At the time of this writing, COVID-19 is the leading cause of death in the United States. There is ample reason to hope that the vaccines now beginning to arrive will soon knock the coronavirus off that morbid perch.
Nothing will bring back the loved ones we've lost to the pandemic, but at least we'll be worrying about our old familiar foes — heart disease, for example, and cancer.
Gun violence remains one of the more potent threats to U.S. public health. Firearms play a role in most of the murders committed in the United States each year, and in more than half the suicides. More people die from gun violence than from traffic accidents. In Minneapolis, 2020 is shaping up as a year of nearly unprecedented firearm-driven mayhem.
Unlike the pandemic, the scourge of gun violence will not yield to a vaccine — and if a vaccine were available, some people would refuse to take it. This points to one of the similarities between COVID-19 and the proliferation of guns: In the face of both threats, some Americans are unaccountably averse to health measures that would provide them a measure of protection.
A survey reported this month by Pew Research found that about 4 Americans in 10 say they would not take the COVID vaccine if it were offered to them. Then there is the small but growing population of children whose parents refuse to vaccinate them against once-common diseases like whooping cough. And let's not forget the people who refuse to wear a mask during the pandemic, or who insist that the pandemic itself is a hoax. Their antipathy to scientific fact — perhaps it's just antipathy to facts, period — may help explain why the United States has lost more people to COVID than any other country on earth.
In the gun debate, there are similar contradictions between demonstrable fact and stubborn belief. For example, in a new survey commissioned by the Joyce Foundation and the George Family Foundation (bit.ly/JoyceResearch), two-thirds of likely Minnesota voters say they believe the presence of a gun makes a household safer. In fact, people who have a gun in the house are at considerably greater risk. For every anecdote about a homeowner's defense of his castle, there are instances of tragedy — a toddler dead, a suicide completed, a domestic dispute turned fatal.
Minnesotans — including those who own guns, and those who don't — overwhelmingly support measures that can help curb gun violence, like universal background checks and so-called red-flag laws that identify cases of extreme risk. Yet, according to the research, those Minnesotans express doubt that the measures they support can help in any significant way.
That's not accurate. As foundation representatives point out, the experience of states that have passed such measures, Maryland and Connecticut, proves otherwise. Background checks that close the loophole enjoyed by private dealers and gun shows reduce gun deaths. They work.
It used to be that a command of facts was considered an advantage in any debate on public issues. Now, consider the roster of areas in which the most basic facts are disputed or dismissed: the coronavirus, for example, or absentee voting, or white privilege, or climate change, or the Mueller investigation. That list, sadly, is barely a beginning.
Kate Havelin of Protect Minnesota, a group that advocates for gun-safety measures, cited the efforts to deny even the facts of the Sandy Hook school massacre, which occurred eight years ago last week. "People don't accept facts," she said last week during a webinar organized by the Joyce Foundation. "That's a real issue."
Given that context, the work of the foundation is especially welcome.