are torn apart by gun-toting madmen’s rampages should be eligible for shared, public help — and not beggared by the circumstance of being in the right place, like a planned festive event or just getting out of school, at a wrong time?

Facts and data and rigorous analysis can be not just useful but critical in improving Americans’ lives: We can learn about and ask if we are comfortable with our top lawmakers accepting so much money from the National Rifle Association, a special interest focused on guns and funded by the gun manufacturers.

We can dispassionately ask why lethal weapons designed for the battlefield legally may be in teens’ hands, and what happens when we do not allow arms like the AR-15 to be sold versus when we do.

Compared with the 10-year period before the ban, the number of gun massacres during the ban period fell by 37 percent, and the number of people dying from gun massacres fell by 43 percent. But after the ban lapsed in 2004, the numbers shot up again — an astonishing 183 percent increase in massacres and a 239 percent increase in massacre deaths, the Washington Post reported.

Or we could look at the rest of the civilized world, where mass gun violence is not routine the way it is here. Mental illness is common in every society. What happens when one society chooses easy access to military-type weapons and ammunition, and the rest do not? Look at the numbers, as any public health researcher would, and ask whether we are in the midst of a mass international experiment in violent death, whose victims did not sign up to be research subjects.

It’s not my thought nor prayer to disarm any fellow citizen nor to abridge anyone’s constitutional rights. But for the sake of our hearts, consciences, and our collective health, both our mental and physical well-being, we need to do more.


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