Life as an Extreme Sport

15 Miles: Firearms Violence in America

Police are investigating a double shooting that left one person dead in the Northern Liberties section of Philadelphia.

“It seems to be a very violent crime that took place in there which led to this double shooting homicide,” Philadelphia Police Chief Inspector Scott Small said.

Just another morning in Philly. Wake up, make note of the body count, get your coffee, go about your morning.

No shooting victims were reported in Philadelphia Friday night but at least 14 people were shot throughout the rest of the weekend, including two homicides and one police-involved shooting. At least four of the victims were women.With thanks to Jim MacMillan and Tara Murtha for the link to

But you won’t see an uproar about this, not from the media, not from concerned citizens outside of those few shouting to the roofs about the gun crisis in this country. You won’t hear calls for increased gun restrictions, background checks, 2nd Amendment arguments, or anything except maybe a blip on the nightly news about how sad it is, such violence, don’t these people know better? The well-manicured and coifed anchors will shake their heads sadly, and after the break, perkily bring us to some happier topic.

Because it’s not the Empire State Building. It’s not unexplained white shooters. It’s not people who have everything. It’s not mass casualty where the casualties are people this sort of thing isn’t supposed to happen to. This?

Is expected.

My sister was rotating through one of the northern Philadelphia hospitals last year, and told me about what an odd experience it was — where you note the number of bullet holes on the patient’s bodies, making sure that the number in the chart matches the number on the body. Often, they didn’t; there were more that hadn’t been treated, had healed on their own. Battle wounds and pride. Move 15 miles west, into the suburbs where I live, and the emergency room doctors would be shocked and horrified to have that sort of counting done on the bodies of their patients; it would make the news, rather than be an accepted part of life. Because that’s as far as it takes to move from an area of institutional breakdown, racism, and failed inner-city policies to gentrified and genteel areas where the social expectations are light years difference. You don’t shoot people on the Main Line. Our yards are too well-maintained for that.

I am an anomaly among my very liberal friends: I don’t automatically argue that we need more gun control when violence happens. This is undoubtedly in part because I was raised by a father who hunts, whose family lived in Alaska, because I’ve come face-to-face with a moose before and would very much like to not do that again without being armed and able to defend myself, and yes with a semi-automatic because moose? Are big. Oh, people will excuse hunters and people who live in areas like the wilds of Alaska or even middle of nowhere America, places where it’s still considered acceptable to have a gun, certain sorts of approved and accepted weapons. But that really misses the point, doesn’t it? Because the people who are breaking the law are clearly not motivated by following the law.

And most of the time, those folks who are breaking the law and getting subsequent media coverage? The spree shooters, revenge shooters, the ones who are white and well-mannered and aren’t supposed to be like that? They’re the ones who already own their weapons legitimately, and if they do and have, then all the proposed laws in the world, save an outright ban which has already been negated by the acceptance of subsistence hunters and wilderness safety, won’t help. And no one wants to talk about the illegal guns, the ones that are part of the 14 homicides in two days in Philadelphia. Because those aren’t situations that can be bandage-approached with an appeal to laws and bans. Those are situations that bring us into decaying inner cities and hopelessness and social changes that need to happen beyond a law or two.

It’s not hard to notice that the world that judges the United States for it’s firearms violence tends to be a world that has a more communitarian notion of social health and care. Thus, many times when the world that judges decides to speak up, it comes from an uninformed point of view that assumes that if the United States were to simply do as they do, ban guns, have buybacks, follow the lead of these more progressive societies, then all the firearms violence will simply fade away like a bad memory of a less enlightened time.

This attitude, however, doesn’t consider the very deep social differences between our societies — not differences based on autonomy or amendments, but differences based on the very nature and idea of how we interact with members of our society. In other words, it is not that what is “painfully self-evident to Canadians and citizens of other nations with discernible social democratic traditions needs to be bolstered by sustained reasoning and argumentation in the more atomistic (rights-oriented) U.S. milieu;”Turner L. “Bioethics, Public Health, and Firearm-Related Violence: Missing Links Between Bioethics and Public Health.” Journal of Law, Medicine & Ethics 1997;25:42-48 this is the argument that occurs whenever there are mass shootings that make the news for their stepping outside of what we consider accepted realms of violence. Because those rights are only invoked when the dialog blows out beyond the inner city. Public good and personal autonomy are polite concepts that come up when the violence invades the middle class neighborhoods; it’s not part of the debate that happens when 14 people are killed in two days in Philadelphia, when 19 people are wounded overnight in Chicago. It’s not part of the debate that happens when two are killed and three wounded in Camden, because there isn’t a debate.

It is simply accepted.And to be perfectly fair to Dr. Turner, whom I quoted earlier, this is largely the point his paper is making: that bioethicists have a responsibility to social bioethics, and that these problems of social justice, public health, and so forth need to be the central focus of the field, rather than the “lure of lucre.” I admit to slightly misreading the quote for my own purpose, in that quite a few of my Canadian and Australian friends do say things like that, which does tend to leave me wanting to pitch them through the nearest window.

In order to have an honest discussion about firearms violence in America, we need to realize that the discussion to be had is not one of regulation first, but of greater social issues. It’s a dialog that needs to be based in equality, access, healthcare, education, and removing the constraints that cause such a dramatic difference in medical, hospital, and social response in 15 short miles.


  1. Thank you for your thoughtful writing on the underlying causes of gun violence. However, while suburban and rural Americans may talk in notions about the 2nd amendment, having succumbed to the NRA’s one-dimensional approach to firearms, there are many, many people in urban areas and cities who have long recognized the complexity of the problem.

    There is no one solution to gun violence, rather a menu of on-going efforts that need to be deployed, and financed, over the long term. And, there are many people doing this work daily. Unfortunately, it’s not glamorous, and it’s not sound-bite friendly. Oh, and it takes commitment, not an expectation of instant gratification.

    But, please don’t underestimate the potential good that more stringent enforcement of firearms trafficking laws could have on the ability of prohibited people to get guns. It’s a war of attrition that has never really been tried because it’s hard, tedious work to simultaneously disarm felons and teens, and make it harder for gun dealers and straw purchasers to arm them in the first place. Plus, cops, who are on the front lines, don’t have the time or motivation to focus on prevention–they can only react, arrest, then hope perpetrators get prosecuted.

    Finally, I believe we are changing the frame on gun violence and that as time moves on, Americans will begin to embrace the idea that we can safeguard the rights of legal gun owners and make it harder for prohibited people to get guns. They are not mutually exclusive.

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