Gun control mustn’t be the only thing in the spotlight

The latest mass shooting in the US must provoke a debate that encompasses the socio-economic health of the nation.

Century 16 theatre aurora colo
Some 71 people were injured at this cinema in Aurora, Colorado, in the latest mass shooting in the US [AP]

Why must the tragic Colorado movie theatre shootings stimulate a debate on more than mere gun control? Not simply because violent mass killings – whether in Columbine, Virginia Tech or now Aurora – tend to have little sustained influence or impact over public attitudes vis-à-vis gun control – or however remarkable that fact is, but because the root cause of violence is much more multifaceted and complex than mere access to military-grade weaponry.

Yes, in Colorado, it is very easy to get an AK-47, or an AR-15 such as that reportedly used in yesterday’s shooting. In fact there are no limits on assault weapon ownership in the state. There are no limits on handgun purchases per month. Additionally, there are no permits or licenses required for gun ownership in Colorado, the Attorney General has no authority to regulate guns, and general safety measures, such as requirements on safety locks, are completely absent in the Centennial State.

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The same goes for Tennessee too, the state whose license plate was reportedly on 24-year-old James Holmes’ car, which was parked in the Aurora theatre lot while Holmes allegedly killed a dozen movie-goers and critically injured another 50 people. The only thing going for Colorado on gun ownership is the background checks required at gun shows, a measure brought about by public pressure. But that’s about it.

But no, it is not just about access to guns. In our work on the US Peace Index, an index that ranks US states and cities based on their level of violence using data on homicides, violent crime, incarceration rates, police per capita and access to small weapons, Colorado state ranks in the bottom half of the index, and no Colorado city ranks in our top 60 most peaceful cities in the US. And Tennessee is the country’s second most violent state for several years running.

What we find in our data, compiled only from highly credible sources (FBI, DOJ, CDC, etc), is that violence is directly and strongly correlated with socio-economic data on education, health, poverty, inequality, basic services, labour participation and social capital. States that are more peaceful have higher education levels, higher health-insured rates (including access to mental health and preventive services), lower poverty and inequality, better access to basic services, higher labour participation rates, and higher rates of social capital (ie: volunteerism, community involvement, perceived trust, group membership, etc).

Either way, all this violence is costing our struggling economy billions of dollars. In the past year alone, violence in the US cost our economy a whopping $460 billion. Colorado’s share of that was nearly $7 billion. One homicide, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, can cost well over $1.3 million – and that’s just in medical, judicial and police costs. There is a much bigger cost to the economy. Consider that the 12 killed in Aurora will no longer be part of America’s workforce, ever. That’s a long-term cost that must be calculated when understanding the devastating impact of violence in the US.

Then there are the less quantifiable measures such as shame and guilt (see Harvard Medical School Professor James Gilligan’s work on Preventing Violence or UK economists Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett’s work: Spirit Level: Why Greater Equality Makes Societies Stronger) that arise in highly unequal societies. The United States has the highest income inequality rates in the rich world. That correlates strongly with high rates of social-health problems, from homicide and violent crime to mental illness and drug addiction. We must acknowledge that basic human needs for meaning, connectedness, security, recognition and autonomy are real and worth addressing by policymakers. When they are threatened or unmet, conflict often arises and can, if aided by easy access to weapons, turn violent.

All of this is to say that when we are evaluating Colorado’s impact on our society, beyond the deeply tragic and emotional costs, we must consider the comprehensive causes of this violence and the costs of this violence to our society. It is not just about guns. But guns do give voice to a much bigger issue that’s not being addressed – that of the socio-economic health of the United States of America. Going forward, this is what the debate must be about.

Michael Shank is the vice-president at the Institute for Economics and Peace. He is also an associate at the Global Partnership for the Prevention of Armed Conflict, a board member of the National Peace Academy, and in the PhD programme at George Mason University’s School for Conflict Analysis and Resolution.

Follow Michael on Twitter: @Michael_Shank