The issue of guns in the U.S. means different things to different people. For America’s doctors, the gun violence plaguing the nation is a public health issue.
If tens of thousands of people die each year from a contagious disease, an epidemic, it stands to reason that the nation would mobilize to study, understand, address and fight this thing. But when it comes to something such as the uniquely American, over $230 billion-annual problem of gun violence, this does not happen. The recent gun-related tragedies –the Orlando massacre, followed by the police shooting death of Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge, Louisiana and Philando Castile outside of Minneapolis, and the ambush-style killing of police in Dallas—scream out for action. However, a system of legalized bribery in our political system has caused Republicans in Congress to pocket their millions in NRA money and look the other way.
The American Medical Association—the most influential organization of doctors– recently declared that gun violence is a public health issue, inserting itself into the gun control debate and positioning itself against the NRA.
“With approximately 30,000 men, women and children dying each year at the barrel of a gun in elementary schools, movie theaters, workplaces, houses of worship and on live television, the United States faces a public health crisis of gun violence,” said AMA President Steven J. Stack, M.D. “Even as America faces a crisis unrivaled in any other developed country, the Congress prohibits the CDC from conducting the very research that would help us understand the problems associated with gun violence and determine how to reduce the high rate of firearm-related deaths and injuries. An epidemiological analysis of gun violence is vital so physicians and other health providers, law enforcement, and society at large may be able to prevent injury, death and other harms to society resulting from firearms.”
The organization also “recognizes that uncontrolled ownership and use of firearms, especially handguns, is a serious threat to the public’s health inasmuch as the weapons are one of the main causes of intentional and unintentional injuries and deaths,” and supports a number of gun control measures.
The NRA-owned Republicans in Congress continue to block funding for federal research on gun violence. A 1996 provision known as the Dickey Amendment, named after former Rep. Jay Dickey (R-Ark.), provides that funds may not be used “to advocate or promote gun control.” The amendment was enacted as a response to a 1993 New England Journal of Medicine study which found that a gun in the home increased the risk of homicide by a family member or intimate acquaintance. Dickey himself has urged Congress to repeal the language of his own measure, which has had a chilling effect on gun violence research.
Meanwhile, consider the context in which the U.S. finds itself. At over 300 million firearms–perhaps as many as 357 million by one estimate, half of the world’s civilian gun arsenal— the U.S. stands as the world leader in gun proliferation. The per capita rate is double what it was in 1968, the year that Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy were assassinated. And since that year, more Americans have died from gunfire—1.5 million— than in all of America’s wars combined. More guns are in the possession of fewer households, but arms manufacturers have doubled their manufacturing output in the past few decades to about 11 million guns per year.
Not surprisingly, America leads the community of rich nations in firearm-related killings. To put it simply, other advanced nations simply don’t live like this. According to a report in the American Journal of Medicine, we have the highest rates of lethal violence in the developed world. Americans are 10 times more likely to die from guns than people in other developed nations. The U.S. gun homicide rate is 25 times higher, and while U.S. suicide rates are comparable to other countries, the gun homicide rate is eight times higher. Just to unpack the findings a bit more, Americans are seven times more likely to be violently killed, and six times more likely to be accidentally killed with a gun.
“America’s love affair with firearms has dire consequences, especially when compared to outcomes in the rest of the developed world,” the Journal said. “Investigators found that despite having only half the population of the other 22 high-income nations combined, the U.S. accounted for 82% of all firearm deaths. In addition, the US accounted for 90% of all women, 91% of children aged 0 to 14 years, and 92% of youth aged 15 to 24 years who were killed by firearms.”
Further, for Americans 15 to 24 years old, homicide is the second leading cause of death, and third leading cause for ages 25 through 34. Members of the former are 49 times more likely to die from firearm homicide than their counterparts in other countries, while those in the latter group have a risk 32 times greater. And more than two-thirds of the homicides in America are gun-related.
These statistics are alarming and would make one conclude that the land of the free resembles a Third World nation, a failed state, a war zone or a country undergoing a civil war. And the U.S. leads the world in mass shootings, accounting for 5 percent of world’s population, but 31 percent of the mass shootings globally between 1966 and 2012.
According to Everytown for Gun Safety, there are around 33,000 gun deaths a year, nearly 12,000 of them murders, and nearly two-thirds are suicides. However, we need to examine the racial dynamics of the gun violence issue. African-Americans are 14 percent of the population but account for over half of all gun murders. Black men are 10 times more likely than white men to be a victim of firearm homicide. Meanwhile, the gun control debate ignores these racial disparities. As Brookings has found, 77 percent of white gun deaths are suicides and 19 percent are murders, while 82 percent of black gun deaths are homicides, and 14 percent are suicides. The present focus in the gun control debate on mass shootings ignores the death of black bodies, as well as the epidemic of white suicides by gun.
Add to the mix poorly-trained, racially-insensitive and highly-militarized police officers who do not live in the communities of color they monitor. Trigger-happy cops are conditioned through implicit bias and institutional racism to view every black person they encounter on the road or in the street as an armed thug, criminal, murderer or terrorist. This is how an unwarranted police stop over a broken tail light, failing to signal, selling loosie cigarettes or CDs in front of a convenience store—or whatever—leads to dead black people. In fact, unarmed black men are 3.49 times more likely to killed by the police than their white counterparts, and in some counties the risk for black men is 20-to-1—or greater. There is a reason why African-American officers maintain their own police unions in these departments rife with racism across the country.
It is no wonder that the Bahamas has warned its citizens traveling to the U.S. to watch their back due to “recent tensions in some American cities over shootings of young black males by police officers.” The statement from the predominantly black nation advised “all Bahamians traveling to the US but especially to the affected cities to exercise appropriate caution generally. In particular young males are asked to exercise extreme caution in affected cities in their interactions with the police. Do not be confrontational and cooperate.”
This is America, the Wild West, a toxic cauldron of racial hatred, economic deprivation, stress, trauma and violence. Dr. King called the U.S. “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today.” And nothing since has controverted his statement, which resonates even more today than when he made it in 1967.
Meanwhile, an outdated, 18th century relic known as the Second Amendment holds America hostage, as the gun lobby maintains a centuries-old culture of violence emanating from the slave patrols. Modern-era gun rights—the notion of an unlimited right to carry a weapon– have their origins in the slaveholding South, with its culture of honor and violence, and a need for guns “as a protection against the slaves” and for “quarrels between freemen.” If the “right to bear arms” was meant for white men only, then it explains why the NRA refuses to speak up for Philando Castile, who was shot to death by police at a traffic stop—in front of his fiancée and her 4-year-old daughter—after announcing he was carrying a legally licensed gun. As Kira Lerner wrote in ThinkProgress recently, the NRA doesn’t think that black lives matter, as gun ownership is a different animal in these communities. Blacks tend to care more about gun control than gun rights, and worry about their interactions with police and their children being shot. And many, including millennials, are impacted by gun violence and police violence. This tweet from @JenniDigital at @ColorofChange on the color-coded hypocrisy of the NRA sums it up perfectly:
Further, gun violence is a domestic violence issue as well. When a perpetrator has access to a gun, it increases the risk of killing a woman fivefold.
In any case, as constitutional law professor David S. Cohen of the Drexel University Thomas R. Kline School of Law noted in Rolling Stone, the Second Amendment must be repealed.
A public health focus on firearms deaths would allow society to address and tackle the gun epidemic like the disease that it is. The gun lobby’s hold on the gun issue is starting to show cracks, with the Congressional Democrats recently showing some intestinal fortitude with their sit-in on the House floor, and Republicans displaying their vulnerability. The battle is only beginning. But if the mass protests across the nation are any indication, people have had enough of this firearm foolishness.
Featured photo by: Daniella Urdinlaiz.