Should we treat Chicago gun violence as a public health problem like HIV?

In the past, I’ve expressed my criticism of sloppy analogies between gun violence and disease, but that doesn’t mean that I see no valid ways to approach the use of guns to injure or kill thousands of Americans each year as a matter of public health.  If we can keep the factors straight that are of the same form, making an analogy between two seemingly dissimilar situations can shake loose new ideas from the ruts in our thinking.

One example of this comes from Yale professor of sociology, Andrew V. Papachristos, who suggests that we look at gun violence as though it were a blood-borne pathogen, something like HIV.  If he had said that gun violence is like a cold virus or is analogous to cancer caused by cosmic rays, that would be a bad attempt at comparison.  But AIDS is a disease that results from a specific set of actions or negligence, well understood these days, or from accidental exposure.  The latter—infection from the blood supply, for example—is much less frequent, thanks to the precautions that have been taken.

And in these respects, gun violence has a lot in common.  The argument made by Papachristos, whose work has focused on gun homicides in Chicago, is that murder typically isn’t a random event, isn’t something like picking up a cold virus by opening a door or passing through a room.  That should sound obvious, though much of gun control does treat gun violence as the sort of thing that just happens because guns are present.  Advocates of control claim that we need to reduce the availability of guns in the same way that so many obsessively wipe every surface with antibiotics—even though, both in analogy and in the literal sense, such things are useless.

The problem is that Chicago’s violence has a lot about it that we don’t understand.  Currently, the number of murders stands at 500 for this year, with no promise of peace in the remaining months.  The laws are close to those in New York and were essentially identical for a long time.  Unemployment is lower now than last year.  New York had “stop and frisk,” while the Chicago police force has engaged in their own forms of aggressiveness.  And yet, what has been tried hasn’t worked—if the goal is reducing violence, that is.

Papachristos says that the solution has to be of a similar nature to public health approaches to fighting AIDS.  We don’t blanket the city.  We treat infected persons and search out their sexual partners.  He provides data from Chicago showing that forty percent of gun homicides occur in only four percent of the population.  Working with those four percent would achieve much greater reductions in violence than the traditional strategies have done.

As Papachristos cautions, though, we must especially avoid the policies like the aforementioned “stop and frisk,” policies that use stereotyping as a substitute for good police work.  We’re handed a choice here, to use good science to achieve the stated purpose of saving lives or to cling to failed methods in the hopes that punishing good people by curtailing their rights will work—this time, for the first time.

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