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Don't withhold treatment on this epidemic.

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. Could we declare an epidemic of child abuse or domestic violence for instance? Or an epidemic of infant mortality, an epidemic of hunger? And couldn't all of these problems reflect aspects of a larger epidemic of poverty? I wonder what our nation's mortality profile would look like if we filtered our death rates through the dilemma of poverty. Clearly those of our fellow citizens who die of exposure on our streets each winter or because of heat exhaustion each summer would have to be included among the most obvious victims of this epidemic, but I think a large portion of these youthful firearm-homicide victims could be counted in as well.

A FEW SUMMERS AGO HERE IN CHICAGO, 800 PEOPLE died during a week-long heat wave. The coroner's report attributed these deaths to the extreme weather, but many of these deaths could have just as easily been attributed to a national epidemic of poverty. How many older people succumbed to this heat wave because they couldn't afford air conditioning or because they were too poor to pay for adequate health care? How many died in stifling apartments because they couldn't afford to live in communities where they didn't have to nail shut their windows to prevent home invasions?

If we came to see poverty in epidemic proportions, could we finally be moved as a society to do something about it? Epidemics require large-scale mobilizations of public resources to respond to an overriding public emergency. Each year, in communities across the United States, an unnatural disaster of poverty unfolds so quietly that we never seem to notice it. But it is no less real for its subtlety.

Our church leaders remind us that our society will be judged by how well the poor and most vulnerable among us were treated. Would it help us better appreciate the reality of life and death among the most vulnerable of us if we began to see that vulnerability reflected more clearly in our national death rates? Would that suffice as a suitable call to action? The "common good" is one of those theological banners Catholics like to wave when they want to drive home a point about American life. Let me raise it again here.

How we die in America says a lot about how we live together in America. Achieving a real common good requires real sacrifice. What would we have to sacrifice to respond to this public emergency, this epidemic of poverty, so that those of us who live in the impoverished pockets of American society can escape it? What would we have to sacrifice if we took the idea of a common good seriously? I fear that it is more than we are willing to offer when we can't even sacrifice a Second Amendment absolutism that allows that pop, pop, popping to continue to sound somewhere in the background of our lives each night.
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Title Annotation:Margin Notes; gun deaths in 15-24-year olds in US
Publication:U.S. Catholic
Article Type:Column
Date:Sep 1, 1998
Previous Article:Medical workers have a right to know.
Next Article:Visitation rites: visit the imprisoned.

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