The Journal of Preventive Medicine has just published A Special Issue on the Epidemiology and Prevention of Gun Violence, bringing together the foremost group of scholars ever assembled in one publication devoted to understanding gun violence. If anyone wants to quibble with me over the superlatives of the previous sentence, that’s fine. The bottom line is that if you want to know what some of the best and brightest in this field have been doing lately, this journal number is a good place to start.
It’s altogether fitting that the collection should be introduced in a guest editorial written by David Hemenway and Daniel Webster, who direct the two most important academic centers devoted to gun violence research from a public health perspective. Hemenway and Webster can thus take a global view of gun violence research which, unfortunately, doesn’t yield very positive results. The authors note that public health research is underfunded in medicine, injury prevention is underfunded in public health and gun research is underfunded in injury prevention – a triple whammy, if you will. Between 1991 and 2010, gun injuries were the second leading cause of injury deaths among youths ages 1-17, yet public health/medicine research accounted for less than 1% of all injury research.
This is a rather dismal state of affairs, and while much of the blame can be placed at the doorstep of the NRA, which pressured Congress into ending CDC-sponsored gun research after 1996, we shouldn’t discount other factors contributing to this research void as well. Chief among the reasons that inhibit public health gun research is the fact that injuries caused by guns are almost always considered major crimes. And while someone who punches someone else has committed an assault, the impact of such an event simply cannot be compared to what happens when someone shoots someone else with a gun. More often than not, gun violence is viewed as something more fittingly lodged within criminology rather than anything having to do with health.
Which is why I find the linkage of epidemiology to prevention in the title of this collection so exciting and perhaps signaling an important and fruitful change in the direction of gun violence research. Because epidemiology is the study of the incidence, distribution and control of disease, and if the editors of this collection believe that gun violence is a disease which can be controlled through the application of medical knowledge and techniques, then perhaps we will see an attempt by members of the medical community to reclaim the formative position they held in this field prior to the elimination of CFC-funded gun research.
I am going to leave a discussion about each article in this collection to specific columns to be published over the next few days. But I do want to briefly mention the editorial which introduces the volume because it’s the work primarily of three scholars from outside the United States. And while we tend to think of gun violence in America as a particularly American problem studied only by Americans themselves, it’s good to have an international perspective on the issue, in this case submitted by three medical researchers from over our northern border at McGill. The editorial, An elusive low-hanging fruit for public health: Gun violence prevention, notes that gun violence in America can’t be entirely separated from events throughout the world, in particular the cycle of violence unleashed by the attacks on 9-11.
This is hardly the first time that America’s obsession with guns and its toleration of excessive levels of gun violence have been tied to the continuing warfare and militarization provoked by terrorism both here and abroad. There’s only one small problem: not true. There was a spike in gun sales after the Twin Towers came down, but by the time it was noticed it was over. Gun sales continued at modest levels throughout the eight years of George W. Bush, and zoomed upwards only after a certain Kenyan moved to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue in 2009. Want to understand the epidemiology of guns? The U.S. Army, I’m afraid, won’t get you there.