Turner Syndrome is a genetic abnormality which results from an absence or partial absence of the X chromosome, preventing the development of healthy ovaries in women, as well as certain heart defects. It can be detected by genetic screening prior to birth, but sometimes a diagnosis doesn’t take place until the teen or young adult years. Once diagnosed, “girls and women with Turner Syndrome need ongoing medical care from a variety of specialists,” so says the Mayo Clinic. In other words, it’s a complicated disease.
How often does this disease appear? Roughly 1 out of 2,500 live births. If we take the best estimate for the number of fatal and non-fatal injuries caused by one person shooting a gun at someone else, the incidence of this type of gun violence within the age cohorts 16 through 34, would also be around 1 out of every 2,500 individuals in those age groups.
If we didn’t experience 90,000 fatal and non-fatal intentional gun assaults each year, it would be difficult to argue that gun violence should be considered a public health problem at all. But wait a minute, you say. What about the 20,000 people who end their lives every year by using a gun? Isn’t gun-suicide also a problem that needs to be addressed?
Of course we need to eliminate gun suicides but the issue in that instance is quite simple because overwhelmingly, people who commit gun suicides happen to use a gun that they legally own. And they use a gun because they know using a gun will almost always get done what they want to get done.
But that’s not the case with the homicides and aggravated assaults which account for more than 80% of all gun violence every year. This public health event is almost always committed by individuals who do not have legal access to the gun used in the assault. Which means that even before they use the gun to hurt someone else, they have already committed a serious crime. It’s called ‘illegal possession’ of a firearm which, under Federal law, can be punished by as much as five years in jail.
For all these reasons, I find it difficult to understand how my friends who conduct public health studies on gun violence seem to go out of their way to avoid contact with criminologists who have produced significant research on violent crime. I am referring, for example, to the study by Paul Tracy and Kimberly Kempf-Leonard, Continuity and Discontinuity in Criminal Careers, which analyzed the life histories of the 27,160 men and women born in Philadelphia in 1958, and followed them through 1984; in other words, from birth through age 26.
This longitudinal study allows criminologists to do what public health researchers do not do, namely, develop a profile of potentially high-risk behavior over time, rather than relying on one data entry for one point in time; i.e., when someone with a gun injury shows up for treatment in an ER. Here’s the bottom line: “The frequency of delinquent activity is the most consistent and strongest predictor of adult crime.”
What we get from public health gun research are the immediate symptoms which appear when the injury occurs. What we get from criminology is the case history leading up to the medical event. Can we really develop effective public policies to reduce gun violence without combining both?
This is why I began today’s column with a brief discussion of a medical problem – Turner’s Syndrome – that occurs within the overall population to the same degree as another medical problem – gun violence – occurs within the age cohorts which exhibit the overwhelming number of injuries caused by guns.
Diagnosing and treating Turner’s Syndrome is a very complicated affair. To repeat: it requires ‘ongoing medical care from a variety of specialists.’ Why should we approach gun violence in any less of a comprehensive way? When it comes to gun violence, public health and criminology should stop avoiding each other and join together to solve this dread disease.