The public health approach to gun violence is frequently – indeed, I might say, always – criticized by gun rights advocates. Indeed, the famous or infamous ban on federal funding for research on firearms injury promoted by the National Rifle Association explicitly targets the public health approach. Into that void has stepped anti-gun former NYC Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who has used his personal fortune to fund extensively the Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health, and in particular the Center for Gun Policy and Research. (Bloomberg wrote the foreword to the 2013 book, Reducing Gun Violence in America, that was edited by two scholars associated with this center.)
The players involved suggest how contentious the public health approach is. Even as a neutral party in this war, I have found occasion to criticize some of the conclusions drawn by public health researchers. At the same time, I am trained as a mainstream social scientist, so I do not dismiss out of hand public health, epidemiological, and similar approaches to the social world.
For these reasons, I was interested to hear what public health researcher Charlie Ransford was going to say about the “Cure Violence” approach to guns and violence at the annual meeting of the American Society of Criminology in November 2013.
“Effectively Implementing the Cure Violence Model for the Prevention of Community Violence,” by Charles Ransford, Candice Kane, and Gary Slutkin (all of the University of Illinois at Chicago)
According to Ransford, violence is transmitted like a disease, from person to person. Abused become abusers. Exposure to community violence makes people more likely to be violent.
The mechanisms for this transmission include social learning (modeling, mirror neurons), social norms (scripts), neurological effects (desensitization, hyper-aroused stress), and other modulating factors (“dose,” prior immunity, context, age).
Given these mechanisms, how does one go about stopping the violence? Ransford highlights three key steps: (1) interrupt transmission, (2) identify and change the thinking of the transmitters, and (3) change group norms.
I came away from the session quite impressed by this approach. Most notably, although the organization is certainly concerned with gun violence, the accent was always on the violence not the gun. To me this is a potential common ground. Very few in our society, after all, are pro-violence.
I was unfamiliar with Cure Violence prior to this session, but since then I have learned more about the organization from the documentary film, “The Interrupters,” as well as the group’s website (http://cureviolence.org).
On its website, Cure Violence presents its “model” like Ransford did at the ASC meeting: without explicit reference to guns. The problem is violence, and the fact that some people enact that violence with guns is in a sense incidental.
One of the most chilling moments in the documentary shows video Derrion Albert, a 16-year-old honors student, who was killed by being stomped and hit over the head with a wooden plank. This does not get coded as an instance of “blunt object violence.” In England, where a leading instrument of homicide is knives, they don’t lament their problem of “knife violence.”
The weapon is a vehicle; the root of the problem is violence. The fact that many who approach the issue of violence from a public health perspective do in fact target guns specifically (rather than violence generally) perhaps makes this paper the exception that proves the rule. But if those researchers did want to speak to those in the gun culture who feel they are being punished for the crimes of others, they would do well to emphasize their concern with violence over their concern with guns.