Since Sunday’s mass shooting in Las Vegas, the gun control debate has picked up steam, as it always does after such an event. But for people like Marla Davis-Bellamy, director of Philadelphia CeaseFire, the more productive debate is one of science, not politics.
What if, she asks, we looked at firearms violence as a public health challenge in order to reduce deaths every day?
“That is the part of the dialogue that is always missing when we talk about these incidents of violence,” said Davis-Bellamy. Since Las Vegas, she said, there have been two triple shootings in Philadelphia with one death, and nobody is talking about it.
“Many young people believe that is the way Philadelphia is, and there is no remedy in the way of change,” said Davis-Bellamy. “We can change that dialogue.”
People once thought diseases like plague, cholera, measles, and yellow fever were just part of life. Then along came science to find the sources of such diseases and eradicate them or inoculate against them. Why not, she asks, a similar concept to fight gun violence?
Philadelphia CeaseFire uses an interventional approach that follows a public health model and looks at issues such as poverty and improving job opportunities for returning offenders to help support people before they pick up a gun, she said.
“I think legislation is important, but it isn’t all we need to get where we need to be,” said Davis-Bellamy.
The focus doesn’t have to be solely on guns or gun ownership, said Charles Branas, a professor of epidemiology at Columbia University who also teaches at the University of Pennsylvania.
Looking at the issue in a broader context that includes environment would mean more opportunities for intervention. Studies have shown, for instance, that doing something about abandoned buildings in communities at risk will help reduce gun violence, he said.
“In Philadelphia, the police call them storage lockers for illegal firearms,” he said. Passing a blight ordinance, which will allow communities to alter the spaces in a positive way, is politically more acceptable and doesn’t intrude on constitutional rights, he said.
Addressing mental health issues more effectively also could reduce gun deaths.
About half those who commit suicide use a weapon, said John Rich, professor of health management and policy at Drexel University’s Dornsife School of Public Health and the co-director of the Center for Nonviolence and Social Justice.
From 2001 to 2015, more than 279,000 Americans took their lives using a firearm, and the number is growing. In rural counties, the rate is almost double that of metropolitan counties, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
An adolescent in a life crisis who can easily access a weapon may use it to commit suicide. Public health strategies can look at how to make firearms less accessible during that crisis, said Rich.
But funding for research is scarce.
After the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in 2102, the Obama administration pushed for health agencies to fund research. The National Institutes of Health awarded a relatively meager $18 million to about two dozen projects, but the program ended in January.
“We need to have research to better understand and intervene in a critical moment to prevent death and injury,” said Rich.
Politics has long made this a difficult arena for research funding.
In 1996, after the National Rifle Association accused the CDC of promoting gun control, Congress passed the Dickey Amendment, which halted the agency from funding research into firearms injuries or deaths.