The United States of Neglect
Mass shootings are just the most obvious sign that the US doesn't care for its people.
By Noah Berlatsky
This has been a nightmarish week of gun violence. Over the weekend, a gunman opened fire in Monterey Park, California, killing 11 and terrorizing Asian American communities celebrating Lunar New Year festivals. Two days later, a disgruntled mushroom farm employee in Half Moon Bay, California, killed seven coworkers at two locations.
In the first three weeks of 2023, there have already been 39 mass shootings in the United States. There’s no question — or shouldn’t be, anyway — that America’s obsession with guns is directly responsible for the horrific, ongoing death toll of gun violence.
Our inability to address gun violence, though, speaks to a deeper, and sweeping, failure of our government and culture to care for the lives and health of our neighbors. Much of that is the fault of a radical right which seems to revel in suffering and senseless loss of life. But Democrats, too, have been reluctant to address the inequality and disinvestment which has made ours such an unjust and unsafe society.
Guns are a big problem. But they’re also a symptom of something deeper.
The case for focusing on and restricting guns is well-worn, and convincing. The US has 120 guns per 100 people, vastly more than even other comparable countries with high rates of firearm ownership like Canada (34.7 per 100 people) and Finland (32.4 per 100 people). The high prevalence of guns drives a brutal homicide rate that is 7 times higher than that of other high income countries. Gun homicides in the US are 25 times higher than in comparable countries. For 15 to 24 year olds, gun homicide rates were 49 times higher than those in comparable countries.
Firearms are now the number one cause of death for children ages 1 to 19 in the United States. The firearm mortality rate for children — including suicide, accident, and homicide — is 5.6 per 100,000 people in the US. The average for comparable countries is .3 per 100,000.
These are bleak numbers. What’s perhaps just as bleak is that they are of a piece with other US public health failures.
RELATED: The rote GOP response to mass shootings is nonsense even on the most charitable interpretation
The most obvious comparison is the covid pandemic. More than 1.1 million people have died in the US from covid. Between 400 and 500 people are still dying daily, a number that vastly outpaces even the terrifying toll of US gun violence. But there is little outcry. President Joe Biden claimed the pandemic was over in September. The US has largely abandoned mitigation measures like masks. Vaccine booster rates are low.
Reflecting that indifference, US death rates have been 63 percent higher than other comparable large wealthy nations in early 2022, according to the New York Times. That’s resulted in a drop in expected life expectancy in the US of 1.87 years, compared to an average of .58 years in 21 other countries. The decline is even more stark since the US already started behind. After covid, average life expectancy is 76.99 years compared to 81.50 years in comparable countries.
Other health outcomes follow a similar pattern. Despite its huge healthcare expenses, the US regularly ranks behind comparable countries in outcomes, access, and equity. US maternal mortality rates are three times those of most comparable countries. US infant mortality rates are higher than those of its peers.
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Some might argue that there’s little connection between gun violence and health care failures. But we know that the lack of a social safety net exacerbates both. The US is notoriously stingy in social spending. Its dire maternal mortality rate is driven by socioeconomic and racial inequality: Black women are three times more likely to die in childbirth than are white women.
Gun violence is also highly correlated with race and income. Young people living in high poverty counties are four times more likely to die by gun violence than those living in more affluent areas. Black Americans are 10 times as likely to die of firearm homicide than white people.
Hanna Love at the Brookings Institute points out that violence in cities is concentrated in poor neighborhoods gutted by decades of abandonment and neglect. Neither local nor federal policy prioritizes investment in these communities as a strategy to reduce violence. This despite the fact that there is substantial research showing that spending to build public space reduces crime and builds a sense of safety.
We need to care holistically about the health and safety of other people
In the US, discussions about public safety become, understandably, most urgent after mass shooting events. These dramatic crimes drive reasonable and necessary efforts to control and limit the spread of firearms.
California Governor Gavin Newsom has called on the federal government to pass tighter gun control laws. Deep blue Illinois this year passed an assault weapon ban; Michigan’s Democratic governor is calling for background checks. In response, Republicans are gearing up for court challenges, and of course any federal gun control measure is doomed in the Republican-controlled House.
But it’s important to remember that mass shootings are just one aspect of a broad, ugly problem of unsafety and precarity in the US. Our government and communities often seem helpless to address — or worse, are uninterested in addressing — the threat of guns, of plague, of a broken healthcare system, of dwindling lifespans.
Without a social safety net or effective means of collective protection, people look to defend themselves, often turning to guns, which exacerbate the problem they are meant to solve. Similarly, the government, paralyzed by conservative hostility and racism, turns to policing as the only consensus spending on safety. Even the American Rescue Plan, Biden’s signature effort to promote covid recovery and defeat the virus, diverted $350 billion to funding police and jails — even though there’s no evidence that spending on police reduces crime, and even less evidence that spending on police protects people from covid.
The United States is not a safe or healthy place to live. To change that, we need to drastically reduce the number of guns in the US. But we also need to figure out how to become a nation that cares about the safety of its people. That means passing gun control legislation. And it means confronting indifference, inequity, and disinvestment that has broken our covid response and ensured that too many people face day to day violence and misery from guns, plague, inadequate healthcare, and poverty. Guns are a symptom as well as a cause. We need to address both.
Aaron’s clips, news, and notes
I’ve been in sick kiddo hell the last couple days — nothing more serious than an ear infection, thankfully, but we’ve had both kids at home and a doc appointment yesterday — so I haven’t had as much time to write as I usually do. But here are a number of notable clips that have caught my eye this week along with some commentary.
Cruz’s comically shameless spin of the Pence docs revelation
If you thought revelations about Mike Pence having classified documents at his Indiana home might cause Republicans or the DC press to turn the heat down on Biden a bit, think again.