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Herb Rothschild Jr.: Reframing the issue of gun violence

Few of us support gun violence at home; huge numbers of us support it abroad. Our efforts to curtail domestic violence of all sorts will be severely hampered so long as we celebrate war and honor those who wage it. That said, much can be done.

To make major progress, we must realize that gun control is a means, not an end. The end is preventing gun violence. It’s indisputable that if there were no guns, there would be no gun fatalities. Further, data comparing states with significant restrictions on gun ownership and those without them indicate that gun control lowers overall rates of gun violence. Nonetheless, gun control is a tough go politically, even when large majorities indicate through polling that we support measures like closing the gun-show loophole and banning private ownership of assault weapons. The current youth movement will spur some new legislation, but its victories will be marginal (e.g. banning bump stocks).

The problem with framing the issue as gun control rather than gun violence prevention is that it so easily turns into a debate about gun ownership, with the subtext of whether government is to be trusted. The gun control frame allows opponents to present themselves as freedom fighters rallying under the flag of the Second Amendment. Online postings indicate that many of them believe “the government” is itching to take their guns away. So it’s hard to find common ground.

Framing the issue as gun violence prevention allows gun owners to present themselves as responsible and caring. The NRA presented itself that way before it was taken over by the gun manufacturers. Further, that frame allows us to address gun violence as the complex and multi-dimensional problem it is, rather than as the tedious story of “good guys vs. bad guys” with which we justify violence in our films and foreign relations.

So I’ve advised Democratic candidates I support to frame the issue as gun violence prevention, and to talk about the problem as it actually exists in the districts they seek to represent. Here are the pertinent facts: According to Oregon’s Violent Death Reporting System, in 2014-2015, the latest reported year, there were 490 firearm fatalities in our state. Of those, 13 percent were homicides, 83 percent were suicides and 4 percent other causes. Further, since young black males suffered the highest rate of homicides and few of them live in Jackson County or the 2nd Congressional District, gun homicide is not a pressing issue here. In contrast, the demographic most at risk for gun suicide is older white males, and the gun suicide rate in Jackson County is above the state average. No legislation short of a total ban can effectively address this problem.

The shockingly frequent mass shootings in the U.S. dominate mass media coverage. Understandably. But that coverage distorts the reality of our gun violence problem and the remedies it calls for. It calls less for a mental health approach than a public health approach. One of the worst things Congress did was forbid the Centers for Disease Control to concentrate resources on the problem. Central to a public health approach is educating and mobilizing communities. This is the approach pursued by Ashland-based Vision Quilt, which I urge you to learn about and support financially. Go to visionquilt.org. You’ll be impressed.

— Herb Rothschild's column appears in the Tidings every Saturday.