Jasmine is a freshman in high school and a gun control advocate. To help raise awareness about gun violence, she's planning a panel on the topic. She’s already invited a handful of activists and family members of victims. Her teacher, Mr. Khan, suggests she invite a public health professor from the local university. Jasmine is confused: why would a public health professor be relevant for her panel?
Public health is about promoting the physical and mental health of a population and encouraging the conditions that are most likely to generate these outcomes. By this definition, gun violence is a public health issue because it threatens the physical and mental health of individuals and communities, especially disenfranchised ones. To better understand the scope of gun violence, the issue must be examined through a public health lens.
Definition of Gun Violence
Gun violence includes any intentional or accidental suicides, deaths, and injuries caused by firearms.
How It Works
Gun violence has grown as a global problem because of the increased availability and sophistication of guns. Around the world, the majority of both victims and perpetrators of gun violence are young men. However, gun violence disproportionately impacts people of color, women, and other marginalized populations. Around the world, gun violence causes long-term psychological harm to individuals, families, and communities. This fear can lead to disruptions in education and undermine access to healthcare.
Gun violence is especially prevalent in areas with poorly restricted access to guns, in addition to corruption of government, organized crime, and a broken justice system. In these settings, there is little trust that the government will protect people, and there may even be fear of government officials themselves. Easy access to guns, including military-grade automatic weapons, is also a major driver of gun violence. The number of guns positively correlates with rates of gun violence. The global illegal arms trade plays a huge role in arming gang members. Furthermore, systemic racism is instrumental in creating conditions that are conducive to gun violence by limiting opportunities and concentrating poverty.
Globally, there are especially high rates of violent gun deaths in countries in Central and South America. A Global Burden of Disease study showed that half of all firearm-related deaths in 2016 occurred in the United States, Brazil, Mexico, Colombia, Venezuela, and Guatemala. In these countries, gun violence is associated with the illegal drug trade, gang presence, and domestic violence, particularly against women.
However, the violent gun death rate in the United States is particularly high, far greater than the rates in many other high-income and low-income countries. There are more public mass shootings in the US than anywhere else in the world, and according to the Small Arms Survey, American civilians own 46% of the whole world’s privately owned firearms. Furthermore, these acts of US gun violence disproportionately affects communities of color, specifically young Black men. The violence is often concentrated in areas of poverty, especially in very racially segregated cities. The legacy of racism against the Black community creates settings that are conducive to gun violence, and the fractured criminal justice system perpetuates it. Gun violence in Black communities is a much older and frequent problem than mass shootings, yet mass shootings tend to dominate the American conversation around gun violence.
We already know of policy solutions that have worked in countries like New Zealand, Japan, and Germany. Some ways to curb gun violence include gun licensing with extensive background checks and waiting periods, banning assault weapons, raising the age to buy guns, and banning bump stocks, which allow semi-automatic rifles to fire faster. However, there needs to be a government in place willing to enact these changes, which simply isn’t the case in many countries. In poorer nations headed by corrupt individuals, the firearm industry is considered powerful and profitable. Even in the US, well-endowed and supported groups that represent the interests of gun manufacturers have effectively blocked federal and state attempts to implement such changes. To address the gun crisis in any country, trustworthy, active institutions must address the poverty, gender, and racial inequities that are at the root of this violence. Particularly in the US, we need to address the underlying systemic causes that have allowed this issue to fester for so long: structural racism, a broken justice system, and a legacy of private gun ownership.