There’s a virus afflicting our country that has claimed the lives of more Americans in the last 50 years than all of our wars combined. It is equivalent to having one year’s worth of a COVID-level pandemic nearly every decade, yet it has been routinely ignored by influential lawmakers. This virus has nothing to do with our immune systems: it is our toxic gun culture.
Approximately one in three Americans own a firearm (a statistic that has remained consistent for decades and is much higher than those of comparable nations). Astoundingly, those one in three Americans own 40% of the total civilian-owned firearms in the world, which translates to more guns than people in the United States.
Why so many guns? Nearly two-thirds of owners say it’s for protection. Yet, while we own significantly more guns than comparable nations, our crime rates are about the same. In fact, instances where guns are actually used for protection are rare; less than 1% of actual crime victims report using a gun in self-defense (and those interactions are often exaggerated). For those who claim guns deter crime, the data doesn’t look much better: studies show that crime rates drop when it is harder to get a gun, not easier.
The virus is not a crime-ridden society that requires guns for safety; it’s that too many Americans believe in the illusion of one.
If our misguided beliefs about guns are the virus, then gun violence is the resulting disease. According to Everytown for Gun Safety, Americans are 25 times more likely to die from a gun homicide than their counterparts in other developed nations. We are ten times more likely to commit suicide with a firearm (which accounts for 60 percent of all gun deaths). And we are simply more vulnerable to harm from ourselves or family members when a gun is in the home — intentional or not. Consequently, over 100 Americans are killed by a gun every day, with another 230 shot and wounded. In the last five years, we’ve averaged nearly 40,000 gun deaths annually.
Addressing gun violence is not a matter of good guys with guns fending off bad guys with guns. Addressing gun violence is recognizing that guns are a problem to begin with — one that manifests in different ways. For young Black men in impoverished urban neighborhoods, it might be the daily threat of homicide when they leave their house. For white folks in rural communities, it could be the increased likelihood of suicide when experiencing depression with a gun in the home. For women everywhere, it’s the lingering fear of injury when their abusive partner owns a lethal weapon.
The reality is that guns are the means of violence, not the prevention. They are the disease, not the cure.
As we move past what has been a multi-year, earth-shattering pandemic, it’s worth remembering the sobering lessons of our ongoing battle with coronavirus: public health threats cannot be denied — they do not solve themselves. To combat gun violence, we must similarly acknowledge it.
The cure to this disease is challenging misinformation and rectifying our national conversation. The responsibility for doing so is shared by all levels of government, the media, law-abiding gun owners, and citizens everywhere. We cannot allow gun advocates to conjure up the image of musket-wielding patriots or gun-toting cowboys to rationalize the presence of firearms in our society. Instead, we must be driven by data to demonstrate the inherent risk of guns and by a genuine concern for the safety of our neighbors to take action.
This is the only way to create a healthier ecosystem in which guns can still exist. After all, we might find there can be a healthy dose of guns in our society — the solution should be driven by data just as much as by ideology. But what must be understood is that regardless of one’s chosen lifestyle or opinion of the Second Amendment, people are dying and we have a civic duty to stop it.
There is hope in the long list of diseases we’ve cured over the years — it’s comforting to note how long it has been since we were worried about smallpox or polio. A public health approach rooted in data and empathy, supported by engaged stakeholders, and leveraging proven solutions is a good place to start.
Universal background checks, red flag laws, and gun licensing are all solutions already supported by most Americans. Of course, there are other issues too. Dismantling the NRA’s massive pro-gun lobby and supporting more funding for gun violence research are prime examples. But our goals are no longer as outlandish as they once seemed.
This virus is deadly, but we have recourse. A public health approach to guns can change minds, laws, and culture. It’s time to get healthy. It’s time to beat this virus.