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Gun Violence is a disease – America should treat it as such

Jack Hodges on the nature of gun violence in America.

Last week, the news of yet another mass shooting in South Carolina appalled America. It came within weeks of two more high profile sprees in Atlanta and Colorado which together have claimed the lives of 23 Americans. These events have rightly sparked fury across a nation that is becoming increasingly accustomed to such events and attention has once again returned to guns in America.

But the current discourse on guns and the solutions proposed by either side range from a piecemeal reaction to outright denial. Neither of these is the right approach. Instead, a public health approach in which the root causes of all gun violence are addressed is the only way to stem the tide of over 40,000 American deaths each year.

What has each side advocated?

The Republicans have denied the problem of gun violence exists. By refusing to see any systemic problem, they have sought to paint the shooter simply as an aberration from the norm, the archetypal ‘bad guy with a gun. Louisiana Senator John Kennedy has even declared that America has not a gun control problem but an “idiot control” one. The Democrats have honed in on a series of rather reflexive policies which seek to remove certain weapons used in high profile attacks. These include calls for a ban on certain handgun attachments, high-capacity magazines, assault weapons and ‘ghost guns’. Though they have also proposed some policies which may tackle the wider problem of violence, such as holding a webinar to teach states how to free up funds to address community-based violence, this is very much not the focus of their push on gun reform. It should be.

To advance real change, the Democrats need to pivot from covering the gun debate as a reaction to mass shootings and towards preventing gun violence as a whole. In doing this they will both move away from the political quagmire that is mass shootings and begin to tackle the issue at its cause, not its highest-profile symptom. Each death by a gun is a tragedy that deserves mourning and a discussion on its future prevention. This is currently far from the case.

What is currently being covered?

There is a certain kind of gun violence that is currently dominating the public debate in America – very public and seemingly indiscriminate sprees. These make up a small proportion of all gun violence. According to the database compiled by investigative outlet Mother Jones, there were 12 such incidents in 2018 (this is the last year for which complete data is available). These incidents killed 80 people and injured another 70. Whilst still very much a tragedy, these deaths are dwarfed by the total number of gun deaths in the same year – 39,740. Even if we are to adopt the broadest possible definition of a mass shooting, an incident in which four or more people are killed or injured with a firearm, they still only make up less than 1% of all deaths.

What are we excluding?

Suicides, by contrast, make up around two-thirds of all deaths by a gun, and community-based gun violence the vast majority of the rest. Both of these issues have public health solutions that are rooted in prevention, not reaction.

In terms of reducing gun suicides, the institution of more broad sweeping legislation to temporarily confiscate weapons from those at risk of self-harm would be a good start and is proposed by some Democrats already. They can go much further. Properly funded and staffed mental health resources would act as the first line of treatment for those in need and a nationwide buyback of guns would drastically reduce access to weapons for those who are not picked up by the Red Flag laws currently being drafted. These policies run counter to the popular belief among many that suicides are somewhat inevitable and that removing one method available will only cause a rise in other areas. This is patently untrue. In Australia for example, a nationwide buyback that took in a fifth of all firearms reduced gun suicide by 74% without causing a significant rise in other methods.

Community-based violence is a problem that disproportionately affects marginalised communities. Grass-roots groups have already introduced a range of small-scale prevention-focused projects which have sought to stem the violence at its source. These often involve a mixture of outreach work, closer dialogue with law enforcement and hospital-based intervention programs. Implementation of such systems in communities in Oakland and Stockton, California has reduced gun violence by half in just a few years.

However, the Democrats are currently side-lining these issue from the political debate in favour of fighting a losing battle with the Republicans over these high-profile incidents.

What are the consequences of this?

A fixation on this specific kind of violence has proven a successful strategy for the Republican party. Whilst many specific policies on gun reform are popular, the broad idea of being pro or anti-gun has become more tied up in partisan identity and the so-called Culture Wars than ever before. According to Pew Research, there has been a consistent increase in the support for the position of ‘protecting gun rights’ since 2000 despite a near-constant stream of public shootings from Sandy Hook to Parkland. In fact, in the year following a public mass shooting, Republican-controlled states are more likely to loosen gun controls whilst there is no such reverse trend in Democratic ones.

The Democrats would be foolish to expect their Republican colleagues to move from their currently successful strategy of accusing them of politicising a public tragedy to ‘take away your guns. Instead, it is the Democrats who will need to shift the narrative to get laws passed. By moving away from the toxic debate around mass shootings and towards a more politically neutral public health approach, the Democrats may finally be able to start to cure the disease of the gun violence afflicting America. This will only be done by striking at its causes and not at its symptoms, no matter how high profile they may be.

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