Gun Violence as a Public Health Concern


In the wake of mass shootings more public health officials are calling for gun violence to be treated as a public health concern. Health reporter Kara Lofton spoke with West Virginia University sociology professor and former police officer James Nolan about whether taking guns away or incarcerating more people would increase public safety. He argues reducing violence may be a matter of building stronger, more engaged communities. Here’s part of that conversation.


LOFTON: When you hear the term “gun violence” as a public health concern. What does that mean to you?

NOLAN: Well, I mean, it shifts from a criminal justice matter to a public health matter. It focuses on outcomes, which is the harm that’s caused by guns.

The other interesting thing about shifting to a public health focus is that it enables us to think more about measuring outcomes, rather than just the number of things that people like the police and prosecutors do to curb gun violence.

It’s an outcome-focused, and research-oriented discipline.

LOFTON: Yeah, in a place like West Virginia there’s a very particular sort of viewpoint around guns like “there should not be gun control legislation” and that it’s part of the basic right of being American. How do you take these very polarizing, disparate views and create a society where guns aren’t a public health hazard essentially, where it’s not a public health concern?

NOLAN: Well, I don’t think there’s a shortcut to dialogue and open discussion about these things. I mean, as you probably know, we’ve had this debate recently on the campus of WVU, because there’s been legislation introduced that would have open carry in the classrooms and in the dorms and that sort of thing. And we actually followed, you know, our founding fathers guidance. I mean, if you look at the minutes of the University of Virginia Board of Visitors meeting, around the time of Madison and Jefferson, they voted no to guns on campus. And Madison, of course, was the primary author of the Second Amendment. So even, you know, our founding fathers and those who created the Second Amendment were logical about that — there are places where guns should be allowed and not allowed. But …giving rise to a voice that exposes these realities, can we ever, you know, really… have guns and still be safe?

LOFTON: I want to talk a little bit about this idea of dialogue, because there’s been a lot of coverage recently about the impact of social media on dialogue, because we end up having these sort of very narrow circles of news cycles that we see. So somebody who’s liberal might see a more liberal news feed, somebody conservative might see a more conservative feed, and there’s not a lot of crossover. So when we are talking about an issue like gun control or gun safety, how do we facilitate those dialogues in a way that’s productive, as opposed to people just sort of being reinforced in whatever it is that they already believe?

NOLAN: What we have to adopt is an experimental mindset that we together, in dialogue, we develop working hypotheses that this-this-or-that policy may work, may help shape these public health outcomes. And we look at it and we measure it and we are honest about it. [Maybe] it will reach a point where people will come to the table and begin to talk about what may work. And how do we know that it works? And how can we measure it? Are we willing to try it for a while?

The second part of this is … we had a West Virginia phone survey that we’ve conducted over a two-year period, where we asked people about their community and the relationships they have with each other and the police. And we find that in places where people know each other, there’s some level of cohesion, there’s a willingness to intervene for the common good. In these types of places, there’s low risk of crime, there’s low risk of violence, there’s a low risk of guns being listed as a problem and drugs also. But in places where there’s conflict or alienation in the communities in West Virginia, these places predict almost 100% …that drugs are going to be a problem, and guns are going to be a problem, and crime is going to be a problem.

And then there’s a third type of place that people are not connected to each other, they don’t know their neighbors, but they feel safe because they believe that the police can protect them. These places are also not very safe. So it’s a dependence on the government, dependence on the police, dependence on the authority, to protect the community. [These] shortcut the interactions that are necessary to make a community really strong, [and they…] work against safety.

So we are working with a state agency to publish these findings. But I think they’ll lead to a discussion that [says] — whether it’s drugs or guns or crime or whatever the issues are in West Virginia — the best type of a public safety response is not more protection, not more people with guns, but dialogue so that we can work through these things together. Because we need to build the types of relationships that actually, really can, make places safer.


Appalachia Helth News

Appalachia Health News is a project of West Virginia Public Broadcasting, with support from Marshall Health and Charleston Area Medical Center.