America’s deadly gun disease

US News | By Lloyd Sederer

Where will you be when the next mass killing occurs? Where will your children, spouse, brother, sister, parents, niece or nephew, dear friends or co-workers be when the next mass killing occurs?

The now daily onslaught of violence in the United States is not a big-city, medium-city or small-town event. The incessant murders that have dominated this country’s attention happen at work and school, at play, public and faith-based settings. The slain are children, adults and seniors. They are of every color and faith. Like a deadly infectious disease, the pathogen does not distinguish who will die; when that pathogen reaches epidemic proportions, everyone is exposed and no one is safe.

We face a choice between devolving into a culture of fear, blame, prejudice and enduring violence or mobilizing nationally, across diverse interests and communities, to reduce the risk of mass violence to innocent strangers, with all of us as the potential targets.

There are solutions to gun violence that exist beyond the polarizing rhetoric of constitutional rights. We have, in the past, regularly and reasonably limited the rights of privacy and liberty for public safety and survival. When tuberculosis was spreading in the mid- and late 20th century and exacting its morbid and lethal toll on Americans, public health regulations required reporting of those with the disease (those hosting the pathogen), subordinating privacy to public safety and requiring that those infected take so-called directly observed treatment or be involuntarily remanded to TB facilities, overriding their liberties. I am a public health doctor, and more than a century of public health lessons show us that an epidemic that threatens deaths on a large scale can be contained and overcome.

The mass murders infesting our country now behave like an epidemic. They are infectious, in that they tend to spread, know few boundaries (unless we create them) and weaken with reduced exposure to the agent that takes the lives of its victims. For the gun violence epidemic upon us, the deadly agents are guns and ammunition meant for war, not for a civil society. Some may say it is the people who wield the weapons that are the danger. Yet to the extent that is true, the gravest consequences of their actions can be measured by the lethality of what they used to kill, their weapons, not just that they tried to kill.

We have seen how Ebola and HIV/AIDs have been massively reduced and are on a potential path to eradication. That has been accomplished by first stopping their spread and then, over time, developing effective treatments for the underlying problem. We did not wait for a vaccine before we contained and controlled these epidemics. Much the same can be said of tuberculosis in the last century. The same approach of containing the means by which morbidity and mortality are delivered, controlling the spread of the pathogen, can and should be applied to mass murder. That means reducing access to the types of guns and ammunition meant only to maim and kill – in brutal and increasingly numbing numbers.

When a public health campaign is launched, every life saved is a victory. No one expects that we might succeed 100 percent of the time, but incrementally reducing the risk of death would be heralded as a great success. Yet the empty explanations of so many of our lawmakers, that these particular horrific events would not have been prevented by gun or ammunition control legislation, reveals their dismissal of both a known approach to an epidemic and the safety of Americans – and their loyalty to the radical self-interests of corporations or ideologues.

Surrender to the relentless violence upon us is not an option. That’s not the American way. We are problem solvers, in health, public health and in public safety (think of airline, car and food safety). There are alternatives to a Wild West mentality, where everyone should be packing heat and gun murders continue to escalate. There are public health solutions that start with reasonable limits on the production and sale of deadly arms and ammunition as well as denying access to weapons for those we already deem unfit to travel on our airlines. Many other solutions have been presented and dismissed by our Congress. Meanwhile, the epidemic spreads.

Are you ready to have someone you love shot with a high-powered assault rifle, with a spray of hollowed-out bullets that serve no purpose but to ensure mayhem, foster dread and propagate catastrophe? How many more deaths are needed to break the stasis of this national government, which is failing to protect and serve its citizens? We would not stand by, nor let our elected leaders dodge responsibility, were the deadly agent polio, tuberculosis, the AIDS virus or Ebola.

How many more Americans will lose loved ones, colleagues and friends before a movement to reduce access to the deadly gun pathogen is ignited? I don’t know. But I do wonder, when will someone I love die because our leaders have not taken reasonable and available actions?



Lloyd Sederer is medical director of the New York State Office of Mental Health, adjunct professor at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health and medical editor for mental health for the Huffington Post. Follow him @askdrlloyd and visit his website The opinions expressed here are his own.


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