If Gun Violence is a Health Epidemic, Can We Quarantine It Like a Virus?

At least two-thirds of the perpetrators and victims of gun violence are males under the age of 30. What else do they have in common? They live in neighborhoods with high crime rates and low family incomes, they knew each other before the violence broke out, they usually aren’t employed.

But there’s another commonality these young people share which isn’t often mentioned in discussions about gun violence and crime.

It turns out that the part of the brain that controls processing of information about impulse, desire, goals, self-interest, rules and risk develops latest and probably isn’t fully formed until the mid-20s or later. And while adolescents and young men understand the concepts of ‘good’ versus ‘bad’ as well as older adults, they tend to let peer pressures rather than expected outcomes guide their behavior when choosing between risks and rewards.

Take this neurological-behavioral profile of males between ages 15 to 30 and stick a gun in their hands. The brain research clearly demonstrates that kids and young adults walking around with guns understand the risks involved. Whether it’s the NSSF’s new Project ChildSafe, the NRA’s Eddie Eagle or the grassroots gun safety programs that have expanded since Sandy Hook, nobody’s telling the kids something they don’t already know.

So what can we do to mitigate what President Obama calls this ‘epidemic’ of gun violence when the population most at risk consciously chooses to ignore the risk? I suggest that we look at what communities have done to protect themselves from other kinds of epidemics that threatened public health in the past.

And the most effective method has been to quarantine, or isolate, the area or population where the threat is most extreme. It worked in 14th-century Italy, according to Boccaccio in The Decameron. Why wouldn’t it work now?

Last month the city of Springfield, Mass., recorded its 12th gun homicide. If the killing rate continues, the city might hit 15 shooting fatalities this year, a number it actually surpassed in 2010. This gives the city a homicide rate of 10.2 per 100,000 residents, nearly three times the national rate. Virtually all the violence takes place in two specific neighborhoods bounded by Interstate 291 and State Route 83, and all the victims are between 15 and 30 years old.

This area of less than four square miles contains roughly 30,000 residents which means the homicide rate here is 45 per 100,000, more than 10 times the national rate. And the numbers haven’t really changed in the last four or five years. This isn’t an epidemic?

Don’t get me wrong. The word ‘quarantine’ evokes images of the Warsaw Ghetto and I’m not proposing anything like that. But think of police in this neighborhood behaving like public health workers; going door to door, asking people what they know about the existence of guns. There are no constitutional issues here; someone doesn’t want to answer, you go on to the next door.

Wouldn’t the city send people out to make contact with residents if, for example, the water supply suddenly couldn’t be used?

There are grassroots efforts all over the country to make neighborhoods safer from guns. But they usually consist of meetings in churches and other public places where people come together to voice and share their concerns. It’s not the folks who come out to the meeting that you need to reach; it’s the ones who remain at home.

I’m suggesting that we go block by block, again and again, to make sure that people know about the epidemic called gun violence. It’s spread by a virus called guns, and as long as young men between 15 and 30 believe they are immune to the risk of this virus, the epidemic will continue to spread.

This post originally appeared in The Huffington Post.

4 replies »

  1. You hit it on the head and the same thing occurs on the south side of Chicago. Sure it’s a big area, but a majority of the crime in the state (besides political corruption) occurs in that area. The city has tried numerous actions to try to stem the violence, with little affect. Even the National Guard was on the docket to come and help with the shootings and violence. I think it’s a worthwhile cause to continue to try and educate these kids on gun violence. Many won’t care but some will, and will end up turning their life around.

  2. “turn off the TV and tax violent video games into bankruptcy”.
    I do agree that violent video games and too much TV are not good, but they are only a symptom of a society that is collapsing into immoral chaos.

    If one continues to treat only the symptom and not address the cancer that is killing the patient, you only prolong the death. Attack the root cause in order to relieve the symptoms. Anything short of that is a fools errand and completely irrational. We live in a selfish, no or little consequences, immediate gratification, reality TV society of an ever growing population of entitled “victims” of circumstance slaves that are ever dependent on the state to think for them and provide support.

    It is this demographic that infects all classes and races of society that are the problem. The answer is not to treat all citizens as unaccountable idiots or you will fail in the same way that cookie cutter gun control is failing. The critical thinking and moral law abiding citizen holds these illogical gun control policies in utter contempt and for good reason as it is an insult to us.

    As a doctor, I would expect that you are a critical thinker and can support your argument. I would be happy to discuss the supporting arguments for both sides of this issue as my objective is the truth, not matter how ugly it may be. By ugly, I refer to UCI reports from the FBI regarding criminal use of firearms by state, race, and age of the perpetrator. When gun violence is disproportionately represented by a certain race, it becomes a very sensitive subject to discuss due to what it suggests. South Africa suffers from the same disproportionate racial distribution of criminal firearms use.

    I am a retired combat veteran of over twenty years in the service as a combat leader. I know death. I have been exposed to horrors you could never conceive in your wildest dreams. I do not just talk the talk, I walk the walk and have the record to prove it. Many of the urban youth on our streets ended up in gangs or in the military with some under my leadership. What I learned was that many had no father to bring them into manhood through traditional rights of passage. They filled this void by affiliating with gangs or joining the military. Unfortunately society has made it all too easy for males to avoid accountability for their progeny. They have no clue regarding the ideal concept of what an healthy adult male should be, act and know.

    We have a values problem that is the main factor creating dysfunctional families. Our state and federal government are failing to support the concept of family in my opinion. This is not a gun issue. To focus on the gun is a recipe for utter failure.

  3. After we successfully quarantine the virus of guns, let’s quarantine the viruses of spoons, cars, cellphones, etc. Our nation will be better for it I’m sure. I am tired of folks blaming the person behind the gun, spoon, wheel of a car, etc, for the acts committed by those objects that have resulted in threats to public health and in many cases, death! We are victims of these objects and evil people with an agenda would have you believe we are accountable and not the objects! How stupid can they be?

  4. In my view, gun-related violence should be added to the scope of Public Health concerns. Pediatricians have argued for this approach for years under the terms “toxic stress” and “new morbidity.”

    However, this quarantine metaphor does more harm than good. All Americans have reflexively opposed quarantines since the first ones were used here (even when they were for the best). Minorities will have flashbacks to Indian reserves, the Tuskegee experiment, the Japanese internment and ‘illegals.’ The metaphor is very pejorative. Moreover, if violence is a contagious meme, it is the militaristic American culture that should be quarantined away from the rest of the world. Following that logic, the Public Health intervention would be to turn off the TV and tax violent video games into bankruptcy. Please do not even use the word ‘quarantine’ in this context. It would seem to be counterproductive.

    Finally, the door-to-door outreach is another suggestion that is poorly packaged here. Using Community Health Workers (not police) has worked all over the world for Public Health problems. Again police *cannot* fulfill this function unless the intervention is being designed to fail.

    So, when I reflect on the quarantine and the door-to-door hunt for the ‘virus’ by police… My conclusion is that this proposal is sugar-coated, but de facto, institutional racism. It is doomed as a public health policy and will probably undermine the credibility of any group that even mentions it. Perhaps the author is familiar with the phrase; this is a dog that won’t hunt.