Over the next couple of news cycles, no doubt gun violence prevention (GVP) advocates will be engaged in an intense discussion about whether Trump’s SCOTUS nominee will help open the floodgates for more pro-gun legal decisions. But with all due respect to concerns and fears about whether the Age of Trump will see a further tilting of the legal landscape in favor of the NRA, I would suggest that perhaps there is a much more pressing issue which GVP needs to address.
If the preliminary numbers turn out to be correct, 2016 will have seen a significant uptick in gun violence, and so far 2017 promises to be more of the same. And while there is certainly some kind of correlation between the existence of legal gun controls and gun violence levels, the truth is that we still do not know why more than 120,000 Americans pick up a gun, point it at themselves or someone else and pull the trigger each year. Theories may abound, but the reality is that we just don’t know. So how you do come up with an effective strategy in response to a problem when you cannot say with any degree of certainty that you know why the problem exists?
And don’t make the mistake of following the CDC in this respect and begin by making some kind of distinction between intentional gun injuries on the one hand, and unintentional gun injuries on the other. Because the people who commit intentional gun injuries (males, ages 15 to 35) also happen to be the people who shoot themselves or other accidentally with a gun. To paraphrase Walter Mosley, if you put your hand on a gun, it’s going to go off sooner or later.
But what’s interesting is that gun violence, as serious and scary as it may be to those either directly or indirectly involved, is still, statistically speaking, a rare event. Last year over one million people were arrested for trying to really injure another person, what is called aggravated assault. In less than 6% of those attacks, the attacker used a gun. How come the other 95% didn’t use a gun? And don’t tell me they couldn’t get their hands on a gun. And even though people who commit suicides use a gun in half those successful attempts, what about the other half? After all, using a gun to end your life is really about the only way you can guarantee to really get the job done.
Virtually all of our knowledge about the how and why of gun violence comes from public health research which, notwithstanding the lack of funding, continues to appear. But virtually all the research, in keeping with public health methodology, attempts to create an epidemiology of gun violence; i.e., figuring out how to respond to the injury by figuring out where, when and how it occurs. Which tells us a lot about who gets shot, but tells us next to nothing about the shooters themselves. Which wouldn’t be a problem except for the fact that as I said above, the 115,000+ gun injuries that occur each year are, for the most part, rare events.
To which the immediate objection is that maybe on an overall basis gun violence is an infrequent event, but in certain neighborhoods it’s as frequent and common as the veritable slice of apple pie. Except that even in the worst, most violent-ridden neighborhood say, West Chi, most crimes of violence are committed without the use of a gun.
So where does this leave us when it comes to figuring out a strategy for reducing gun violence? To be sure, if Judge Gorsuch is a threat he deserves to be opposed and condemned. But when it comes to ending gun carnage, he’s not the elephant sitting in the living room. The elephant is what we still don’t know about why people pick up guns to hurt themselves or someone else, and we need to figure that one out.