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Should gun violence be framed as an illness — using terms like epidemic?


When we talk about gun violence in America, we often use terms like epidemic. So what's the actual definition of that word?

DANIEL WEBSTER: An epidemic is a rapid spread of disease to many at-risk individuals in a given population within a relatively short period of time.

MARTÍNEZ: That's Daniel Webster, a health policy expert at the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Violence Solutions. I asked him about that idea, of framing gun violence as an illness using terms like epidemic.

WEBSTER: Well, that's the classic thing from a public health textbook. But we have long been thinking about gun violence as a public health problem that has many analogies to the conditions that we deal with in public health, including infectious diseases.

MARTÍNEZ: And what are those analogies?

WEBSTER: Well, of course, it has impact on the kind of indicators that we think about in public health. It affects mortality risk, injury risk, mental health. But also, importantly, aside from those most basic and measurable kind of things, it is similar to other public health problems in that rates of gun violence are greatly impacted by how healthy conditions are in the places that people live and in the behaviors that they engage in. So some of the same strategies and approaches that we think about in public health to reduce substance abuse, cardiovascular disease and many other kind of conditions, we apply similar types of methodology and thinking to curtail the problem of gun violence.

MARTÍNEZ: If epidemic is maybe too narrow of a word for gun violence, would it qualify, then, as a public health emergency?

WEBSTER: Almost definitely it's a public health emergency. And again, just to be clear, I would consider gun violence also an epidemic. It is a leading cause of death for large segments of the population, including young people. This has been the case for subgroups of, for example, young adult individuals who are Black, for example, has long been a leading cause of death. And it also has enormous impacts beyond fatalities that really affect mental health and well-being, even for those who were not directly shot.

MARTÍNEZ: What's an achievable goal for a public health intervention in gun violence?

WEBSTER: So I'll start with gun policy. And the policy that we have found to have the largest impact across many forms of gun violence is purchaser licensing requirements for those who purchase firearms. We have found significant reductions, roughly around 30%, in firearm homicides and suicides. We've also seen large decreases in fatal mass shootings associated with firearm purchaser licensing. And we've even seen lower levels of gun violence involving law enforcement officers, both as victims being shot in the line of duty or shooting civilians in the line of duty.

So simply, this is a policy that decreases the availability of guns in risky situations and with risky individuals. It has high public support, and it affects multiple forms of gun violence. So that, I think, is very achievable. Another kind of approach that I've studied is referred to as community violence intervention programs, intervention that involves individuals who have credibility on the streets engaging with the highest-risk individuals, promoting non-violent alternatives to responding to conflicts and provocations. We've seen in some communities, you know, reductions of 40% or more.

I have other examples. But the main thing I want to underscore is that there are actually many solutions out there that we have not used sufficiently and would make a tremendous impact on mortality rates and general well-being and even, frankly, the economic conditions of communities. And I have enormous respect and optimism about youth in our country. Youth are fed up with the conditions that they are living in and the high rates of gun violence that they experience. I believe they will help lead us to better solutions that will lead to lower rates of gun violence.

MARTÍNEZ: Daniel W. Webster is an American health policy researcher and a distinguished scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Violence Solutions. Daniel, thanks.

WEBSTER: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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