Gun violence as a virus

This post is about Public Health, Gun Violence, the Second Amendment, and a couple of other things. Walk away now if you feel that this is something you can’t stomach. You’ve been warned.

There is an interesting thread going on right now on LinkedIn. It was started off as a blog post in which the author compared gun violence to a virus that can be staved off through herd immunity. The thesis of that blog post is that gun violence, if seen as a virus, can be contained through herd immunity. In essence, it can be contained through having everyone armed to the teeth so that if someone should happen to walk into that crowd with the intent to kill, the armed (i.e. “immunized”) people in the crowd can stop the incident with their own guns.

Ann Coulter As Evidence?

For evidence of this proposal, the author cites Ann Coulter, who has apparently commented that a well-armed public may be the answer to the spate of gun violence we have experienced recently. The author also makes this statement:

“This herd immunity concept already works in other areas of law enorcement – Take speeding, for example. With a critical mass of random police cruisers, excessive speeding is prevented for the most part. Once funding issues affect the numbers of personel deployed, speeding and other infractions of the law strart occurring in greater numbers. One of the comments below mentions the MotherJones article. That article misses the point in that the potential presence of large numbers of concealed weapons carried by law abiding citizens would act as a deterrent towards mass shootings- as Ann Coulter said  “They may be crazy, but they are not stupid”. The stupidity, I think, occurs among those who wring their hands and want to take away all guns off the streets (leaving only those capabe of carrying out a Mumbai type massacre with guns to do as they wish).”

It should be made clear that Ann Coulter is but a political commentator and in no way an expert in public health, gun violence, or science. The author then appeals to emotion in mentioning the 2008 Mumbai attacks. In the LinkedIn discussion, he continues his appeal to emotion, straying away from an evidence-based discussion. But we’ll put that aside for a bit.

My Thing

I’m an infectious disease epidemiologist. My thing is pathogens and the way they spread in populations, so I feel that I am qualified to discuss this theory of herd immunity as a deterrent to gun violence. I can categorically tell you that this is the wrong approach to gun violence for several reasons.

The Several Reasons

First, gun violence is carried out by living, breathing, and, most importantly, thinking human beings. These beings have the ability to plan their attacks and foresee any eventualities. If you look at many of the mass gun shootings in the United States, and abroad, the assailant had backup plans and countermeasures (e.g. bulletproof vests) in case things or people got in the way. The perpetrators of the Columbine High School Massacre had bombs at the ready. During the North Hollywood Shootout, the two perpetrators of that shooting had armored vests and helmets. They also had high-powered weapons and ammo. So, unlike the flu, gun violence that leads to mass shootings is planned for by human beings that are smart, cunning, and are not afraid to die in their attempt. The flu could care less if it infects you or not.

Second, most of us have never been in a situation where there are bullets flying and people running for their lives. War veterans have, and they will tell you that things get very confusing in these situations, particularly when the enemy is not uniformed and looks like everyone else around… Everyone that is running and screaming, that is. Even well trained police miss their target at close range. Check out this dash cam video of a shooting in Manteca, California. It is somewhat graphic, but proves my point. The officer, obviously trained in the use of a deadly weapon, missed the target on several occasions. How well can we expect armed bystanders to shoot in a situation where people are screaming, running, and where the assailant may look like any other person in the public? The 2012 Aurora Shooting took place in a darkened movie theater. What if everyone had pulled out their own guns?

Third, there is a difference between preparedness and response. For example, we don’t mass-vaccinate once the flu season is done. We vaccinate before the flu season starts. We pass out medication and healthcare once the outbreak is underway. Likewise, there needs to be a discussion on the prevention of gun violence and then another discussion on how to react to it.

So What Do We Do?

There is no doubt in my mind that gun violence is a problem that has to do with public health, but it is not completely a problem for public health professionals to resolve. As a result, it cannot be addressed with a mentality of providing herd immunity for it. Gun violence is also not exclusive to law enforcement. It’s also not only a problem stemming from mental health. Gun violence has many causes, almost as many as the victims it leaves behind.

It is going to take a big effort that draws from many disciplines to come up with a solution that will reduce the incidence of mass shootings in particular and gun violence in general. We’re going to have to make some tough choices. As one of the commenters in the LinkedIn discussion stated:

“It is only with guns that serious deliberation is avoided for the sake of preserving a right, even if another right – to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness – is forfeited by others. “

We need serious deliberation. Dead serious.

One More Thing

Finally, here’s my Venn diagram of what I believe breaks down to lead to mass shootings:


I’d like to hear what you have to say… And I’ll listen better if you don’t appeal to emotion and stick with the facts.

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