“EPIDEMIC” continues to be a common catch word for headlines. Apparently we have lots of epidemics; the flu, HIV, opioid, Zika, gun violence, etc. We spend a lot of tax money investigating and containing epidemics. . . . Oh, . . . all except for that last one: gun violence.
Why is that? In 1996 the Communicable Disease Center (CDC), our federal bulwark against harmful epidemics, was expressly instructed by Congress NOT to study anything related to guns, i.e. don’t give research grants, don’t establish data bases to track events, and don’t sic the EIS on the gun violence epidemic. In one of his rare Executive Orders President Obama instructed the CDC in 2012 to resume their gun violence research and asked Congress to allocate $10 million dollars for that purpose. Congress never did.
EIS stands for the Epidemic Intelligence Service, a division of the CDC. It has a stellar reputation for laser-focussed field analysis of incipient epidemics to guide early actions to contain them, to reduce any harm to people. Just last week the CDC launched an investigation into a cluster of 53 new HIV cases in Lowell, MA. (In 2007 Boston had a “cluster” of 92 gun-related homicides.) Ironically, the CDC remains hamstrung in any effort to collect and analyze data on the gun violence epidemic at a time when it is asking the general public to participate in identifying any other kind of potential epidemic via internet “crowd sourcing” .
The CDC does keep mortality statistics and issues an annual report of causes of death for each state. The difference of gun-related death rates between states is huge, and no one really knows why. Massachusetts had the lowest number of gun-related deaths in 2016: 3.4 deaths per 100,000 population, or 242 gun-related deaths in Massachusetts that year. Texas, Florida, and California had 3,353, 2,704, and 3,184 gun-related deaths respectively that same year. Those three states also had the most suicide deaths and the most accident-related deaths of all the states. That’s interesting, but those rates may not be related in any way to each other . Food for thought? Too bad the CDC can’t collect more data on gun deaths.
A gun is the harmful agent in this epidemic just as a virus is the harmful agent in the AIDS epidemic. True, human behavior is the cause for both of the epidemics spreading, but while we are developing a HIV vaccine we have implemented effective measures to contain the epidemic with “safe sex” campaigns, identification of risk factors, pre-natal treatment of HIV-positive pregnant women, early treatment of exposed newborns, and development of successful medical treatments. All of this was accomplished with the support of the CDC and NIH. Why not provide government support for similar interim steps to reduce the gun violence epidemic? Medical societies and many citizen groups have picked up the “safe gun” banner. Why hasn’t the federal government done so?
One answer is, of course, money. The NRA contributed money to 205 House members (189 Republicans and 16 Democrats) and 42 Senators (35 Republicans and 4 Democrats) in 2012. The Democratic Senator that got the most NRA money got less than the 41 Republicans above him or her on the list. 95 of the top 100 NRA money receivers in the House were Republicans. Most analysts actually consider this as “chump change” ($5,000-10,000 per Congressman) compared to the $18.6 million that the NRA spent on NRA-favorable candidates in the 2012 elections. Analysts speculate that the money buys “allegiance” rather than “influence” (whatever that means). We all know it buys lots of “thoughts and prayers.”
Another answer may be that there are more guns than people in the U.S. It is as if everyone had AIDS, or as if HIV- infected people considered it their constitutional right to do anything with it they wished to. We as a nation did a lot to reduce the harm of HIV without abolishing the HIV virus. Why can’t we take the same approach to gun violence? We could do quite a bit without abolishing guns if we could do research about how guns are spread, how they are used for harm (In fact, 50% of gun deaths are suicides), how we could reduce harmful use (electronic signatures, smart guns, trigger locks, no multiple cartridge magazine, etc.).
The significant reduction of auto accidents deaths was accomplished by multiple means (seat belts, car seat regulations, air bags, electronic sensors, changes in car manufacture, speed limit regulations, etc,) and not by abolishing cars or drivers’ licenses. With better data perhaps we could take effective action to reduce the gun death epidemic.