Q+A: Jonathan Metzl, M.D., Ph.D.

From the Winter 2016 edition of Vanderbilt Medicine Magazine

Photo by Daniel Dubois

Jonathan Metzl, M.D., Ph.D., was recently named director of research of the Safe Tennessee Project, a non-partisan, volunteer-based organization devoted to reducing gun violence in the state. Metzl is the Frederick B. Rentschler II Professor of Sociology and director of the Center for Medicine, Health and Society. He also holds faculty appointments in psychiatry, history and health policy. He is the author of “The Protest Psychosis” about the way people with schizophrenia are stigmatized as being hostile or violent.

 

What is the Safe Tennessee Project?

It is a community of concerned citizens and academicians who want to address some of the pressing issues regarding gun violence in Tennessee. We support the Second Amendment, but also advocate for common-sense measures that would lessen rates of gun injury and death in our state without infringing on anyone’s rights. Safe Tennessee board members include physicians and researchers from across the Vanderbilt campus, and our membership continues to grow. Our group includes people who hold a wide range of views about gun rights, but who want to prevent unnecessary suffering.

 

How big of a public health issue is gun violence in the U.S.?

The U.S. averages around 33,000-36,000 gun deaths a year, including roughly 19,000 suicides. Research strongly suggests that gun deaths rise alongside easy access to firearms, and are on course to surpass deaths from motor vehicle accidents in many states.

 

How did you get involved with the issue of gun violence?

A lot of my academic work has looked at stigma against mental illness—and the ways that people with mental illness are far more likely to be the victims rather than the perpetrators of violence even though everyone assumes otherwise. In the aftermath of many mass shootings, I found myself answering the same question again and again—is mental illness the root cause of gun crime in the U.S.? Certainly, there are mental health histories that are important for mass shooters, but on an aggregate level, gun violence is statistically unrelated to mental illness. Gun crime is an everyday problem of ‘us,’ not a problem of ‘them.’ I started doing media appearances about it and began to expand my research in that direction. I welcome being in a position to contribute to the discussion and to speak reason to some of the misperceptions that I think exist.

 

Which misperceptions are you referring to?

I strongly support the constitutional right for people to own guns, and for that matter the Safe Tennessee Project is firmly supportive of the Second Amendment. But, from a medical perspective, there are increasing numbers of places where public health and safety and gun laws seem at odds right now. Bars, parks and schools, for instance, seem to be very unfortunate sites to allow for gun proliferation, because of the risks of accidental shootings and other unintended consequences. The more expansive gun rights become, the more we are seeing victims of gun violence—indeed, victims of our own policies. I believe we need to push for some sort of reasonable middle ground. Safe Tennessee advocates for common sense solutions (i.e., closing gun-show loopholes, promoting background checks on purchases and gun-safety training, outlawing celebratory gunfire that can harm children) that would be respectful of gun owners’ rights but also lessen our rates of injury and death.