Philip Alcabes discusses myths of health, disease and risk.


Yesterday there was a carjacking at gunpoint across the street from my house. By all accounts (I wasn’t home at the time), a livery-cab driver, parked at the curb, was eating his supper when a man rode up on a bike, pointed a gun, forced the driver out of his car, and drove the car away.

This took place at about 6pm, in the Bronx. Which is to say, it took place in daylight on a residential street in a neighborhood where it’s usually unnecessary to look one’s door and where the biggest street-scene commotion is normally the recycling pickup performed by noisy sanitation trucks on Saturday mornings.

I’m grateful that few people in my neighborhood have guns. Nobody was hurt in this incident, frightening as it was. And, after all, the only thing the thief took was a car. If passers-by had been armed, or one of the neighbors, someone might have tried to stop the carjacker by opening fire, and then, most likely, there would have been mayhem and wounds, or worse.

I say this as a counterweight to the dismal response of most Americans to the mass shooting at the Navy Yard in D.C. on Monday the 16th. After 13 deaths, the obsession with the details of the shooter’s religious beliefs, psychiatric record, and security clearance seems bizarre and macabre.

The insistence by the main news media on covering firearm incidents as if there were somehow two sides to the story, as if it were a question of rights or ethics, is a betrayal of the public responsibility of journalists. And this betrayal includes, especially, the supposedly liberal New York Times, and Washington Post, and NPR, and so forth. And the willingness of the media to run with stories about psychology and brain scans and heroic school teachers and the virtuous souls of those who “sadly” (inconveniently, they mean) died after being shot is a camouflage for their cowardice, and their moral weakness.

Today’s Brian Lehrer show on WNYC featured Paul Barrett, the author of a book about guns in America, saying that some Americans simply like guns and the rest of us ought to be practical and learn to accept that.

Allow me to be clear, then. I do not accept that Americans should have guns. Gun ownership is a crude and barbarian residue of a less civilized time, and should simply stop. Gun owners may, as Mr. Barrett alleges, like their guns, and this affection for potentially deadly objects may arise for all sorts of interesting reasons (or in some cases it might be, as I sometimes suspect, for reasons of sexual perversion, which is really not very interesting and could surely be sublimated onto, say, weed whackers or egg beaters or fancy dildos). But liking deadly weapons is no reason that society must allow them. Not even if a majority of people like them.  It may be democratic to learn to live in a society where people shoot other people, but it isn’t civil.

Barrett says that gun owners will be offended if we gun-averse people don’t understand their affection for their weapons. Fair enough. They are welcome to be offended. I don’t share this affection. I find it medieval, and bizarre, and, in a society with so much horror-engendering killing, I find the tolerance for the market in guns to be simply immoral.

Gun owners distract the conversation away from civility, turn it into a muddled discourse on rights. But there is no question of rights when it comes to guns, only a question of the wording of the second amendment, which is not at all the same thing as a right in the natural-rights sense, or in the human-rights sense.  We should not be drawn into discussions of gun rights. We should discuss murder, we should discuss 30,000-odd deaths each year, we should discuss the acceptance of guns in America as a thinly disguised mechanism for our society to allow the intimidating and utlimately thinning of the population of black males. But we should not pretend this is about rights.

In a civil society, people do not own guns (except if they are going to hunt for food, which really doesn’t apply to most of us). Citizens of civil societies don’t shoot one another. Once the guns disappear,  all sorts of supposedly thorny issues, like security clearances and mental-health records, will be revealed for the trivial conversations they are.

The carjacking outside my house worries me, the more so as the thief was armed. I’ve locked my door, and am going to be more watchful, I suppose. But I remain glad that there weren’t more guns involved, and wish there had been none.


Gun Violence: The Silence of the Officials

A week after the murderous fusillade in Aurora, Colorado, not one public health official has stepped forward to call for gun control.

Attribute the 9 deaths and dozens of injuries in Aurora to the rash act of an unbalanced man if you wish.  But what about the tens of thousands of other deaths caused by firearms in the U.S. each year?

If HIV infection (9,406 deaths in 2011) and painkiller overdose (estimated at 15,000 deaths per year, according to a report  by Trust for America’s Health and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation) are public health problems worth discussion, why not firearms?  In 2009, the last year for which complete data are available, there were 31,347 deaths by firearm in the US, according to the US National Center for Injury Prevention and Control.

At The Pump Handle, Celeste Monforton — always worth reading — provides the data showing how out-of-scale America’s gun problem is on the global public health scene:  Our gun-violence death rates are an order of magnitude higher than those of other wealthy nations.

At CNN, Daniel Webster calls for America to wake up to the public health problem of guns.  “America’s high rate of gun violence is shameful,” Webster writes.  “When will we change?”

NYC Mayor Michael Bloomberg can be a tyrant when it comes to personal habits that he thinks impair the city’s health, but he has been courageously forthright on the need to control firearms.

But, like me, Monforton and Webster are academics.  And Mike Bloomberg is, well, Mike Bloomberg.

Where are the health officials?

Kathleen Sibelius, Secretary of Health and Human Services, has been silent.  She’s been vocal on healthcare fraud, and earlier this week announced a new public-private partnership to keep people with AIDS in care.   But not a word on guns.

Thomas Frieden, CDC director, can’t be accused of shying from the spotlight.  But he has said nothing about guns.

Under these corrupt officials, gun violence has been cleaned from the public health radar screen.

Try finding an entry on firearm violence at the Department of Health and Human Services website.  Or, go to the CDC’s “A-Z Index” (what other letters would bound an index, one wonders? well, anyway…).  There’s no entry for “guns” or “gun violence.”  Nor for “firearms.”  The entry on “violence” leads to a page on injury prevention that includes links to entries on Elder Maltreatment and Intimate Partner Violence — but not a word on guns.

At Salon, Alex Seitz-Wald wonders whether the NRA has suppressed research.  There’s some evidence for this:  Paul Helmke of the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence wrote to Secretary Sibelius over a year ago, asking whether it’s true that Frieden’s CDC has agreed to tip off the NRA when researchers who receive CDC monies are going to publish anything on gun violence.

Seitz-Wald might well be perfectly right.  Certainly, the NRA is unseemly, manipulative, and morally vacuous.  But it doesn’t have the power to program anyone’s thoughts.  It doesn’t cause our officials to be spineless in the face of the infestation of American homes and streets — and movie theaters, schools, colleges, and so on — by guns.

No, it can only be that Frieden and Sibelius — and a tremendous host of less prominent health officials — are all silent about  guns because, really, they aren’t concerned about 31,000 deaths and upward of 400,000 injuries from firearms each year.  Or, not as concerned about the carnage as they are about their jobs.

It’s self-evident that our health officials don’t care about the real health of Americans nearly as much as they do about their own continuation as officials.  More important than saving lives or limbs, apparently, is the officials’ capacity to mount the bully pulpit in order to decry other dreadful scourges.  Like big cups of soda, defrauding the insurance companies, or not exercising.

Our public health officials:  put to the test, and found to be feckless at core.