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As a public health threat, mass shootings require public health solutions

As a public health threat, mass shootings require public health solutions
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As the media covers another spate of mass shootings, a familiar and all-too-predictable pattern is emerging yet again: debates over gun control and whether it is too soon to discuss policy, littered with accusations of who is shamelessly taking advantage of the tragedy. In the end, arguments tend to center around a false binary of guns in the hands of those who are safe and those who are dangerous, with little progress made. But these public shootings demonstrate the limitations of one of the most commonly used arguments against gun restrictions, that of the “law-abiding citizen.” Following this argument has real-world consequences, which demand real-world solutions that acknowledge the public health threat guns pose.

In District of Columbia v. Heller, the Supreme Court declared the Second Amendment protected an individual right of “law-abiding, responsible citizens to use arms in defense.” The rhetorical force of the “law-abiding citizen” language comes from assuming everyone exists solely and perpetually in the categories of dangerous or not. Yet, a person can shift out of the law-abiding category with the pull of a trigger.

The events in Boulder highlight the devastating limitations of the “law-abiding citizen” framing. If an individual walks into a public setting armed, how is the average person to know whether they are — and will continue to be — law-abiding? The Boulder shooting is hardly the first to illustrate this problem. In 2019, two men walked into separate Walmart stores five days apart. One was exercising what he believed was his Second Amendment right, the other intended to kill immigrants. As we saw in the Atlanta spa shootings, racism is not worn like an article of clothing for all to see. 

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Even well-intentioned armed civilians can do more harm than good. Indeed, another Colorado shooting at a Walmart in 2017 resulted in police having difficulty determining who was the criminal when multiple shoppers pulled out their firearms to stop the gunman. If trained law enforcement officers are unable to determine who is law-abiding and who is not, it is unlikely that the average person will be able to either.

Typically, when the public is limited in their ability to take proactive steps to protect themselves, the government has greater authority to act in their defense. For example, a deadly, airborne contagious disease that can spread asymptomatically provides broader justification for the government to take proactive measures to limit the spread. And these measures can be severe infringements on constitutional rights, including involuntary quarantine which confines someone without even confirming they are actually infected.

As a public health threat, mass shootings require public health solutions.

This approach underscores the need for a population-based view informed by science. While we cannot predict the likelihood that any individual may misuse their firearm, we know that a proliferation of firearms is associated with increased gun violence through escalating incidences and mortality from confrontations such as road rage and domestic violence. Meanwhile, evidence limits the persuasiveness of self-defense claims, given the extreme rarity of successful use of firearms for self-defense. Public health principles also emphasize the importance of the social determinants of health, with a focus on people’s lived experiences. This is critical to understanding that an increased presence of guns from “law-abiding citizens” does little to address the poverty, substandard education, and neighborhood violence that often leads individuals to a life of crime.

But, so far, the courts’ Second Amendment decisions raise more questions than answers about what policy options are available to address gun violence. These cases often take a narrow, individualistic, rights-based view in their analyses, ignoring the elephant in the room — a growing gun violence epidemic. This approach ignores the avoidable death that continues to follow, instead elevating the scope of constitutional protections above the need and ability to protect the public.

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Moreover, an individualistic perspective ignores the manner in which gun violence, and the perpetuation of the harm through government inaction, impacts the rights of others. When people no longer feel safe in schools, movie theaters, concerts, and grocery stores, their freedoms and liberties are limited. In these dangerous situations, as seen in the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic, the government can — and is likely expected to — take action to address these concerns. While an individual has a right to self-defense, so too does a community have the right to defend itself against gun violence.

Gun violence is a problem, but not an inevitable one.

The Second Amendment and the legal unknowns that continue to obscure the limits of the right make it difficult to know what policies are available to address gun violence. But an evidence-driven, population-based approach to constitutional analysis would help demonstrate that this right — as with all rights — is not absolute and must yield, at times, to the government’s authority to protect the public.

Michael Ulrich is a member of the faculty at Boston University School of Law as well as Boston University's School of Public Health. Professor Ullrich is also a Solomon Center Distinguished Visiting Scholar at Yale Law School. He has written extensively on gun violence and the Second Amendment.