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Gun violence, public health and the missing piece

The massacre in Newtown has once again opened up the discussion of firearms in America. We are getting the usual dumbassery about how this is a punishment from God or the fault of video games (which apparently are unavailable outside of the US) and the usual preemptive whining about how this is not the time to talk about firearm legislation because it would politicize the issue. This is the same spirit in which we refrained from discussing terrorism after 9/11 for fear of politicizing that issue.

It appears that the gun nuts are feeling a little defensive though. Unlike with previous gun massacres, this one has been accompanied by a real push on the role of our abysmal mental health care system. It’s actually a great point: we’ve basically outsourced mental health care to our prisons, with predictably disastrous results. We need to do a much better job of investing in mental health care, removing the shame that surrounds it, and making sure it is available to anyone who needs it.

That doesn’t mean it’s an either/or situation though. We can both improve mental health care and implement sensible policies to reduce gun violence. One obstacle to the latter is a certain air of resignation and fatalism (“I’m fresh out of ideas. Anybody?”) which - surprise! - is a stone’s throw from demands for a comprehensive legislative strategy for implementation. Because that is the only way to discuss any issue, and it also explains the absence of war, abortion, finance, inequality and gender policies from our national dialogue.

One of the emerging ideas is to treat gun violence as a public health issue much like we have with tobacco. Highlight the grisly costs of our gun worship, educate the public on the most hazardous aspects of the issue, and do everything we can to get people to think about it.

These suggestions are missing an absolutely crucial component, though: stigma. The public health campaign against smoking pushed information on the hazards of smoking into the public arena, but it also pushed back against the activity itself. Advertising for it was increasingly restricted, the glamorization of it by Hollywood was denounced, the areas where it was permitted narrowed, and in general the unmistakable message was: this is bad; don’t do it.

That’s what we need to do with firearms, because our gun culture has glamorized them for far too long. Any discussion of guns as a cultural marker usually begins as though we were still a late 18th century agrarian land recently liberated from a royal tyrant. That is not the world we live in, to put it mildly. The vast arsenals and enormous firepower of assault weapons bears no resemblance to the “to arms, men! Redcoats at the town square!” imagery of a musket-carrying citizen soldier often invoked when gun legislation is contemplated.

To say that these mass killings are unrepresentative of the gun owning public is as persuasive as the “few bad apples” argument after Abu Ghraib. In both cases they are produced by a systemic failure that goes all the way up the line. They are not freak aberrations, but the inevitable results of a terribly broken system.

It’s time to stop defending the violent gun culture or hedging arguments. It’s possible that there is some magical country where all the guns are kept safe, are never purchased illegally, and are always used for recreational purposes or self defense. We do not live in that country. We live in a country where 31,347 people were killed by guns in 2009 (the last year official numbers are available), where our thinking about firearms is based on mythology and not reality, and where the gun lobby and spineless officials block even the mildest reforms.

If we really are going to try to change all that with a public health campaign, stigmatizing gun ownership needs to be a part of it. And guess what? No political roadmap is needed. It can be done for handguns in urban areas and for semiautomatic weapons outside them. It’s something anyone can do, anywhere. Those who defend the status quo have blood on their hands, and we should say so plainly when the issue comes up. (For those concerned about telling people mean things see here.)

In some alternate reality maybe there’s an America where gun policy does not come at such an unconscionably murderous price. That’s not America circa 2012, though. When faced with the enormous damage of tobacco use, anti-smoking advocates didn’t mince words. They didn’t say, hey - a little smoking is probably fine; you probably won’t get lung cancer if you just have a couple a day. Faced with a public health catastrophe, they took an unambiguous stance. It’s time we did the same.

Reader Comments (5)

People forget the reason a militia was necessary in the late 18th century when the Constitution and Bill of Rights were written; the Army to protect the whole 13 states was only 3 regiments. That was about 3,000 men. There were also a few artillery and cavalry (actually dragoon) units. The size of the active military was kept small both because of financial and historical reasons. In the English Civil War, the King was replaced by a dictator, Cormwell, at the head of a professional army.

Today the active army is over 500,000 plus reserves. There is also a Navy, Marines, Air Force, and Coast Guard. The reason the Second Amendment is in the Constitution is to insure a "well regulated militia." It had nothing to do with individual rights to buy automatic weapons. The original militia laws specified exactly what weapons each able bodied man must purchase.

Gun control was built into the system from the very beginning of the country. It is only with the current extremist Supreme Court that things got out of control.

Incidentally, the NRA was organized in 1871 to improve weapons training in the military. Until at least 1968 the NRA supported gun control.

December 18, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterJohn Harvey

Thanks for the background and context, John.

December 18, 2012 | Registered CommenterDan

I hope this won't be considered out of place (if it is, delete it) but this was my take on it, from my cable-access TV show:


Video version at:


(BTW: Local cable is something I think all progressives should take advantage of. If it's there, use it.)

December 23, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterLarryE

I'm hate to be so gloomy about this, but I don't think the gun violence issue will ever be solved in America. It seems like we have a government these days that is broken and is incapable of addressing the challenges and problems our nation faces.
Decades ago, America was a "can-do" nation and we got things done. We built the federal highway system on time and on budget. We put a man on the moon. And, (although it's hard to believe today), we once had an excellent public education system that was the envy of the world.
But these days? The U.S. government has simply lost the ability to get things done.
I mean, when is the last time the U.S. government successfully accomplished something meaningful on a major issue? I guess some might say "Obamacare." But the jury is still very much out on that. And before Obamacare, you'd have to go back a long, long ways---maybe back to the moon landing.
Somehow, I get the feeling that we'll still be seeing horrific mass shootings in the year 2050. And we'll still be reading "Gosh, why on earth did this happen?" stories in the media. And it'll still be as easy to buy a gun then as a loaf of bread.

January 9, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterMarc McDonald

I understand your frustration Marc, but I don't share your sense of fatalism. It won't do to give up; keep at it even if it seems hopeless. Or alternately: "But I tried goddammit. At least I did that."

January 10, 2013 | Registered CommenterDan

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