Julia Cohn: Gun violence as a public health issue

Sunday, March 4, 2018 - 5:10pm



On Feb. 14, 2018, a school shooting occurred in Parkland, Fla. at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. Seventeen people were murdered, and the country was left to mourn yet another senseless killing.  

Since the 1999 shooting at Columbine high school, our generation has recognized the recurring incidence of mass shootings. Every time, the nation is shocked and motivated to change. But in reality, there has been a distinct lack of change on a policy level related to these shootings. The control the National Rifle Association has on politicians makes it hard to utilize the government as an agent of change. This control involves millions of dollars in contributions to numerous politicians in both political parties, making it difficult and unappealing to advocate for policies the NRA may not support. I believe after the Parkland shooting, however, national reform will finally begin to succeed. The students who survived and witnessed this act of violence have opposed the stagnation and lack of action over the past 19 years. Our generation is breaking the status quo by challenging politicians, the NRA, corporations and the American people for allowing these systemic problems to exist.

As I have written in previous columns, questioning your beliefs and engaging in direct political action spawns change. Yes, we can say education as a whole is the agent that could fix our nation’s problems. This could include teaching the reason for the current state of things or how to make them better for the future. I continued to echo this mantra time after time, but have begun to realize education is only one small portion of social change. When problems have very complex solutions, it is difficult to recognize the long-term action that is required to disrupt the status quo.

The solution for gun control is nowhere close to simple. It may require a shifting of public rhetoric, bipartisan support, research and education. And changing the laws and actions in our country will not happen overnight. But the most effective way could be to look at gun regulation from a public health approach. Our nation has watched political action fail repeatedly. We have even watched a digression in regulation and laws in states across the nation.

Yet, public health approaches have been used to regulate and increase the safety of automobiles and air pollution in the past. For example, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, in 1946 there were 9.35 deaths per 100 million vehicle miles traveled. As speed limits were lowered, seatbelts were required, and safety reporting was heightened, this rate dropped to 1.18 in 2016.

Nicholas Kristof, a New York Times columnist, also advocates for this public health approach to decrease the rate of shootings. He argues the “liberal approach” to regulate guns is “ineffective”. One of the first steps in reducing gun violence in the U.S. is research. Our country faces a disproportionate amount of gun violence and gun-related fatalities compared to other nations. According to a study in the American Journal of Medicine, Americans are 25 times more likely to be killed by guns than citizens of other high income countries. Though this striking data is important to take into account, there is an overwhelming lack of research conducted on gun ownership, training and violence. Funding needs to be allocated to federal organizations to complete this research to attain a comprehensive conclusion about the trends in this violence.

Furthermore, increasing background checks and limiting the access that young people have to guns is an important step to increase the efficacy of gun regulation. Current background checks are only required for gun sales at licensed dealers. As a result, it is not difficult for guns to change hands to other buyers after this process, undermining the goal of the surveillance. Kristof says, “Our laws have often focused more on weapons themselves (such as the assault weapons ban) rather than on access.” Mass shootings are not the most common type of gun violence, but they are often the most publicized because of their horrific display of violence. Scrutinizing individuals to strict background checks and training would make the U.S. more similar to the processes that other countries require gun owners to complete.

It is too easy to get firearms in our country. A recent article in the New York Times compares how guns can be purchased in 15 countries. Australia, responding to a 1996 mass shooting, requires gun owners to be a part of a shooting club, provide reasoning for owning a gun, pass a thorough background check and apply for a permit for a specific type of gun. The multiple steps that buyers are required to undergo have resulted in a drastic decrease of gun violence.

The students who survived the Parkland shooting are using their anger, grief and frustration to create important change. We cannot allow the danger and violence that stems from guns to persist. Kristof writes, “Yet more Americans have died from gun violence, including suicides, since 1970 (about 1.4 million) than in all the wars in American history going back to the Revolutionary War (about 1.3 million).” Regulating guns to reduce the number of deaths and violence will not be easy, nor will it happen all at once. From a public health approach, it requires changing the environment and focusing on taking small steps that will eventually lead to increased safety and important change.


Julia Cohn can be reached at julcohn@umich.edu.