Epidemic as Metaphor: Meaning and Morality in Our Narratives of Gun Violence

Much could be written, has been written, and still needs to be written about gun violence, the Second Amendment, responsible gun ownership, the gun lobby, and politicians

By Philippa Koch|December 31, 2015

Much could be written, has been written, and still needs to be written about gun violence, the Second Amendment, responsible gun ownership, the gun lobby, and politicians. But here—for a moment—I want to pause and consider two metaphors that are becoming more common as we, in the U.S., struggle over the meaning and morality of our response to gun violence: the metaphors of epidemic disease and health.

The New York Times recently published the opinion piece: “End the Gun Epidemic in America.” Prompted to invoke the word “epidemic” by the latest tragedy of gun violence in San Bernardino, the Times called Americas’ elected representatives to task for their unwillingness to tackle legislation that would restrict and prevent the sale of the most dangerous firearms.  The current state of affairs, according to the Times, is a “moral outrage and a national disgrace.”

The Times is not alone in its identification of gun violence with “epidemic.”  
US News and World Report headline shouts: “America's Deadly Gun Disease,” and then: “Gun violence is a public health epidemic. We must not surrender to it.”

And, in a recent call to Congress to end the ban on gun violence research, Dr. Alice Chen, Executive Director of Doctors for America, argued that “Gun violence is a public health problem.”

Even the Rolling Stone has its readers considering “America’s Gun Violence Epidemic.”

No matter your opinion on gun legislation, the loss of innocent life occasioned by the senseless actions of violent individuals is overwhelming. It is increasingly difficult not to be somewhat anxious about going to a large public event, sending your child to school, going to the movies, or even attending church.

Identifying gun violence as a disease or epidemic, in this context, is perhaps helpful. Epidemics have long offered evocative narratives of human vulnerability, of the sense of futility, of failures of compassion, of acts of heroism, and of the search for meaning.

From Daniel Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year to the star-studded movie Contagion—and in many narratives before and since—we have examples of humans’ helplessness when confronted with mass mortality and the cruelty that too-often accompanies the instinct to survive.

Thinking about gun violence in terms of epidemic can be helpful in our secular world. Narratives of epidemic diseases are laden with religious and ethical themes of sin, repentance, providence, beneficence, charity, and thanksgiving. With gun violence, we’re also dealing with issues that some call sin—problems of human failings and of the breakdown of social institutions.

Like a contagious disease, the problem has become difficult to contain, making us fearful and distrustful of the everyday activities that bind us together as a society. We’re challenged to comprehend our moral responsibility. And—as in epidemic narratives—some turn to God for guidance and consolation in the struggle to comprehend and respond to the loss of innocence and innocents.

Yet, stories of epidemic diseases also offer helpful examples of individuals and communities that have struggled with vivid mortality and survived with humanity.

In Defoe’s Journal, the plague ends when Londoners finally transcend their differences, come together, and turn to God. In Contagion, the modern scientist in her laboratory takes off her fancy gear, injects herself with her brand-new vaccine, and unceremoniously becomes her own test-subject, risking her life to save suffering humanity.

Considering gun violence as an epidemic also provides us with the opportunity to transform the terms, context, and approach of our contemporary conversation. Thinking in terms of “public health,” in particular, can be useful. It drags us away from the heated rhetoric surrounding gun rights and allows us to shift the conversation to a problem-solving plane.

This only works, however, if we use these metaphors with caution. The public health approach advocated by an article in the US News and World Report, for example, cites successful examples of wide-scale mobilizations to contain polio, tuberculosis, Ebola, and HIV/AIDS.  While the article’s optimism is appealing, it nonetheless falls back on a rhetoric of violence.

Without irony, the article encourages Americans to avoid a “Wild West mentality,” while it also urges that we “not surrender.” Victory or death; the valor of dying for a cause—these tropes make for rousing rhetoric. But, as the article itself acknowledges, an us-versus-them mentality is hardly a good starting point for a public health initiative.

And here is where the metaphor of epidemic has important limitations. Labeling “gun violence” as an epidemic also aligns our story of guns with a long tradition of narratives that claim to be authoritative. Written retrospectively, epidemic narratives tend to rehash fearful experiences.

Taking advantage of raw and heightened emotions, epidemic accounts can prove convenient for rhetoric that places the blame on “them,” that names enemies by claiming that they introduced or abetted a particularly ruinous epidemic. Jews, for example, were falsely accused of spreading plague in medieval Europe, and African American nurses were said to take advantage of the sick during a yellow fever outbreak in 1793 Philadelphia.  

Do our contemporary accounts of gun violence place blame unduly? For the Times, the blame of the gun violence epidemic falls on the failure of elected officials and the gun lobby that courts them. While many might agree with such fingerpointing, we nonetheless must be cautious about how we frame our narratives.

When the New York Daily News, for example, likewise blames politicians, it focuses particularly on those who “offer prayers—not solutions.” Though the Daily News editor later stated that its intent was not to condemn “prayer or religion,” the damage was done. Many Americans were offended, news outlets reveled in the controversy, antagonism was heightened, and we were all distracted from the crisis at hand. 

The task before us is monumental. Like an epidemic disease, gun violence in our country seems to be spiraling out of human control. We must work together, find meaning in our suffering, recognize our failings, determine what it means to do good, and seek a better future.

Is there a right narrative of America’s gun violence? Epidemic narratives are powerful tools for criticizing the culpable, yet we must use them with care, lest we needlessly divide ourselves in an effort that needs our collective and sustained attention. 


America’s Gun Violence Epidemic.” Rolling Stone, July 14, 2014.

Contagion. Film. Directed by Steven Soderbergh. Warner Bros., 2011.

Defoe, Daniel. A Journal of the Plague Year (1722).

The Editorial Board. “End the Gun Epidemic in America.” The New York Times, December 4, 2015.

Over 2,000 Physicians Urge Congress to End the Ban on CDC and NIH Gun Violence Research.” Doctors for America, December 2, 2015. 

Schapiro, Rich. “GOP presidential candidates offer prayers — not solutions on gun control — after San Bernardino massacre.” New York Daily News, December 3, 2015.

Sederer, Lloyd. “America’s Deadly Gun Disease.” US News and World Report. December 7, 2015.

Taylor, Jessica. “'God Isn't Fixing This' Argument Divides Even More In Gun Debate.” NPR. December 8, 2015.

Image Credit: MattiaATH / Shutterstock.com.

Philippa Koch headshotAuthor, Philippa Koch, is a Ph.D. Candidate in the History of Christianity at the University of Chicago Divinity School. She specializes in American religion, health, and the body. She is a 2015-16 Junior Fellow in the Martin Marty Center. Koch has previously held fellowships from the Charlotte W. Newcombe Foundation and the McNeil Center for Early American Studies. Her work has appeared in Church History: Studies in Christianity and Culture, and NOTCHES: (re) marks on the history of sexuality.


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Philippa Koch

Author, Philippa Koch (PhD’16), is Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at Missouri State University. Her research and teaching center on religion, health, and society in early America and its global context. Her first book, The Course of God’s Providence: Religion, Health, and the Body in Early America, is forthcoming with New York University Press. In it, she considers how eighteenth-century Christians perceived sickness and health in an era of rapid changes in medicine and science. Her writing has also appeared in ReligionsChurch History, and The Atlantic. She is the Book Review Editor for American Religion, and she is currently part of the 2019-2020 cohort of Young Scholars of American Religion and a Larson Fellow at the John W. Kluge Center of the Library of Congress.