(Gun) Violence as a Public Health Issue

In the Summer 2014 edition of Dignitas Greg Rutecki provides a thought-provoking article calling for reframing the gun control debate as a public health issue. He brings attention to the measures taken in Australia following a 1996 mass shooting (35 dead) in 1996, which subsequently appeared to produce a striking drop in homicides, as well as suicides by firearms.

Although we could have reasonable debate as to whether the specific actions taken in Australia would be appropriate here, it is appropriate to consider if current laws are adequate or need revision based on features of modernity such as increasing population and crowding, advances in technology, and so on. The need to balance public safety, or, as Rutecki puts it, public health, and individual freedoms, requires us to find an Aristotelian “golden mean” between unfettered and unregulated gun ownership and excessively strict control.

But we must ensure that our debate is sufficiently circumspect, otherwise we may find ourselves with unintended consequences that cannot be undone.

First, we ought to consider what is meant by “gun violence.” Descriptions and debates in the news of shootings frequently use this term, which seems to create a mental picture of guns wandering independently down streets and shooting innocent people. If “gun violence” is a public health issue, then so is violence in general. Therefore, interventions must include actions to address the social and moral breakdowns producing violence. When violence is an issue, the choice of instrument is but one aspect, and banning guns does not ban the problems that produce violence in the first place. In the absence of guns, there are plenty of other instruments at man’s disposal.

Second, Rutecki cites “dedication” and “commitments” to the Second Amendment. Critique of Second Amendment advocacy paints a picture of unquestioning devotion, as if the right to bear arms was considered, philosophically speaking, a “first truth.” This is too shallow a view, for the foundational principle was not gun ownership but self defense. It was, to the founding fathers, a commitment to individual freedom, a recognition that the tyrannical gather power when their force is unopposed. Gun ownership becomes both symbolic and an actual guarantor of freedom from tyranny.

There are many who consider such concern anachronistic, and are doubtful that 21st Century America needs such guarantees. Are modern dangers sufficient to justify gun ownership, as they were in 18th century America? If one were to say no, I would argue that he could not prove so unless gun ownership were eliminated and the subsequent net loss of life from violence turns out to be less than today’s. It is credible to argue that there are threats we are unaware of because of widespread gun ownership. If Rutecki’s public health analogy is valid, then one must note that this is the nature of the argument for immunization against rare diseases, when confronted by those who argue against immunizations due to vaccine safety concerns.

We must then decide if there is a more modern “disease” from which private gun ownership protects us. In a recent article in National Review   Charles C. W. Cooke brings attention to our own history, and the role of private gun ownership in defending Americans of African ancestry against racially-motivated violence:

In her harrowing 1892 treatise on the horrors of lynching in the post-bellum American South, the journalist, suffragist, and civil-rights champion Ida B. Wells established for her readers the value of bearing arms. “Of the many inhuman outrages of this present year,” Wells recorded, “the only case where the proposed lynching did not occur, was where the men armed themselves.”

That history may still be too remote to convince many of the threats diverted by gun ownership, but world events concurrent with Rutecki’s article provide sufficient evidence to me. To cite but one example—we have heard of an epidemic of the maladies of decapitation and mass execution raging through Iraq and Syria. We could argue whether a well-armed Yazidi populace may have saved many lives; the Kurds need no convincing.

This is not an impossibly remote or nebulous threat to America. It doesn’t take much imagination to figure out how a well-resourced group of people could find their way into the United States. And the question of whether ISIS desires to do so has already been clearly answered.

I would not deny the need to be expansive in one’s consideration of gun laws in the face of gun violence in the United States, whatever its root causes, and the need to seek solutions. But if the goal is to prevent violence, we must consider all sources, and ensure that we do not go so far as to remove a potential preventive measure. In the face of an advancing evil bent on shedding our blood, and considering our inability to protect our borders fully, a well-armed populace is our final defense against the current and advancing public health scourge of decapitation. If violence is a public health problem, then privately owned gun ownership amidst a determined citizenry facing an advancing and depraved evil is simply “preventive medicine.”

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Jon Holmlund
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Jon Holmlund

I think calling violent crime committed with guns a public issue is to make a category error. This is not a matter of public health, properly construed. That there are medical/surgical consequences of being shot is obvious. But gun ownership is not a disease. Nor are the sinful impulses to commit crimes. That is not to foreclose the policy discussion–just to keep it in its proper arena. As much as bioethical matters routinely have implications for public policy, it does not follow that all policy problems have roots in bioethics. To act as if they do is to endorse the… Read more »