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Reframing and Preventing American Gun Violence

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On an average day, 85 Americans die and more than 200 are rushed to the emergency room due to gun violence. An average week brings one shooting at a school and one shooting by a toddler. The implicit or explicit threat of gun violence has intimidated blacks students at the University of Missouri, legislators, active citizens, mothers, black church and Islamic community members. Five #BlackLivesMatter protestors were shot this week while protesting the police killing of 24-year-old Jamar Clark.

Similar countries' rate of homicides using firearms is about 20 times lower than in the U.S. Household firearms in just five weeks kill 3400 Americans, the same number who have died from terrorist activity since 2001. Since 1968, 1.4 million Americans died from gun violence. Since 1776, 1.4 million were killed in all wars (both recent tweets by astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson.)

Rally .No More Names. in DC in September 2013
Rally .No More Names. in DC in September 2013
(Image by Elvert Barnes)
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After the Umpqua Community College shooting in October, President Obama bemoaned the "routine" coverage of mass shootings. Yet Americans are reinvigorated for this critical, winnable fight: gun violence prevention groups are growing in reach and power, celebs are speaking up, and even Jon Oliver showed how Australia took steps to end mass shootings in just three months. Still, the issue remains neither accurately framed by the media, nor discussed in terms of effective, multi-faceted solutions.

Right wing groups say having good guys own and carry guns protects them from bad people, suggesting adding to the 300 million guns already here would curtail violence. This false, routinely cited narrative stymies progress on preventing gun violence. We need to focus on the following five uncomfortable, pertinent realities:

The coverage of gun violence -- When gun violence was perceived as an inner city problem, it supposedly reflected gang violence, gun trafficking, widespread access to guns, a depraved culture and music, poor parenting, and a criminal mentality. Now white males are behind most high profile crimes including right wing terrorism -- which is responsible for more deaths than Muslim extremist actions -- and school shootings. In fact, Malcolm Gladwell recently wrote the school shooters follow easy-to-emulate cultural scripts. Yet gun violence today is often framed as acts of "lone wolves" who are "mentally ill," despite just 5 percent of homicides (albeit 90 percent of suicides) involving serious mental illness. Culture and community remains key.

Gun perpetrators and gender -- Gun perpetrators have a gender. The vast majority of suicides by gun -- which comprise 6 in 10 of all gun deaths -- are by men. In fact, suicide was recently identified as a major cause for the jump in deaths among white, middle-aged men. Additionally, about 90 percent of homicides are committed by men, with 99 percent of mass shooters being males. The majority have a "catalyst for the shooting ... that threatened the man's identity as a man." Yet little gun violence coverage is devoted to masculinity.

Guns and domestic violence --One of three teenagers has experienced some form of dating abuse, with one in ten teenagers being physically hurt by a partner. A quarter of women experience domestic violence. A gun's presence poses a risk for all: it makes it five times more likely an abused woman will be murdered and, in 10 percent of incidents by shooters in populated areas (active shooter incidents), a current or former partner is targeted.

Violent cultural entertainment with a racial and/or misogynistic bias -- Many kids (and adults) spend many hours each week enjoying realistic depictions of war zones and crime scenes: places with easy access to guns, rampant violence and brutal gore. Yet the pain and sorrow associated with real world gun violence is often missing. This likely leads to desensitization and less empathy, with brain changes that are linked to aggression and psychopathy. So the trade in of "The Brady Bunch," Pac-Man, and "Playboy" for "The Walking Dead" and "Homeland", "Call of Duty," and violent porn is hugely problematic. In fact, were the nationalities or other characteristics of actors in entertainment changed, we might recognize much of it as promoting terrorist ideologies. Yet these crime-based videos and games are heavily marketed to children, with many parents having limited knowledge of their content and effects.

The ubiquity of guns, mental health and freedom of speech -- Our society has radically changed gun laws. Now just a handful of states explicitly bar "open carry", which is no more effective than other protective action and may increase the risks to one's self, others and the police. It has also become easier to carry a concealed gun with the proliferation of "shall pass" laws that make it harder for officials deny a permit, even when there is a reason to do so. Additionally, a number of states now allow guns in bars, schools and/or parks.

Ironically this is happening in a population who struggles with their mental health. One in 5 American adults is on a psychiatric medication. One quarter binge drank in the last month . And 1 in 3 college students felt depressed in the last three months (1 in 11 contemplated suicide in the past year).

Guns amp up risks. We know the presence of a gun increases the chance of suicide. It also can lead two individuals to be more aggressive in an exchange.

Conversely, so-called Second Amendment rights often trample those granted by the First Amendment. Guns -- even by their mere presence -- can intimidate those disagreeing with a gun owner on racial, gender, or political issues. This can result in many choosing not to express themselves or protest out of fear of being shot, even when they are not explicitly threatened with death. Yet right wing gun groups rarely condemn such intimidation.

Few, if any peaceful nations have omnipresent guns, with many not registered to the owner. Conversely, individuals in nations in civil turmoil flaunt untraced weapons. The US must draw from solutions that have worked here and abroad.

Action to prevent gun violence has popular support. Americans are more concerned about gun violence than terrorism, and support mental health restrictions, background checks, and a federal tracking database.

Here are ten solutions worthy of discussion.

1. Universal background checks, passed in Washington and Oregon, should be passed to track the other 40 percent of gun sales, and no sale should proceed until a check is complete (closing the "Charleston loophole").

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Veena Trehan is a DC-based journalist and activist. She has written for NPR, Reuters, Bloomberg News, and local papers.
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