When a fatal disease becomes increasingly common, scientists along with public health and government officials sound the alarm and try to identify what is causing the disease, how it spreads, and how to prevent it. Why aren’t we taking a similar approach with mass shootings, which are a similar sort of public health issue?
Over the past 10 years, mass shootings have been happening far more frequently than they did in previous decades, and with a general increase in the number of people killed each time. Think Virginia Tech, 32 dead in 2007. Sandy Hook, 28 dead in 2012. The Pulse nightclub in Orlando, 49 dead in 2016. And Las Vegas, 58 killed just a few weeks ago.
The AIDS epidemic, which came to public attention in 1981, is a good example of how we can tackle public health problems like this. Despite initial stalling by the government and the medical establishment, by 1982 this new disease had been linked to blood. The virus that causes AIDS was identified in 1983; a blood test for it was approved by the FDA in 1985; and the first drug against the virus was approved in 1987. This concerted work, together with efforts to educate people about risky behaviors and condom usage, paved the way to slow the spread of the disease, and to eventually drive down the number of AIDS-related deaths.
This story would likely have had a different ending if little funding had been made available for scientific research into the causes of this disease or for educational efforts to reduce risky behaviors — or if political figures denied the connection between HIV and AIDS and did nothing except offer thoughts and prayers. Several such factors, including AIDS denialism, have been at play in Russia and certain African countries, especially South Africa, which has likely contributed to the rampant spread of the infection across that continent.
This kind of political denial is currently happening in the debate about the mass shooting epidemic in the U.S. Instead of a reduction in such tragic events, we are seeing a dramatic rise in the number of them.
A 2015 analysis of mass shootings in the U.S. found significant evidence that such large-scale events can trigger more such killings. And our 2013 mathematical analysis of the pros and cons of unrestricted gun availability concluded that it most likely promotes the incidence of mass casualties, while restriction of gun availability likely reduces fatalities. In other words, a given massacre can plant the idea of others in the minds of potential shooters, similar to the spread of a YouTube video through social networks or the spread of a new infection through human populations, and the ready availability of guns makes it relatively easy to turn those ideas into actions.
The National Rifle Association disagrees. It argues that allowing more Americans to carry guns increases our safety, rather than being destructive to society. The idea is that a shooter stands no chance if surrounded by good people with guns. This claim, however, is not based on any research or investigation, but on personal conviction. If tested by scientific methods, this argument quickly breaks down. Our 2013 study argued that logical, scientific reasoning, rather than ideological convictions, should be used to address this epidemic, and that the collection of extensive field data is imperative to gaining further insights.
Unfortunately, such research is uncommon. A successful campaign by the gun lobby led Congress to pass the Dickey Amendment in 1996. Under this amendment, “none of the funds made available for injury prevention and control at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention may be used to advocate or promote gun control,” effectively imposing a ban on health research around the use of firearms.
The question that our society faces is clear: Do we want our government to invest funds and resources into understanding and curbing massacres in the future? Or do we want Congress and the president to continue to actively withhold funding for research into gun violence and its prevention, and to deny the existence of a link between unrestricted gun availability and mass shootings?
If we continue our current path, an epidemic of increasingly intense mass shootings is likely to spread, with major effects on the economy and the well-being of our country.
Dominik Wodarz, Ph.D., is professor of theoretical and computational biology at the University of California, Irvine, who researches the epidemiology of violence and the dynamics of virus infections and populations. Natalia L. Komarova, Ph.D., is professor of mathematics at the University of California, Irvine, who studies the spread of disease and complex social dynamics.