There’s broad agreement, as noted in Part 1 of this post, that gun violence (indeed, all violence) should be viewed as a public health issue. That idea was clearly stated by Dr. Gary Slutkin, an epidemiologist trained in infectious diseases, when he returned to the US after a decade spent in Somalia, Uganda, and other countries where epidemics of such diseases as cholera, tuberculosis, and AIDs were common. In his final assignment before coming home, he was tasked to design interventions. As he describes in a TEDMED talk, he was looking for something to do when he began hearing stories of children shooting other children. When he asked friends how America was addressing this issue, one response was through punishment. But, he said, “We who had worked in behavior know that punishment was something…that was highly overvalued” because it wasn’t a main driver of either behavior or behavior change. What’s more, it reminded him of responses to epidemics long ago—before science cast better light on issues.
The front page of Sunday’s New York Times and the story within carry snapshots of the 126 most recent victims of mass shootings. “Inside a Deadly American Summer,” reads the page 1 headline. “An American Summer Stained in Blood,” is the inside title. Both tap into the fear, anxiety, even terror that the overwhelming majority of us feel about mass shootings. “And all we could do is ask why,” notes The Times. “And wait for it to happen again.” What if I told you that the media’s approach to these clearly horrendous mass shootings, which are increasing in number and frequency, may actually be making us less safe? Suppose we are viewing the issue of gun violence through too narrow a lens—and we are therefore standing in the way of what could be real progress in reducing and preventing the deaths and serious injuries in our gun culture-run-wild?
I see a direct line between two recent bits of news. Here’s the first: “America Really Is in the Midst of a Rising Anxiety Epidemic,” headlines a Science Alert published in May. Reporting on the findings of an American Psychiatric Association (APA) Public Opinion Poll, the author writes: “If you’re feeling stressed, uncertain about what the future holds, or even physically unsafe, try not to panic—you’re definitely not alone.” ... And here’s the second: Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, the lovely, gentle film about Fred Rogers, a soft-spoken Presbyterian minister whose Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood series on PBS uplifted and reassured a generation of children and their parents, has raked in more than $20 million since its June 8 opening. That figure makes it the highest grossing biographical documentary—and one of the top 15 nonfiction films—of all time.