Challenging Dogma - Spring 2008

...Using social sciences to improve the practice of public health

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Arizona's Response to Increased Collegiate Gun Violence: A Paradox – Tanya J. Bascombe

In the U.S., gun violence continues to be a threat to the well-being of society. According to data from the Federal Bureau of Investigation, violent crime increased 1% between 2005 and 2006 [1]. Although this may seem to be a non-significant increase, any increase amplifies the current issue of gun violence. Between 1993 and 2001 the FBI received 160,396 reports on murders and non-negligent manslaughters of persons age 12 or older from local law enforcement agencies [2]. Listed as focus area #15 by Healthy People 2010, it is the goal of public health to reduce the actions and effects of gun violence. Objective 15 – 3 of this focus area reflects the goal to reduce the number of firearm-related deaths from 10.3 deaths per 100,000 to 3.6 deaths per 100,000 by 2010 [3]. Objective 15 – 5 of this focus area simultaneously seeks to reduce the numbers of nonfatal firearm-related injuries from 23.5 injuries per 100,000 to 9.1 injuries per 100,000 by 2010 [3]. In spite of these aims, decreasing gun violence has often come in the form of gun control and legislative restrictions on the sale of guns rather than by usual public health prevention measures.
There have been efforts to reduce the number of deaths and injuries from gun use in the nation overall through the implementation of specific gun control laws. However, such laws have not been successful in the wake of terrifying acts of gun violence specifically within school settings during the past 10 years. Of the 172 homicides of both students and non-students that took place at school or on school property in the U.S. between 1994 and 1999, 69% were committed with a firearm. Of the firearm homicides at school, 75% were committed with handguns [2]. Gun violence in schools and on school grounds proves to be a concerning and pressing issue to be addressed in the U.S. On April 20, 1999, two high school gunmen opened fire in Littleton, Colorado's Columbine High School killing 12 students, one teacher, and wounding 24 others before killing themselves [4]. In another incident on April 16, 2007, an armed gunman opened fire in a lecture room at Virginia Tech killing 32 people and wounding 25 others before killing himself [5]. The Virginia Tech shootings were preceded by deadly violence on at least 12 other college campuses dating back to the well-known Kent State shootings of 1970 [6]. Most recently on February 18 earlier this year, an armed gunman opened fire at Northern Illinois University killing 5 people and wounding 16 others before killing himself [7].
Arizona's Response: Senate Bill 1214
In response to these recent college shootings, Arizona State Senator Karen S. Johnson has sponsored a bill in an effort to reduce the risk of gun violence in Arizona schools. According to the bill, people with a valid concealed weapons permit would be allowed to carry their firearms at public colleges and universities within the state of Arizona [8-9]. The bill, SB1214, would apply to all individuals over the age of 21, including students, faculty and staff [8].The belief that the shootings at Northern Illinois University could have been prevented or limited if an armed student or professor had intercepted the gunman is the basis of SB 1214 [8]. Senator Johnson initially wanted the bill to apply to all public schools from kindergarten through college education [8].
Perhaps Arizona's personal history of college gun violence has also influenced the proposal of SB1214. In October 2002 an Arizona nursing student at the University of Arizona Nursing College opened fire, killing three others and then himself [5]. Arizona has always been considered a "gun-friendly" state where individuals are allowed to carry weapons openly in public [10]. In light of Healthy People 2010's initiative to reduce gun violence, Arizona's gun proposal is not an appropriate response. Arizona's proposed bill to decrease the risk of gun violence on college campuses is set up for failure because it does not address the actual causes of gun violence, it does not target the appropriate audience and, it is in itself a contradictory initiative that is likely to result in a higher level of gun violence overall.
SB 1214 does not address the causes of gun violence.
One of the most important aspects of any intervention concerns the context in which the issue is framed. Unfortunately, the Arizona Senate has provided a 'downstream frame' of the issue, reflective in the bill itself. A downstream frame aims to solve a problem by focusing mainly on the consequences of a problem rather than on the causes of the problem. This downstream frame responds to the incidents of NIU and VA Tech by addressing the effects of gun violence: fear and feelings of less security. Instead, the proposed bill set forth by the senate should adopt an 'upstream frame' by attempting to prevent gun violence by addressing its fundamental causes. Arizona law makers did not consider contextualizing the issue of gun violence before proposing this bill. Had they considered fundamental causes, the Senate would have recognized that there are certain risk factors in place that in turn put people at risk of gun violence [11].
The Ecological Model correctly assumes that behavior is influenced by the complex interactions between the individual and the environment [12]. The proposed bill, however, has equated the lack of guns for protection as a possible risk factor for gun violence. Even if this were the case, Link and Phelan confirm that there are some public health problems that have a fundamental cause whereby nothing happens when a proximal risk factor is eliminated [11]. This means that eliminating the risk of lack of guns by increasing the number of guns on college campuses will not guarantee a decrease in gun violence on school grounds. Underlying/fundamental causes of gun violence may possibly include mental illness of the individual, school-related stress, inadequate social supports, etc. Finding the specific markers that lead to increased risk of violence should be an integral part of public policy [6]. Overall, the bill neglects these possible underlying causes and instead puts too much emphasis on ways to respond to gun violence.
SB 1214 inappropriately targets the individual and uses coercion
As previously stated, SB 1214 inherently neglects the impact of societal influences on gun violence. Similar to the Health Belief Model, SB 1214 seeks to decrease gun violence by solely influencing the behavior of the individual. It is easy to target the individual as a possible means of controlling gun violence, but the issue of violence reflects a larger issue at hand. The Health Belief Model has proven to be inadequate because you cannot assume that an individual will start or end a behavior based solely on intention [12]. It is not realistic to think that a gunman who wants to kill himself and others would be deterred by a "gun-friendly" environment for fear of being killed. The Ecological model confirms that individual actions are reflective of socioeconomic circumstances, environmental conditions, or public policies and regulations [12]. Public policies such as SB 1214 should instead target issues surrounding gun availability and the sale of guns to unstable individuals, on-campus security and rapid response measures, and on-campus support facilities for individuals with mental health problems.
Currently, SB 1214 has been proposed in the Power-Coercive form of intervention. The power-coercive form of intervention uses force via the law in order to change people's behavior. In this case, SB 1214 powerfully encourages students, faculty, and staff to carry weapons by allowing it in state law. This strategy does not seek to inform the individual on the safe practices of gun use, or how to use a handgun in the event of an on-campus shooting. According to the Arizona Department of Public Safety's website, it is likely that college students will not know how to adequately respond to a campus shooting emergency with the same level of skill as trained professionals [10]. The firearms safety training that must be satisfactorily completed by each concealed weapons permit holder is not enough to ensure that the student or faculty member will know how to respond in an emergency [8]. An alternative to the power-coercive model of the bill is the normative-re-educative model; this model would seek to change social norms and thinking about gun use.
SB 1214 faces opposition by public opinion and may result in higher gun violence.
The success of any public health intervention or policy can be largely determined by its acceptance among the target population. A well supported intervention by the public will most likely be far more successful in reaching the target goal. Although Arizona is generally a gun-friendly state, SB 1214 has been met with great public opposition. A recent telephone poll conducted by the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism in Arizona found that 73% of Arizona voters would oppose a bill allowing the carrying of concealed weapons on a college campus [13]. Only 20% of polled voters were in support of the bill while 7% remained undecided on the issue [13]. Opposition also comes strongly from the college administration. According to a newspaper article, University of Arizona president Robert Shelton expressed his opposition to the bill in an email [14]. Some faculty of the University of Arizona expressed that campus disputes would be heightened and result in more deaths with more guns on campus [14]. It is against the ideals of public health and the goals of Healthy People 2010 to "force" individuals to perform a behavior that is not accepted by the community.
The Social Learning Theory upholds that modeling leads to behavior [12]. SB 1214 seeks to decrease gun violence by increasing the number of weapons in an area to deter potential criminals from attempting a killing spree. However, applying social learning theory to SB 1214, it is assumed that having guns on campus will further encourage the use of guns as a threat and/or defense mechanism for students on campus and to society as a whole. Encouragement of such behavior will result in an increase in fear and an increase in gun violence. The main flaw within the social learning theory is that it may sometimes encourage behaviors opposite of what is being modeled. Any intervention modeled after social learning theory, such as SB1214, will be too narrow to be useful.
Other than the theoretical flaws found in the proposed bill in relation to public health, there are other more logical issues to consider. It is generally thought by some supporters of the bill that any armed citizen could have stopped the mass murders at VA Tech [15]. However, allowing everyone to carry guns on a college campus would make the situation more dangerous in the event of a VA Tech-like shooting. This law would make it hard for the police to sort a dangerous man from a crowd of others with guns [8]. The Brady Center and Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence released a report stating that college gun owners are more likely to participate in activities that would put others at risk for life-threatening injuries [16]. All in all, adding more guns to an already dangerous and life-threatening situation would further cause more confusion and ultimately more deaths and injuries.
It is evident that SB1214 share the same goals set forth by Healthy People 2010 focus area 15: to reduce the incidence of death and injury from gun violence. However, it is also clear that SB1214's method of intervention can lead to an increase in gun violence instead of a decrease. The proposed bill does not attempt to define or examine the underlying causes of campus gun violence and neglects the influence of societal factors in aiding the incidence of gun violence. The bill, taking the stance of the Health Belief Model, mainly focuses on the individual rather than on other institutions such as gun sellers, campus police, and support staff. These flaws along with faint support from Arizona residents reflect the strong impossibility of SB1214 to successfully reduce gun violence. It has been proven that there is no basis that right-to-carry laws impact violent crime [17]. Therefore, a new initiative that encourages all people to drop their weapons instead of pick them up is needed in order to reduce gun violence in the U.S.
1. FBI. Uniform Crime Reports: 2007 (Preliminary) Table 3. Federal Bureau of Investigation. Retrieved from
2. Perkins C. National Crime Victimization Survey, 1993-2001: Weapon Use and Violent Crime. Bureau of Justice Statistics Special Report (September 2003) Retrieved from
3. CDC. -Injury and violence prevention. Healthy People 2010 midcourse review 2007. Retrieved from
4. Jefferson County. Sheriff's Report. Retrieved from
5. Smith L. Major Shootings on American College Campuses (Chronology). The Chronicle of Higher Education 53.34 (April 27,2007) Retrieved from
6. Jenson JM. Aggression and Violence in the United States: Reflections on the Virginia Tech Shootings. Social Work Research 31: 3:131 – 134.
7. Bohn K. 6 shot dead, including gunman, at Northern Illinois University. (February 14, 2008) Retrieved from
8. Archibold RC. Arizona weighs bill to allow guns on campuses. The New York Times (March 5, 2008). Retrieved from
9. State of Arizona Senate. SB1214: An act amending section 13-3102, Arizona revised statutes; relating to weapons. Forty-eighth Legislature 2008: 2nd Regular Session
10. Daily Bruin. Editorial: Dangers of lax gun laws outweigh the benefits. The Daily Bruin (March 7, 2008) Retrieved from
11. Link BG, Phelan J. Social conditions as fundamental causes of disease. Journal of Health and Social Behavior 1995; 35(extra issue):80 – 94.
12. Edberg M. Essentials of Health Behavior: Social and Behavioral Theory in Public Health. Sudbury, MA: Jones and Bartlett Publishers, 2007.
13. Eight/KAET. Cronkite-Eight Poll. Horizon Website Retrieved from
14. Santa Cruz N. Officials resist gun bill. Arizona Daily Wildcat (January 30,2008) Retrieved from
15. American City and County. Platform: Local Gun Control. American City and County May 2007: 8 – 10. Retrieved from
16. Lane R. Arizona Senator wants students to bear arms. The Marquette Tribune (March 11, 2008). Retrieved from
17. Black DA, Nagin DS. Do right-to-carry laws deter violent crime? Journal of Legal Studies 1998; 27:209 – 219.

Labels: ,


Post a Comment

Subscribe to Post Comments [Atom]

<< Home