I have often told my friends who do public health research on gun violence that they are engaged in a sacred task. The reason I say this is because violence is first mentioned in Chapter 4, Verse 8 of the Old Testament: “and it came to pass, when they were in the field, that Cain rose up against Abel his brother, and slew him.” (King James.)

              Over the centuries since the first human history was written, we have learned how to deal with every other type of threat to the human community: disease, lack of food, weather. We may not have the political will to respond to every threat, but with the exception of violence, we know what to do.

              Unfortunately, this is not the case when it comes to violence, and I believe that our failure to understand and respond to this problem has become worse ever since a consensus has developed which defines violence, particularly gun violence, as a problem that can and should be addressed by public health. 

              Public health researchers like David Hemenway at Harvard have been researching this issue for the past thirty years or so, but until very recently, public health gun research was stymied by a provision in the CDC budget which prohibited funding this particular public health problem.

              Now that the CDC funding spigot has been turned back on for research on gun violence, everyone’s expecting that some new answers to this age-old problem will emerge, a belief which first became mainstream when the idea of public health once again taking the lead in gun violence research was promoted by Nick Kristof and The New York Times back in 2015.

              I told Nick back then that I didn’t agree with his call for public health taking the lead in doing gun violence research, and what I told him then is what I’m going to discuss today.

              As I understand it, public health endeavors to figure out how to define and then protect the community from threats to public health, i.e., threats which affect a wide swath of population defined either by gender, or race, or behavior, or some other characteristic shared throughout the population.

              Obviously, something like violence, which creates 100,000+ deaths and injuries in the United States every year when the violence is committed with the use a gun, should be considered a public health threat. But using a public health research approach to understanding this problem is insufficient because it isn’t possible to create a valid epidemiological analysis of gun violence.

How do you explain why only certain individuals commit gun violence when if they commit the violence against themselves, they are overwhelmingly dead and if they commit the violence against someone else they either aren’t caught or if they are arrested, they are incarcerated and can’t talk?

Back in 1992-93, two medical researchers, Art Kellerman and Fred Rivara, published studies which found a causal link between homicide and suicide to guns in the home. But what their studies could not determine was the fact that even if homicide and suicide rates were higher in homes with guns, how come most homes occupied by gun owners didn’t experience any kind of gun violence at all?

What we get from public health gun research instead of epidemiology is a typical ‘profile’ of individuals who commit gun violence against themselves (depression, addiction, etc.) or against someone else (violent upbringing, addiction, etc.) But again, these studies don’t explain why most gun owners who exhibit such backgrounds or family histories do not use guns to shoot themselves or shoot someone else.

So, the result of this scattershot analysis of gun violence is the promotion by public health of various legal sanctions (background checks, safe storage, extreme risk protections) which may or may not have any impact on gun violence as long as we’re talking about gun violence that otherwise might be committed by gun owners who, generally speaking, obey the law.

Guess what? We have known since Marvin Wolfgang began publishing his studies on violence and crime in the 1960’s that most of the individuals who wind up committing violent crimes by the time they reach their 20’s, first started engaging in anti-social and delinquent behavior when they were twelve years old. And thanks to research by Al Lizotte, boys start getting interested in guns at the same age.

When and if my friends in public health gun research figure out a way to use their great skills and aptitudes to create an epidemiological approach to the study of gun violence, perhaps we will begin to develop a response to this problem which is often referred to as an epidemic in American society, but has certainly become what Kathy Christoffel calls endemic to our way of life.