Government, Gun Violence, Public Health

Our killing fields

October 3, 2017

Las Vegas hits close to home

Flags are lowered to half-staff in Washington, D.C., on Monday. Credit Mark Wilson/Getty Images, as published in The New York Times.

When the news about Las Vegas broke, I decided that I was not going to write about another American gun-infused tragedy. I felt the resignation and frustration about which Steve Israel, a former congressional representative from New York, wrote in a New York Times column today:

In the wake of one of the deadliest mass shootings in our nation’s history, perhaps the most asked question by Americans is, “Will anything change?” The simple answer is no. The more vital question is, “Why not?”

Israel recounted 52 mass shootings in his 16 years in Congress, from 2001 to January 2017, and how, after each one, he thought it would be the time Congress would act – finally – but it never did. He cited several reasons, including how redistricting has pushed the right further right; how the gun lobby has grown more polarized; and not least, our own apathy.

To paraphrase, he said that we have been inoculated against the pain of violence. We do nothing and expect nothing, and nothing happens. He has a point.

The point became more emphatic, and I became more resolute when we learned that the violence in Las Vegas had ended in the deaths of two family members of one of our Gillings School staff – two people who had gone to Las Vegas to celebrate their marriage – an innocent, joyful time turned tragic. I thought about the concentric circles around all 59 people who had been murdered and the more than 500 injured. I felt incredibly sad for all of them and all of us.

Then came the interviews with legislators from Nevada and elsewhere, who asked, If Americans could not bear arms, how could they be safe in their homes? That’s when I got angry.

Let’s get real.

The cache of weapons that the shooter is said to have had in his hotel room and home wasn’t there to protect his property. He was out to kill and maim, and a concert venue became his killing field. He went there with 10 loaded suitcases, presumably intending to kill. He certainly did not need all those weapons to protect himself in his hotel room.

Even if the Dickey Amendment for all intents and purposes put an end to funding by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for research on gun violence, gun violence is public health. Surely, there is some possible compromise that would allow individuals to have guns properly stored at home for self-protection, with appropriate registration and background checks, but not permit military-style, automatic assault weapons capable of killing hundreds of people.

As Maggie Koerth-Baker wisely points out on Nate Silver’s FiveThirtyEight website, mass shootings are different from other shootings in many ways, and policies must address the full gamut.

In the past, as Israel notes, the NRA supported sensible gun-safety measures. Can’t we at least get there? Or will we simply content ourselves with wringing our hands and flying flags half-mast?

I’d love to see public health students across the country take this on.

The views expressed in this blog are Barbara Rimer’s alone and do not represent the views and policies of The University of North Carolina or the Gillings School of Global Public Health.

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The views expressed in this blog are Barbara Rimer’s alone and do not represent the views and policies of The University of North Carolina or the Gillings School.