Gun violence needs to be treated as a public-health issue

On the day of the Washington Navy Yard shootings, the online magazine Slate had confirmed that 8,722 Americans had died as a result of gun violence since the Newtown, Conn., shootings in December 2012. That number went up on September 16, not by just the 13 who died at the Navy Yard, but by 30.

That’s right, 30 people died on September 16 because of guns.

But that number’s incorrect. As Slate notes, its tally only includes those gun deaths reported in the media—and that means it misses many suicides, which account for about 60 percent of all gun deaths and are rarely reported in the media.

Readers may be tired of seeing us opine on gun violence. We understand. We get tired of writing about it.

Yet our mutual fatigue with gun violence doesn’t seem to be slowing it down any, and it’s only mass killings that attract long-term attention. For example, the shooting in the Jackson, Tenn., Karma Lounge nightclub in February 2012 wasn’t classified by the FBI as a mass shooting because—even though 18 people were shot—only one died.

So, if you add the number of people shot to the number killed, then add in the number who commited suicide using a firearm—well, the total of those killed, injured and traumatized by gun violence is going to be a whole lot higher. The repercussions resonate throughout our entire culture.

It’s apparent that gun violence in the United States is a complicated issue. Our nation’s love affair with guns and violence is not simply about the firearms. It also involves our inability to diagnose and treat mental illness without stigma and with compassion. It’s about a violent mythology—the musket-armed patriot, the rifle-toting frontiersman, the six-shooting Western cowboy—that has become part of a shoot-’em-up entertainment complex. It’s about valuing our right to own and carry dangerous weapons over the right of others to be safe in public spaces. It’s about our acceptance of poverty and social inequality on a scale that breeds despair, gangs and violence.

So, this time, after yet another act of violence with a gun, we once again call for a universal background check on all gun purchases. It’s a place to start.

But we also call for coupling this immediate start with evidence-based action. The June report from the Institute of Medicine of the National Academies, “Priorities for Research to Reduce the Threat of Firearm-Related Violence,” offers some ideas. For example, handguns—even though they are not typically used in mass shootings—are the source of the majority of homicides. And suicides—which are often an aspect of mass shootings, as at Columbine, Colo., and Newtown—is the biggest source of gun deaths.

If we start with universal background checks, suicide prevention and access to mental-health treatment, we might make a dent in those numbers. Gun violence needs to be treated as a public-health issue, and we need to press our representatives to take it as seriously as any other threat to national safety and our well-being.