Government, Gun Violence, Public Health, Students

The gun epidemic

December 8, 2015

New York Times and APHA agree: It is time

On Saturday, Dec. 5, editors of the New York Times did something they have done only a few times previously; the last time was in 1920. They published an editorial, titled “The Gun Epidemic,” on the front page. In doing so, they signaled the importance of the issue.

“It is a moral outrage and a national disgrace that people can legally purchase weapons designed specifically to kill with brutal speed and efficiency,” the editorial reads. The language is reminiscent of the way we talked about tobacco before it was regulated—when used as intended, it can kill people.

Gun violence is a public health epidemic and, like tobacco, another public health killer, guns result in deaths that are largely preventable. The editors argue that it is past time to stop talking about halting the spread of firearms and instead to reduce their number dramatically. The editors put significant blame and responsibility on elected officials who attend prayer vigils for victims, but don’t have the courage to act to prevent gun violence.

Kudos to the Times for saying it like it is. I grew up at a time when leaders I revered, including John Kennedy, Robert Kennedy and Dr. Martin Luther King, were murdered with guns. People were outraged and said it was time to regulate firearms. Over and over again, we watched more public tragedies unfold. The attempted assassination of President Reagan caused grievous injury to Jim Brady; John Lennon was murdered near his home; and thousands of ordinary citizens are murdered every year.

We were outraged by the murders of high school students and a teacher at Columbine in 1999 and young children and staff at Sandy Hook Elementary School, in Newtown, Conn., in 2012. After that, people thought surely that something finally would be done, but outrage wasn’t turned into action, and the numbers of incidents and victims keep growing. Most recently, we have been horrified by police killings of black men in communities across the U.S.

A reminder last week that it could be us

Last week, our campus was thrown into a lockdown when someone reported seeing a person with a gun not far from our buildings. The anxiety was palpable. What turned out to be a false alarm was also a wake-up call. It could have been us.

It was us, on Jan. 27, 1995, when a law school student opened fire on defenseless victims on Franklin Street in Chapel Hill, killing two people. My parents had entered a restaurant on Franklin Street minutes earlier, and I remember being anxious until we heard from them.

No place in America is completely safe from the potential of violence. That’s the thing about guns. We don’t know who has one, and what will set them off. We were fortunate that there was no shooter on campus last Wednesday, and we got back to business. But there could have been one.

A student’s message

After the incident last week, I wrote an email message to our School community, saying, among other things, that we would learn from the experience and be better prepared in the future. I received a number of emails thanking me for writing the message. One student, Katie Byerly (who gave me permission to share her words), thanked me but said that I should not have missed the opportunity to focus on gun violence.

I explained that because there was so much anxiety I’d chosen to focus my message differently, on immediate health risks, such as unsafe driving practices that could harm students during the holidays. As I thought more about it, I decided that Katie was right. I could have taken the opportunity to remind readers that gun violence is a public health epidemic, and public health tools and interventions (including policies) can be used to stop the epidemic.

Katie said:
Today Georges Benjamin, the [American Public Health Association] APHA Executive Director, published an opinion in The Guardian titled ‘Gun violence is an epidemic. It is time for a public health response’ that speaks to this issue. As the top public school of public health in our nation, UNC has a responsibility to take a stand on issues like gun violence. This is an issue connected to many of our health systems and one that is shaped by underlying determinants of health and equity. Educating our own community is paramount and a vital first step. Leaving out mention of this as a public health issue was a missed opportunity to take part in that education.

Later, she said that when she wrote her initial email to me, she also was:
thinking deeply about the connections between gun violence and police violence; racism and racial violence; the similarities and differences in mass shootings, homicides and suicides; mental health; the list goes on. The interconnectedness and complexity of our world’s issues is certainly something with which to contend.

At the Gillings School, we have some of the smartest, most perceptive students anywhere, and Katie was right. Kudos to her for speaking out! We should act now to end the gun epidemic. As NYT columnist Nicholas Kristof wrote in early October, after the shootings at Umpqua Community College, in Oregon, what is needed is an evidence-based public health approach. That means using multiple strategies, including policies to regulate purchases of guns, as well as banning certain kinds of guns through courageous legislation that protects all our citizens. We also need the kinds of environmental controls to which Kristof alludes. It’s a complicated issue, and it will take multiple strategies to end the epidemic.

Last week, after the shootings in San Bernardino, Kristof revisited this issue in a column titled, “On guns, we’re not even trying.” He wrote:
We need a new public health approach based not on eliminating guns (that simply won’t happen in a land awash with 300 million guns) but on reducing the carnage they cause. We routinely construct policies that reduce the toll of deadly products around us. That’s what we do with cars (driver’s licenses, seatbelts, guardrails). It’s what we do with swimming pools (fences, childproof gates, pool covers). It’s what we do with toy guns (orange tips). It’s what we should do with real guns.

At the same time, we must assure that ordinary citizens do not become the victims of law enforcers. It is time.

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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.