How American communities can come together to stop the spread of gun violence

Gun deaths have reached such a level that it's safe to start calling it an epidemic

More than 23,000 Americans have died from guns since the start of 2022. AP
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For one week in the US, even in the sleepy seaside town on the east coast where I am spending the month of July, the flags were at half-mast to commemorate those who died in a mass shooting in Highland Park, Illinois on July 4.

Like many Americans, I am bereft about the state of the country. Gun violence and the root cause of it are among the main concerns.

According to the Gun Violence Archive, a database, more than 220 people were shot and killed over the July 4 holiday weekend alone. Gun violence has spiked in nearly every state. At least 11 of the July 4 incidents were classified as mass shootings. Around 315 mass shootings have taken place since the beginning of this year, and more than 23,000 deaths have occurred by forms of gun violence.

Twenty-three thousand deaths is a lot. It is more than the number of civilians killed at Srebrenica in 1995, and so far in the current war in Ukraine – combined. What's more, America is meant to be a country at peace, not war.

Unfortunately, most of my adult life has been spent in conflict zones, steeped in guns. As a result, I hate them. Missiles, rockets, AK-47s and bullet shells of every size. All are heartbreaking props of war time. But America, again, is not at war. And it certainly should not be at war with itself.

How does it go about reforming? First, Americans must end the impunity surrounding this gun violence epidemic and make it the subject of an intense education campaign. The US must also reduce easy access to guns, making it impossible for those who are not psychologically fit to have one. It should also be impossible for parents to buy their children guns.

The community of Highland Park, Illinois saw a mass shooting on the July 4 holiday. AP
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Twenty-three thousand deaths is more than the number of civilians killed in Ukraine

Background checks are essential. We can have restraining orders for those suspected of doing harm. We can have community checks, and also get in the habit of reaching out to the most vulnerable members of community who are left behind.

Personally, I would certainly rather live in a country without guns. But America is never going to be without guns. They are written into the Constitution, and they are fixed in the culture.

But the culture can also evolve to one of "safety first". How? Mandatory licences, training and secure gun storage are a good start. Some states do not, by law, require any of these things. So communities must focus on ensuring a stronger prevention infrastructure, and on healing themselves.

One urgent message is to explore the links between anger and gun violence. American society can take a closer look at harmful norms about masculinity, power and privilege.

Most of all, it must re-examine its terrible, systematic inequality. Inflation has hit the US hard – gas prices, food prices, car prices. Social justice has done so much to reduce discrimination based on race and sexual orientation, and new waves of feminism are empowering women like never before.

But this is interpreted by some as the alienation of another large group of people in American life: white males, especially those in non-urban areas. After mass shootings in recent years, they have often been described in media and the popular culture as "incels", meaning "involuntarily celibate". The New Yorker writer Jia Tolentino has described them as feeling “unwanted – invisible, inadequate, ineligible”, with "a violent political ideology". One prominent legal blog called them “America’s newest domestic terrorist threat”.

Not all incels become shooters, of course, and not all shooters are incels. But the common thread is alienation and anger and guns. At the heart is the terrible injustice in America, wider and stronger than ever.

We must examine this anger, and also treat the mass shootings in the way we would treat a public health disaster, as gun violence researcher Garen Wintemute has proposed. Wintemute, a physician and director of University of California Davis's Violence Prevention Research Programme, has studied gun violence for more than 30 years and is one of the few researchers to approach the matter as an issue of public health. His view is that we have to understand where it comes from, how it gets amplified and who is at risk for developing this problem? How do we treat it, in the way we treat a pandemic?

It is shocking to me to think that more than 23,000 people are no longer alive since January began because of guns.

America must – no, it has to – do better.

Published: July 15, 2022, 7:00 AM
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