Don't Withhold Treatment on This Epidemic

Article excerpt

I WAS MAKING MY WAY THROUGH THE MONDAY evening remnants of the Sunday paper the other night when I heard a sound that has become almost a normal part of the background noise in the Chicago community where I live. It was the irregular popping of a handgun sounding somewhere in the night. Close enough to be heard, far enough away not to pose much of a danger--I didn't bother to call police to report it as I might have done when I first moved here. I don't know if that represents a surrender of civic responsibility or just a surrender to reality, I just know it represents some kind of a surrender.

The dry pop, pop, popping I heard the other night may have been a handgun; it may have been firecrackers. Let's hope it didn't represent the wounding or killing of another young person in my community. We're all familiar with the numbers of us that fall to cancer and heart disease or die in car accidents each year. These are after all the primary ways we die in our culture.

But track down our national cultural tree to those less familiar parts of the diagram among America's subcultures and see what you discover. Among 15-to-24-year-olds in the United States, the second leading cause of death is homicide. Among 15 to 24 year old African American and Hispanic males, it is the leading cause of death. In 1994 nearly 90 percent of homicide victims 15 to 19 years of age were killed with a firearm. Annual rates of firearm homicide for youth 15 to 19 years of age increased 155 percent between 1987 and 1994.

We may not have done so well in this year's World Cup, but American men are second to none in the world when it comes to killing each other with firearms. The homicide rate among U.S. males is 10 times higher than in Canada, 15 times higher than in Australia, and 28 times higher than in France or Germany. What these Center for Disease Control statistics represent is an epidemic of a treatable disease--gun violence. This is how the CDC is attempting to train the American public to react to gun violence. It's one strategy to awaken us from the kind of cultural stupor that allows us to continue to read a newspaper even as a handgun reports somewhere in the night.

As a public-relations gimmick, the notion of gun violence as a treatable epidemic has the utility of being true. I don't know how far the CDC and other medical professional groups will get in corralling gun violence, however, now that Charlton Heston has assumed command of the National Rifle Association and seems determined to repeat a career-making performance by leading the whole country into the wilderness. But this approach to the problem of firearm violence seems a useful alarm to wake the country up to the problem.

It also got me wondering about what other treatable but unnamed epidemics are out there in American life and death. …