Opinions on Debatable Issues #29
According to the UW Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, the US ranks 20th in per capita gun deaths. Approximately 30,000 Americans per year, 80 per day, die from gun violence.
Gun violence is a heated topic in the News recently. The mass shooting in Atlanta and Wisconsin regained public attention, arousing social concerns and political actions regarding gun control. Increasingly, people are identifying gun violence as a public health issue when others argue it is about gun ownership. I think the former has a strong argument. But before I discuss why that is the case, I want to disabuse the misunderstanding that mass shootings, which are often reported to be perpetrated by mentally ill people, make up a majority of gun violence incidences.
Public health is not exclusively about mental illnesses. According to CDC, public health is “the science of protecting and improving the health of people and their communities”. A public health problem, therefore, is a medical issue that affects a significant portion of a specific population. Those issues include substance abuse, domestic violence, suicidality, and mental health.
First, let’s talk about domestic violence. According to The Educational Fund to Stop Gun Violence, domestic violence, including intimate partner violence, is a public health crisis in the U.S. In fact, “around 4.5 million women in the United States have been threatened with a gun, and nearly 1 million women have been shot or shot at by an intimate partner. Over half of all intimate partner homicides are committed with guns”. The causal connection between domestic violence and gun violence is undeniable. Since domestic violence is a significant public health issue, it can be reasonably concluded that gun violence is a public health crisis. Also, intimate partner homicide events often result in multiple victims, including the deaths of coworkers, friends, new dating partners of the victim, strangers, police officers, and children or family of the victim. So its influence on public health cannot be ignored.
Secondly, mental health issues. The United States, Colombia, the Netherlands, and Ukraine tended to have higher prevalence estimates across various mental disorders, according to JAMA. “Nearly half of Americans (46.4%) reported meeting criteria at some point in their life for either a DSM-IV anxiety disorder (28.8%), mood disorder (20.8%), impulse-control disorder (24.8%), or substance use disorders (14.6%)”, according to Archives of General Psychiatry. People with those illnesses are more likely to harm themselves. In rare instances, such as mass shootings, they can harm others as well, according to Mental health America. According to the American journal of public health, “reports suggest that up to 60% of perpetrators of mass shootings in the United States since 1970 displayed symptoms including acute paranoia, delusions, and depression before committing their crimes”. This conclusion is affirmed by a study published in PMC, which agrees that “evidence strongly suggests that mass shooters are often mentally ill and socially marginalized.” Therefore, even though mass shooting does not make up the bulk of gun violence in the US, mental illness is an undeniable factor.
Thirdly, substance abuse. According to The Recovery Village and Oxford Academic, 68% of substance-related murders involve guns. While alcohol is the primary substance related to gun violence (around a third of people who are killed by guns were drunk), about a fifth of murder victims have cocaine in their system at the time of their death. Then, over 4% of victims have opioids in their system when they are killed. This reveals that substance abuse, which is considered a health issue that needs professional medical assistance to solve, contributes to gun violence.
Some people argue that gun ownership is the main cause of rampant gun violence. Studies have shown that homicide was more common in areas where household firearms ownership was higher, and states with high rates of gun ownership had disproportionately high numbers of deaths from firearm-related homicides. I concede that gun availability does play a role in the increase in gun violence. However, the high suicide inclination, domestic abuse, mental illness rate in the US were the root of the problem of gun violence. The ownership of guns was not the cause of gun violence. Rather, it exacerbates the issue by making the symptoms more extreme and deadly. In other words, if the mental illnesses, suicidal thoughts, and abusive tendencies were cured or just decreased, gun violence would be ameliorated. When the health issue of the public was not addressed, limiting gun ownership would only induce struggling citizens to seek other means to hurt themselves and/or others. Therefore, gun violence is a public health issue and can only be solved by improving public health.
Besides, according to American Psychological Association, preventative measures of gun violence includes “specialized instruments for the assessment of violence risk among sex offenders, civilly committed psychiatric patients, and domestic violence offenders.” This demonstrates that the different public health concerns aforementioned are strong indications of potential gun violence behaviors.
Some speak about the concern that bills addressing public health issues will not be passed in Congress, pointing to Joe Biden’s bill. This is not a valid worry, however, because what is stalling the bill is political polarization, partisanship, and the dissent over the 2nd amendment rights, not its nature as public health issue bill.
In conclusion, gun violence is a public health issue that has more factors to it than a significant component of the public perceives. If bills only focus on limiting certain groups’ access to firearms instead of addressing those basic health concerns, violence in the US will not go away as it might manifest itself in other forms, such as harming others with knives, fire, drugs, or vehicles. So improving the health of American citizens is the ultimate solution to solving gun violence.
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