Guns, fear, and safety

Guest post by John A. Rich, M.D., M.P.H.

The horrible massacre in Newtown, Connecticut, has once again sparked the conversation about guns, but I wonder when the underlying issue and complexity of safety will rise to the surface. We need to ask ourselves, other than sportsmen and hunters, why would someone want to own a gun?

The most apparent answer is that people in the US own guns because they feel deeply unsafe and intensely afraid. Gallup polls show that two-thirds of Americans believe that crime will rise in 2013, despite FBI data showing that violent crimes numbers have fallen over the past 5 years. Behind the desire to own a gun for many Americans, whether they live in the city or the suburbs, is the perceived need to defend themselves against someone who might mean them harm. Despite evidence that guns kept in the home are rarely used to defend their owners against intruders, guns, and especially assault weapons and handguns, are flying off the shelves of gun shops across the country in the name of safety.

What is paradoxical, and mostly unstated, is that while many of these people seek guns out of their fear of the stereotypical victimizer, often embodied in the image of a young black man, the young black men who comprise the vast majority of victims of violence share similar fears. As I interviewed these young men on my way to writing Wrong Place, Wrong Time: Violence and Trauma in the Lives of Young Black Men, published by Johns Hopkins University Press, I came to understand that the driving force for their perceived need for weapons came from their fear. Those who had been shot before were convinced that guns were the only “equalizer,” given the strong drive for retaliation and their lack of faith in the police.

Yet who would imagine that both gun seekers and traumatized young men of color living in deep poverty might seek weapons for the same intense but unacknowledged desire to feel safe? I offer this insight not as an excuse for the actions or desires of either group, but as an explanation that leads to the question: what can we do to make all of us feel safer, especially those who are most likely to be victims?

richJohn A. Rich, M.D., M.P.H., is the chair of and a professor in the Department of Health Management and Policy at the Drexel University School of Public Health, where he is also the director of the Center for Nonviolence and Social Justice. A 2006 MacArthur Fellow and the former medical director of the Boston Public Health Commission, Rich founded the Young Men’s Health Clinic in Boston and is the author of Wrong Place, Wrong Time: Trauma and Violence in the Lives of Young Black Men.