What becomes of a country that cannot protect its young?

 

March for our lives, Washington DC, 24 March 2018

 

It’s too early to say if the grassroots social movement initiated by students who survived the gun massacre at Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida will be successful in nudging America’s gun laws in the direction of rationality and evidence.

After killing 17 people with an AR-15 style semi-automatic weapon, and injuring 17 more, 19 year-old former student Nikolas Cruz left the school premises, blending in with the crowd and remaining free for an hour before arrested.

On March 24, students and gun control advocates took to the streets of Washington DC in a “March for Our Lives”.

They’re trying to start a movement.  You can join them.

“To the leaders, skeptics and cynics who told us to sit down and stay silent, wait your turn! Welcome to the revolution!” said student Cameron Kasky.

Barack Obama tweeted: “Michelle and I are so inspired by all the young people who made today’s marches happen. Keep at it. You’re leading us forward. Nothing can stand in the way of millions of voices calling for change.”

In the thick of it, as usual, my friend Professor Lawrence Gostin from Georgetown University Law School, who leads the O’Neill Institute for National and Global Health Law.  You can read about the march on his twitter account here.

He writes: “From a long life’s experience on health and human rights I have found that no meaningful change happens without bottom up social mobilization.”

He’s right.  This is true of gun control, tobacco control, and much else in public health.

Is there constitutional space for rational, evidence-based gun control laws in the United States?

It’s sometimes assumed that the US Second Amendment, which states that “the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed”, leaves little room for rational, evidence-based gun control policies and laws.

This is not so, argues Professor Gostin in a recent paper published in the Journal of the American Medical Association.  For additional resources, click here, here, and here.

In fact, rational firearms laws are compatible with the Constitution and with recent caselaw, suggesting that the real problem is a political one.  Rational, evidence-based measures to reduce firearms deaths in the United States could include:

  • mandating a higher minimum purchasing age for firearms
  • prohibiting dangerous individuals from purchasing or owning firearms
  • requiring safe storage
  • banning weapons with especially hazardous properties such as military-style rapid-fire firearms and high capacity magazines, and
  • banning open carry of firearms (an emerging issue for college campuses, where academics receive advice about what to do in “active shooter” situations).

Young people exercising another of their constitutional rights, March for our lives, Washington DC, 24 March 2018.  (However, Rick Santorum suggests they would be better served taking CPR classes)

 

What makes bottom-up change happen?

This is a neglected but vitally important questions for public health lawyers.

Will the anger and conviction that fuels the “March for our lives” movement endure?  Will it prove capable of raising the resources that will be necessary to make a compelling case for change to the American people?

Public health advocates often focus on content: the technical content of the policies they advocate, the evidence, and the rational case for change.  And then nothing happens.

More than ever, advocates need to better understand the factors that catalyse change, the factors that make social movements successful, and enduring.

Jeremy Shiffman has written about why some global health issues attract attention while others languish: his scholarship is helpful in also analysing national public health issues.

For social constructionists like Shiffman, global health problems like HIV, polio, or non-communicable diseases do not have any inherent priority or significance.  The attention an issue receives, while not unrelated to epidemiological facts, is “always mediated by social interpretations”.

From a social constructionist perspective, the “core activity” of global health advocates is ideational: health advocates must advance truth claims about the problem and its solutions that resonate with the values and shared interpretations of political leaders and those who control resources.

On this view, global health (and the same could be said of national public health priorities) is a competitive – and brutal – process of portraying and communicating severity, neglect, tractability and benefit in ways that appeal to political leaders’ social values and concepts of reality”.

Yet increasingly, reality itself is no longer a shared experience.  Gun control advocates and gun enthusiasts might as well live in different universes.  Their sources of information are completely unrelated; the things they find persuasive utterly different.

Speaking in Sydney on a recent visit, Barack Obama said that “social and political structures had not yet worked out how to deal with rapidly changing communications technology, a world in which people no longer watched the same TV channels or read the same newspapers. The rapid pace of change was having a flow-on effect across the globe, and was likely to get faster still. Discourse was becoming increasingly fragmented, with people becoming hermetically sealed off from each other inside very different information universes.”

The triple cocktail of extreme individualism, neoliberalism, and populism have created a social landscape in which there is less and less shared ground when it comes to values and visions for a better life.

Speaking as a non-American, it seems to me that the scale of the challenge, for gun control advocates, is reflected in the reflexive tendency of the pro-gun lobby to castigate the very mention of rational gun laws, following [America’s latest semi-automatic gunfire massacre: insert details here] as exploitative – as politicizing a tragedy.

A couple of examples.  Jesse Hughes, whose band, Eagles of Death Metal, was performing at the Bataclan theatre in Paris on 13 November 2015 when terrorists stormed in and took hostages, eventually killing 89, went on an on-line rant, calling the Stoneman High School students “disgusting vile abusers of the dead”.

Another right-wing media type tweeted the following about David Hogg, one of the Florida students advocating for stricter gun laws: “I’ve been hanging out getting ready to ram a hot poker up David Hogg’s ass tomorrow.”

All because some students who survived a mass murder at their school dared express their opinion that government ought to introduce gun control laws to help make such rampages less frequent.

Like the tragedy of the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School, the gun massacre at Stoneman Douglas High School reflects the failure of policy, the failure of politics and politicians, and ultimately, the potential failure of a society.

What becomes of a country that cannot – or will not – protect its young?

Authoritarian regimes, that fail the protect basic freedoms, or do so only partially, start to look a whole lot better.

That’s bad news for freedom, and bad news for America.

 

Professor Larry Gostin will be speaking at Sydney Law School on 19 July, as part of an evening event titled: ‘Public health and health leadership in the USA: what can Australia learn’.  Sydneyhealthlaw.com will advertise this event in due course.  Professor Gostin will be teaching the unit of study, Global Health Law on 17-20 July; for more information on this unit, click here.  For more information on Sydney Law School’s Master of Health Law, click here and here.

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