Advocates for sensible gun legislation had it right when they framed the epic number of individual and mass shootings in this country as public health issue. Public health professionals and organizations like the American Public Health Association and the American Medical Association have continued to push for addressing gun violence as a growing epidemic, and so they should.
According to the Brady Campaign, 318 people in America are shot daily in murders, assaults, suicides, suicide attempts, unintentional shootings, and police intervention. Every day 96 of them die from guns. No wonder. In this country, 1.7 million children live in a home with an unlocked, loaded gun and millions of guns are sold every year in “no questions asked” transactions.
Part of the gun violence epidemic we face resides in the growing, almost contagious episodes of police brutality and unnecessary use of weapons, primarily against people of color. This year over 430 people have been shot and killed by police and the year is barely half over. Last year’s total number was 987. Some of the names we remember are Michael Brown, Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner and Tamir Rice. Among those whose names we may not recall are Danny Ray Thomas, an unarmed black man clearly suffering from a mental health crisis, who was killed by a Texas police officer, and more recently, Stephon Clark, another unarmed black man who was shot eight times, six of them in the back, by Sacramento police while simply holding a cellphone in his grandparents’ backyard.
We are clearly facing a growing number of public health crises involving guns, but gun violence, no matter who commits it, isn’t only contributing to a crisis that involves instant death or disability. It is also leading to an epidemic of crises in mental health among survivors and victims’ families. Where is the discussion of that issue? It’s telling that a search for information on this invisible crisis led me to myriad articles ruminating on the idea that gun violence is perpetrated by people with mental health problems, but not one link deliberating on the mental health toll gun violence takes on survivors or family members appeared.
Yet, just think what it must have done to Tamir Rice’s mother to learn that her child, simply playing with a toy, had been shot to death by police. Or to Stephon Clark’s grandparents as they saw their grandchild gunned down in their backyard. Or to Eric Garner’s family, not only left to deal with economic worries, but with the lifelong sorrow of a husband and father being choked to death by police. Think about what Michael Brown’s family, Trayvon Martin’s family, Sandra Bland’s family and the multitudes of other family members of the unknown victims of violence– spouses, children, siblings – will have to live with for the rest of their lives. It is possible that there are worse things than death, like living with despair, and dread.
There is another epidemic of violence that needs attention as we appear to descend into a dark place while struggling with a new, unfamiliar reality grounded in our current political environment. America has always had an incipient underbelly, but unlike those who survived the fascism of Europe preceding and during WWII, Americans have been fortunate (until now) to avoid the punishing life of autocracy and dictatorship.
Now come Donald Trump et.al., and along with his followers, a dramatic increase in hate crimes not unlike the ones seen in many countries during the 1930s and 1940s and emerging once more. America has seen a growing number of hate crimes in recent years but they are proliferating even more as racists and white supremacy groups feel emboldened to openly spew their contempt for others. That contempt is aimed first at Jews, and then at Muslims, according to the FBI. Hate crimes are also on the rise as perpetrators target the LGBTQ community.
According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, the number of hate groups has increased along with the growing number of hate-filled violent acts. These crimes range from vandalism in synagogues and cemeteries to graffiti messages and Swastikas on buildings, to threats to religiously affiliated schools. Many hate crimes are perpetrated against individuals. In 2014 a man killed three people at two Jewish centers near Kansas City, and recently a Muslim man was beaten in the Bronx by attackers calling him a terrorist. In another incident in New York, a man shoved a Mexican immigrant onto the subway tracks after dragging him off a train. He narrowly escaped death.
All the growing violence we’re witnessing, whether manifesting as verbal abuse or escalating to hate crimes and murder, even at the hands of police, can appropriately be seen as epidemic. And epidemics, seen through the public health lens, call for controls and eradication. None of us can be inoculated against the diseases of hatred in our zones of relative comfort and safety, because “no man [sic] is an island.” As another famous quote reminds us, “Together we stand. Divided we fall.”
The pain of a potential fall looms large, and it is likely to be more than any of us could bear.