Gun Violence: A Public Health Concern?

By Michele Goodwin

Posted from Amsterdam

I was in India when the tragic news hit; 26 people dead–20 of them children in a massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut on December 14, 2012.   In India, NGOs struggle with ending violence against women and children. Acid tossed in the faces of women by scorned boyfriends is not uncommon nor the increasing, random acts of slitting women’s throats on trains.  Sensational it may seem to us; but very real for women in Mumbai and Bihar.  In fact, the day before learning of the tragedy in Connecticut, Delhi officials announced the hiring of thousands of guards to deploy at 548 elementary schools in South Delhi amid reports of rapes and molestations of little girls who are followed, harassed, and in too many cases harmed on their way home after leaving school.  The government’s response comes on the heels of parents threatening to remove their daughters from school.

In that country and others, broad scale violence is understood as more than a national problem; it is a social and public health problem. In cases of sexual violence and the externalities that result, including sexually transmitted diseases and pregnancies, the public health component may be more visible to those of us in the West.  However, the public health indicators extend physical health problems; violence causes emotional and psychological trauma.  The mental health component of public health must be better understood.  Americans who live in gang infested communities, where violence seems almost endless and difficult to escape, understand this all too well as their kids experience anxieties closer to post traumatic stress disorder as part of their daily lives.

The Newtown shootings offer a moment for reflection on the lives lost and also our nation’s first principles and commitments.  Perhaps this will be a time to consider gun control beyond a very divided constitutional law debate to also understand its public health dimensions.  Who benefits from current policies?  Who are those harmed?  Physical wounds do heal, but the mental health traumas, grief, and anxieties often take a lifetime to manage and overcome.

Michele Goodwin

Michele Bratcher Goodwin is a renowned scholar, advocate, and author who has devoted her career to uplifting the voices, social conditions, and rights of women and children around the globe. A widely cited legal authority in constitutional law, health law, and women’s rights, her writings have been consulted by courts, legislators, government agencies, and civil society organizations. She has advised or given testimony before Congress and state governments as well as the United States’ Uniform Law Commission on privacy, the regulation of the human body, and reproductive health.

3 thoughts to “Gun Violence: A Public Health Concern?”

  1. Michele, insightful post as always. I found the comparison to Mumbai particularly interesting. I wonder to what extent you think the difference between us and India on seeing things through a public health lens that you posit, is related to (i) different gun cultures versus (ii) a different view about schools and children?

    Take the recent legislative, legal, and social discourse on bullying in schools. Is that a place where you would see our discourse as more similar to India? Or consider sexual abuse in schools (although here the issue is bound up in widespread Church sexual abuse scandals), are we more apt to accept public health perspectives there?

  2. Interesting, Glenn.
    I agree that we have a different gun culture than in India–and for that matter most nations in the world. This is an opportune moment for us to calibrate how we think about school and what it represents. For example, some early responses to the Newtown tragedy is that it could have been avoided if the teachers were armed and trained to use guns. I think that is commentary from the fringes. Yet, only days ago, the Michigan legislature approved a bill that would allow concealed weapons in schools. That is a new norm–not one rooted in tradition or wrapped in the blanket of constitutional symbolism.

    It would be easier for many to understand a food outbreak at a public school that kills ten kids and sickens 2 teachers as a public health concern. Or, a chemical applied at the school to clean the floors or to fertilize the lawn. In each instance, we would wish to find out what the killing agent (chemical) happened to be and figure out ways to keep it out of our schools. Indeed, we would probably avoid the rhetoric that might go like this: “chemicals don’t kill people, people kill people.” Such logic is frequently deployed in responses to gun violence. The earnest belief of many is that it guns in the hands of good people will never lead to the harm of innocent people. Empirically we know that isn’t true. Just like toxic, deadly chemicals in the hands of the well intended superintendent.

    So where and how might we understand the public health dimensions of violence? I’m not so sure that we are quite yet there with school bullying–though as a nation, we have a better sense of the psychological pain young people experience when bullied. And, I think the sex abuse scandals are still viewed as isolated and episodic.

    So, if there is an open door to understanding how violence can be a public health concern–particularly in the school setting–gun violence may be it. One indicator of a public health concern is that it has the potential to impact others. This tragedy has certainly done that.

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