By Alan Regenberg


In the wake of yet another tragic school shooting, Janet Stemwedel reminds us that the US congress still maintains a ban prohibiting scientists at the CDC from studying the causes of gun violence. In late June 2015, right after the massacre in Charleston, South Carolina, an amendment that would have allowed funding for this research was rejected.


The rationale for maintaining the ban, per John Boehner: “Listen, the CDC is there to look at diseases that need to be dealt with to protect the public health. I’m sorry, but a gun is not a disease.” I assume here that Boehner means that “gun violence is not a disease”, as that is the focus of the research being blocked.


This explanation is inadequate. As Stemwedel rightly points out, the CDC studies “other environmental factors that play a role in human health and in human behaviors with implications for human health.” In addition, Boehner’s stated rationale is severely weakened by the fact that we lack a strong definition of disease.


Justice Potter Stewart, discussing the challenge of defining the types of material that should be defined as pornography, said, “I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced within that shorthand description, and perhaps I could never succeed in intelligibly doing so. But I know it when I see it”. Likewise, while we have clear intuitions about what it means to be healthy or diseased, our imprecise definitions leave the boundaries in shades of gray.


Just as we are not going to settle an argument over distinguishing art from pornography, disagreements about disease are unresolvable in the absence of a crisp definition of disease. In light of this uncertainty, arguing that the CDC should strictly limit its purview to disease and that gun violence is not a disease strains credulity.


Whether or not gun violence is a disease isn’t really at the core of what’s at stake. Gun violence continues to be a cause of premature deaths. Regardless of differences over definitions of disease, school shootings are tragic. Gun violence is a problem.


Gun violence is a problem that may be amenable to being addressed by the sorts of tools used by CDC researchers. Opponents of research should provide a better argument than “a gun is not a disease” to block research that would, at the very least, begin to tell us if CDC methods could help.


At the end of the day, what matters is that we continue to witness violent, premature, gun-related deaths, and we are obligated to wisely marshal available resources to do something to stem the tide of these tragedies.




(Images: M&R Glasgow via Flickr – CC BY 2.0)

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Alan Regenberg

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2 Responses to ““A Gun Is Not A Disease””

  1. Colleen Fay says:

    A tide may be turning. An incapable, poorly led Congress beholden to the gun lobby — the most powerful of all the special interests — and cannot free itself. Impetus for change must come from elsewhere. President Obama put his finger on it when he advised citizens to become “single-issue voters,” withholding their support from incumbents or candidates unless they promise to support strong anti-gun legislation. The Constitution’s Second Amendment right “to keep and bear arms” is not inalienable, that is absolute. It exists in equipoise with all the rest of the rights the Constitution protects and like them can be modified. Therefore there is neither a political nor a legal bar against anti-gun legislation. All guns must be licensed, registered and their purchase subject to background checks without exception.

  2. […] “A Gun Is Not A Disease”, October 2, 2015 […]

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