Should We Fight "Gun Violence" Like We Fight Cancer?

(Bryan Terry/The Oklahoman via AP)

There’s a major push from gun control activists at the moment to treat “gun violence” as a public health epidemic, though what exactly that means is often unclear from those making the demands. What exactly are they talking about? Well, in the case of anesthesiologist and Georgia state Senator Michelle Au, it appears to be nothing more than another way of arguing for a wide variety of new gun control laws.

In a new opinion piece, Au argues that we should be treating “gun violence” like we fight cancer; using a variety of strategies that are targeted at specific types of violence.

And while there is no single intervention that will uniformly cut down on all morbidity and mortality due to cancer, we have nevertheless spent the last century and then some working on ways to screen for, treat and reduce the risk of getting cancer, in all its forms.

Similarly, there are many forms of gun violence. And while mass shootings tend to garner the most attention, such incidents actually account for a small portion of firearm deaths in the United States. More common are gun deaths and injury due to suicide, intentional homicide, domestic violence, robbery and assault, and accidental death.

And just like cancer, different forms of gun violence predominate in different at-risk populations, present in different ways and require unique modes of prevention. In other words, the same measures that prevent gun violence in the form of suicide are not necessarily the same measures preventing gun violence in the form of police brutality. They are different diseases under the same diagnostic umbrella.

No one measure, legislative or otherwise, will mitigate all modes of gun violence, any more than an annual colonoscopy will prevent all deaths due to cancer. Those who argue that a particular strategy is not a panacea and — therefore not worthwhile — are missing the point.

Au is correct that a strategy designed to prevent suicides is going to look very different than a strategy focused on deterring gang violence, but that doesn’t mean that either approach needs to involve putting new gun control laws on the books.

The executive actions Biden has taken include increasing funding for community violence intervention programs, directing the Department of Justice to stop the unregulated sales of “ghost gun” kits that can be made from parts purchased online, and encouraging states to adopt “red flag” laws that permit family members or law enforcement to petition a state court to temporarily remove firearms from someone who may be a danger to themselves or others.

The president has acknowledged these incremental solutions are not nearly enough, admitting: “This is just a start. … We’ve got a lot of work to do.” Larger-scale measures, like the passage of HR 8, which would require background checks to extend to private gun sales and transfers, would require the support of Congress.

Gun violence is a complicated and intractable epidemic. But we once considered cancer untreatable as well, and most early attempts to treat it were small, palliative and only marginally effective against what felt like an incurable problem. The key is that scientists and doctors didn’t stop there.

When dealing with a public health crisis on the scale of American gun violence, no measure is too modest.

The problem with Biden’s agenda isn’t that it’s too “modest,” it’s that it’s largely aimed in the wrong direction. To continue Au’s cancer analogy, Biden’s executive actions (with the exception of his proposed $5-billion funding for local gun violence prevention programs) are all targeted at legal gun owners, with the hope that there’ll be some sort of trickle-down effect on criminals. That approach is like blasting a body with chemotherapy and radiation in the hopes of killing cancer cells. Yes, you may end up eradicating some of those cancerous cells, but you’re also poisoning the healthy parts of the body as well.

That’s why researchers are looking for more effective ways to fight cancer, using immunotherapy drugs and treatments that are designed to target those cancerous cells without destroying the overall health of the patient. In terms of fighting violent crime, we should be looking at targeted deterrence efforts that are focused on violent offenders, but Au would prefer a strategy that treats guns themselves as the cancerous tumor that must be eradicated from the body politic.

She’s misdiagnosing the problem. The issue isn’t the inanimate object, but the individuals who use that object to commit violent crimes or even take their own lives. The cancer is the violence, not legal gun ownership, and the brute force of gun control is akin those cancer-fighting strategies that hope to kill the cancer before the treatment kills the patient. Just as cancer researchers are developing better drugs and treatments that avoid doing damage to healthy cells, we should be implementing violence-reduction strategies that can treat the real disease while leaving responsible gun owners alone.