I went to a talk today about firearm injury prevention. The five lecturers were from different backgrounds and spoke about different topics having to do with preventing homicides and suicides — and injuries — from firearms. One researcher talked about how the media narrates the stories out there about shootings. She said that mass shootings get all the attention, but gun violence is an everyday thing that goes underreported. Another researcher — one whom I know from Hopkins — talked about the different laws in different states and their effects on firearm homicides. She said that laws designed to slow down the process of acquiring a weapon (like universal background checks) have the effect of lowering the rate of homicides and suicides from firearms.
The “trouble,” if you want to call it that, came when a researcher talked about deaths of police officers from having their guns taken away and used against them. He said that this happened in about 10% of officer deaths, and it happened more often than not because the perpetrator was trying to flee. This researcher is an occupational health researcher, and his main purpose is to reduce/prevent injuries in the workplace. Since cops are working as law enforcement officers when these incidents happen, his hope was to understand what happened a little bit better and maybe offer some solutions. (Some of which would be engineering solutions, like “smart” guns or harnesses that made it harder for someone to take the weapon.)
During the Q&A, someone asked him how he intended to do research — or how his research would be received — in light of the Black Lives Matter movement. Now, he answered this very diplomatically, but I wish that he would have admonished the question as being a not-so-valid question. I certainly would have. Let me tell you why…
Yes, there is a problem with law enforcement using deadly force against individuals in general, and individuals who are Black or Latino in particular. Certainly, Black men are disproportionately represented when it comes to “legal interventions” that end in deaths. (In fact, there was a heated discussion during the governing council meeting on a position statement regarding “police violence,” but that’s for a whole other discussion later.) However, police-involved homicides are a completely different matter to police officers dying while in the function of their duties.
In fact, attempting to tie the two phenomena together muddles the waters when it comes to the discussion we are trying to have. It’s not a zero-sum game, and — as the researcher mentioned — someone taking a powerful weapon away from a police officer is a public health problem because that weapon is now in the hands of someone who endangers us all. Fixing that problem will surely save lives well beyond those of the police officers who have their guns taken away in a struggle.
This is the problem with how polarized we are in this country. I got the sense that the person who posed the question was almost saying that we shouldn’t worry about cops getting killed when cops are killing… Thing is, it’s not all cops. In arguing about officer-involved deadly shootings, people who are otherwise reasonable fall into the trap of lumping all officers together into the “bad apples.” Surely, we need the honorable and professional cops to stand up and speak against their colleagues who do bad things. But that is a different discussion than whether or not we should look out for their health as well.
After all, when we decided to practice public health, we didn’t really agree on leaving out one segment of the public, or on tending to the needs of one segment of the public over another… Did we?
It’s damn near impossible to have discussions today without framing them in a political viewpoint, and I’m very much guilty of that. I can’t talk about children being separated from their parents without tasting bile in my mouth because I see Baby Ren in every child who is forcefully taken away from their parents. And I can’t take an anti-vaccine candidate for office seriously on any other subject because I am so adamant about promoting the use of vaccines.
I wish we could. I wish we could reach a place where we talked sensibly about issues and be respectful.
René F. Najera, DrPH
I'm a Doctor of Public Health, having studied at the Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health.
All opinions are my own and in no way represent anyone else or any of the organizations for which I work.
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