Take Action to Stop Gun Violence

Dec 21, 2012, 12:00 PM, Posted by Alison Holman

E. Alison Holman, PhD, FNP, is an assistant professor in nursing science at the University of California, Irvine and a Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) Nurse Faculty Scholar. She has received the Chaim Danieli Young Investigator’s Award from the International Society for Traumatic Stress Studies for her research on early cognitive predictors of long-term adjustment following trauma. She studies how people cope with highly stressful experiences with special interest in understanding how trauma affects long-term mental and physical health.

The tragedy in Newtown CT violated everything we hold dear, with 20 innocent children among the carnage. My heart aches for Newtown, the families who lost their children, the children who lost their siblings and friends. It is so sad.

According to FBI records, on average, 27 Americans were murdered with firearms every day in 2011. Yet, last Friday, White House spokesman Jay Carney said "today is not the day for a debate on gun control." But if not now, when? On April 28, 1996, 35 people were murdered in Port Arthur, Tasmania by a gunman from New Town, Australia. Within 12 days the Australian government adopted bipartisan gun control legislation. In the 15 years since these new gun control laws were passed, no mass shootings have occurred in Australia. Do we have the resolve to do the same here?

As a mother, citizen, researcher, and public health advocate, I am profoundly troubled by the degree to which we have degraded our own humanity by allowing conditions to exist that foster these kinds of tragedies. As a mother I am appalled by comments suggesting the problem is that schools are ‘gun-free zones,’ which makes the kids sitting ducks. As though we need more guns in schools? If we put guns in schools, what happens when a child gets hold of it and points it at another child and it accidentally discharges? We came dangerously close to that this week when an 11-year old brought a gun to school in Utah for self-protection and allegedly pointed it at students on the playground. Do we want our children to live and learn in a constantly militarized environment surrounded by guns, the pervasive sense of threat, and fear?

This approach is itself a public health threat. Pervasive threat, fear, and events or environments that perpetuate them are inherently damaging to mental and physical health. The evidence from numerous studies now strongly suggests that adversity in childhood—especially violence—contributes to the development of depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, and cardiovascular diseases—to name a few highly debilitating trauma-related health problems. Unfortunately, some of the surviving children of the Sandy Hook massacre are likely to experience significant health problems stemming, in part, from this experience.

"We need to build a sense of community in every community."

But won’t the presence of guns on campus serve as a deterrent to prevent these horrible events? Just look at the stand-your-ground laws intended to deter people from engaging in unlawful behavior. What have they brought us? Ask Jordan Davis’s parents in Florida. On November 23, 2012, Davis, a 17-year old African-American man, was killed by a 45-year old man after arguing about loud music coming from Davis’ car. Unfortunately for Davis, his assailant thought he saw a shotgun being pulled out in the car, so he “stood his ground” and shot nine rounds into the vehicle, killing Davis. But there were no guns in the car. Perceived threat and fear drove Michael Dunn to kill an innocent young man. Michael Dunn has been charged with 1st degree murder. Two families’ lives have been torn apart. When everyone has guns, everyone will have a real reason to fear other people. An epidemic of fear, mistrust, and more violence would follow.

What we need is to encourage people to feel morally and socially responsible for helping others. We need to recognize that while we are individuals with unique personalities/character, we are also deeply connected to and dependent upon each other. We need to see ourselves as caretakers for one another; as though all children are our own to nurture. We need to build a sense of community in every community.

We need more mental health services with easy access for families in need. We need public education about mental illness and the true risks for involvement in violence.  The vast majority of people with mental illness do NOT become violent. But now many people will be scared of autistic kids, so they will treat them differently and that will only serve to create more alienation for those children and worsen the stigma. We should not let the cycle of alienation and violence worsen. We need to care for people with mental illness, make community-based services readily available, and work hard on primary and secondary prevention of mental illness by helping families cope with life challenges.

But there is more we can do beyond strengthening the social fabric that holds us together. We MUST think about guns and gun rights differently. In order to use a car (an unintended deadly weapon), we are required to pass a class, a written test, a driving test, and then we have to re-up our licenses regularly. Once we get a car, we have to buy insurance to drive legally so that if, by chance, we do something that causes harm to another person, we have a way to compensate that person for the harm we have done (usually accidentally).

Why is it easier for us to get and use an intentionally-deadly weapon (a.k.a. a gun) without a class, a test (or two), and insurance? Why do we allow people to buy/own military grade weapons with little or no background check—but to legally drive a car, we have to jump through hoops? Given the lack of gun regulation, it is no surprise that gun-related deaths are now on track to outpace car-related deaths in America by 2015. When you look at this graph you will see that gun-related deaths dropped when the assault weapons ban was instated in 1994; they began to rise again most notably in 2004 when Congress allowed it to expire.

As a public health advocate, I am sickened and saddened and angered and motivated to do something to stop the gun culture’s hold on our country's consciousness. I hope that this time we will find the courage to restrict access to these weapons of mass murder.

For more information on mass shootings in the U.S. see: http://www.motherjones.com/politics/2012/07/mass-shootings-map
Learn more about the RWJF Nurse Faculty Scholars program here.

This commentary originally appeared on the RWJF Human Capital Blog. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the authors.