Insidious firearms industry messaging fuels our epidemic of gun violence
During the first year of the pandemic, government researchers noted that the nation’s gun-related homicide rate rose by nearly 35 percent, the highest level in 25 years. Yet statistics on the rise in gun violence in the U.S. fail to convey the emotional impact and horrific scenes still playing out in Uvalde, Texas.
Like Parkland and Sandy Hook, this latest school shooting in Uvalde left distraught parents, teachers, community members and the nation grasping to make sense of a senseless attack that left 19 children and two teachers dead.
So far, the number of mass shootings, including the May 14 attack in Buffalo, N.Y., suggests the nation is on track to have another deadly year.
There are many likely causes for the rise in gun violence in the U.S., including racism, easy access to guns, mental health issues and other factors. However, we can no longer afford to ignore the role the U.S. and global firearms industry plays in perpetuating this public health epidemic.
As public health practitioners, we study how the private sector promotes products and choices that are harmful to health, known as “commercial determinants of health.” Just as the pandemic exposed how systemic racism, poverty and other social determinants impact the health outcomes of individuals and communities, it also exposed the role of the global firearms industry as a commercial determinant of health.
For decades, the firearms industry has worked to minimize the truth about firearm violence through highly effective marketing and lobbying. (These are the same tactics used by the alcohol and tobacco industries to direct focus away from the diseases caused by their products.) For the past 30 years, the National Rifle Association — which will hold its annual meeting this weekend less than 280 miles from the town of Uvalde — has alone spent a sizable portion of its budget (now $300 million) on limiting gun legislation.
At the same time, guns have become more lethal due to competition within the firearms market, and gun producers and distributors play a major role in making these increasingly lethal weapons easier to access and own.
The results are literally lethal with more than 250,000 people worldwide dying from firearms every year. In the U.S. 90 percent of the burden of firearm violence falls on civilian populations, and the societal costs have reached more than $150 billion annually. Low- and middle-income countries globally, as well as communities of color in the U.S., suffer disproportionately from gun violence.
During the pandemic, we saw the firearms industrial machinery in full swing. Gun shops lobbied state governments to be designated as “essential businesses” in order to remain open, while gun advocacy groups peddled panic and fear, arguing that people must be able to protect themselves during these uncertain times. As a result of all these tactics, gun sales skyrocketed. March 2020 marked the second-largest month for firearms sales in U.S. history with 1.9 million sold. According to the Federal Bureau of Investigation, nationwide background checks for individuals purchasing firearms were up 41 percent compared to 2019.
To fully pinpoint the causes of increasing gun violence, we must expand our focus beyond individual users and their motivations to include the systemic incentives of the firearms industry and its supporters. We need to better understand the global gun industry’s motives, tactics and transnational practices, its associated markets and the marketing and lobbying efforts utilized to increase the potency and availability of firearms.
Sadly, the attack in Buffalo followed by the tragedy at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde may not be the last mass shooting in the U.S. this year. Although gun violence seems like it is contagious, it is not an intractable public health problem but one we can solve with evidence-based policies to limit access to guns and other steps.
The U.S. does have the tools to zero in on the root causes of gun violence and more importantly to slow and stop its spread; it now needs the political will to do so.
Such action could have saved innocent lives in Uvalde and will save many more lives in the years to come.
Adnan A. Hyder is director of the Center on Commercial Determinants of Health (CCDH) and a professor of Global Health at Milken Institute School of Public Health at George Washington University. Nino Paichadze is associate director of the CCDH and an assistant research professor of Global Health at the GW Milken Institute School of Public Health.
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