Among the various discussions about guns and schools in the past half-week, there is one concept that is missing: a harm-reduction framework. The current Supreme Court has ruled that the Second Amendment includes an individual right to own weapons, and it is unclear what sort of regulations might pass court review. The promises by legislators such as Diane Feinstein to introduce weapons bans in the next session of Congress come from a clear moralistic framework: the murders of children in Newtown, Connecticut, were abhorrent, and legislation is justified by our horror at the murders.
I think that is a mistaken approach. Not necessarily the idea of regulating weapons or ammunition designed to kill many people easily, but reasoning from a moral framework on an issue of public health. I have seen that happen all too frequently in my life, and thanks to my being an historian, for decades before then. Whether it is about sexuality, substance abuse, or access to guns, reasoning about public policy too often bases public policy on simplistic assumptions about human behavior.
As a parent, I stand with the majority of my fellow parents in preferring a harm-reduction strategy on sexuality and substance abuse. I don’t think it’s healthy for young teenagers to engage in sex, but we need comprehensive sex education because it is more important for teenagers to avoid pregnancy and STDs than for politicians to pretend that abstinence education works. I have never smoked pot, used cocaine, heroine, or a bunch of other illegal substances, but I am all in favor of needle exchange programs because it is more important to stop the spread of HIV and hepatitis than for politicians to pretend that laws prohibiting drug use eliminate all drug use.
Two of my cousins are pediatricians, and it is now standard practice for pediatricians to ask parents if they have guns in their house. Gun use is a public-health issue and should be addressed as such. That means we should design public policies around harm reduction. I am not exactly sure what that would look like, but it would be very different from what I’ve read in the past few days. If you want to moralize, go ahead. Then address in my reality the fact that thousands of teenagers walk around with guns.