The Gun Debate: Will Science be the Answer?

Like most people, I try not to think too much about things that upset me, but whenever there’s a fresh horror reported in the news—like the story of the six-year-old boy who survived heart surgery only to be shot and killed on a walk to the park—I am momentarily forced out of my bubble. I have to face the fact that Missouri is fourth in the nation for gun deaths. More people die here from guns than from car accidents. St. Louis has become so notorious that friends in my former city of Los Angeles—Los Angeles!—ask me how I can live in such a dangerous place.

But when I bring up the subject of gun regulations to any of my Missouri neighbors, I get the standard narrative: regulating guns won’t keep criminals from getting them; It will only hinder responsible citizens’ rights to defend themselves. After all, guns don’t kill people, people kill people.

And I agree with that. Guns are not the problem. But the epidemic of gun violence is a problem. And St. Louis is at ground zero of that epidemic. Fortunately, St. Louis also has many wonderful things about it—there are some of the country’s best hospitals and doctors saving the lives of an increasing number of young children who are getting shot. There are people working tirelessly to make things better in the most crime-ridden neighborhoods. There are moms rallying together to talk common sense about guns. And there are world class institutions, like Washington University, that are putting their energy into tackling gun violence as a public health issue.

I was fortunate to see representatives from all those groups come together on Tuesday night, when I forced myself to get out of my bubble for a few hours and attend the launch of Washington University’s year-long initiative, “Gun Violence: A Public Health Crisis.” Basically, the school’s Institute of Public Health is tackling the issue of gun violence like it’s a disease. Understand the epidemiology, risk factors, the environment, the interventions. Look at the data. Make recommendations based on real information from a diverse array of perspectives in different disciplines. That’s how the issues of tobacco deaths and automobile accidents were approached, and improved. As keynote speaker Alan Leshner said, “This is a very complex problem. There isn’t just one solution.”

That may be the hardest point to convince people of. Whenever I ask people or read commentaries about the gun debate, I hear a lot of ‘single solution’ hype. It’s because of easy access. Or it’s because of gang violence. Or untreated mental health issues. Or violent video games. Whatever the viewpoint, it is absolute in its certainty that it’s THE reason. Rarely does anyone acknowledges how complicated a situation it is and how much we really don’t know. Does closing loopholes to prevent criminals from getting guns actually work? Are guns three times more likely to be used against a family member than an intruder, as one report suggests? Does gun safety training help?

According to Leshner, no one, regardless of their views on guns, has been objecting to the collecting of data. But that wasn’t always the case. The CDC didn’t look into the effects of gun violence on health for 20 years, specifically turning away from this ‘loaded’ issue until now. As a result, we know far more about the effect of crooked teeth on periodontal disease than we do about patterns in the spread of gun violence.

I would like to know more. I’d like to make an educated decision about the pros and cons. Guns are not inherently bad, and I want the right to own one. But if I have better information that shows the risks of keeping a gun around far outweigh the rewards, I can make better decisions. I think sky diving looks fun, but I know the risks, and to me, it’s not worth the reward. Cars can be dangerous, but because we have regulations in place that make it relatively safe, I accept the risk. If someone is hurt in a car crash, I don’t condemn the car. I also don’t drive at five miles an hour because that’s safer. I survey both ends of the spectrum and find an area in between that I’m comfortable with. We live in a dangerous world, but it doesn’t have to be all or nothing. It can’t be all or nothing.

It’s a complicated problem. There is no single solution. It’s going to take a lot of different kinds of effort on the part of a lot of different kinds of people.

So by all means, let’s not wait. Let’s try something now and pursue parallel paths as we gather the data. I started by going to a panel discussion after a long day, when I would have preferred to put my feet up and play Candy Crush Saga. It wasn’t much, my tiny attempt to emerge from my bubble. It was a ridiculously small and accomplishable action, a speck, not even an atom—a quark of effort, really.

But as any scientist will tell you, enough quarks together makes a sun.