There’s a virus afflicting our country that has claimed the lives of more Americans in the last 50 years than all of our wars combined. It has killed twice as many Americans as COVID-19, yet it has been routinely ignored by influential lawmakers. This virus has nothing to do with our immune systems; it is our toxic gun culture.

Approximately one in three American adults own a firearm (a statistic that is much higher than those of comparable nations). Astoundingly, those Americans own 40% of the total civilian-owned firearms in the world, which translates to more guns than people in the United States.

Why so many guns? Nearly two-thirds of owners say it’s for protection. Yet, while we own significantly more guns than comparable nations, our crime rates are about the same, and instances where guns are actually used for protection are rare. For those who claim guns deter crime, studies show that crime rates actually rise — not fall — with more access to guns.

The virus is not a crime-ridden society that requires guns for safety; it’s that too many Americans believe in the illusion of one.

If our misguided belief that more guns make us safer is the virus, then gun violence is the resulting disease. According to Everytown for Gun Safety, Americans are 25 times more likely to die from a gun homicide than our counterparts in other developed nations; 60% of those deaths are suicides. More than 100 Americans are killed by a gun every day, with at least an additional 200 shot and wounded. From 2015 to 2019, we averaged nearly 40,000 gun deaths annually.

Addressing gun violence means recognizing that guns are a problem to begin with — one that manifests in different ways. For young Black men in impoverished urban neighborhoods, it might be the daily threat of homicide when they leave their house. For white folks in rural communities, it could be the increased likelihood of suicide when experiencing depression. For women everywhere, it’s the lingering fear of injury or death when their abusive partner owns a lethal weapon.

The reality is that guns are the means of violence, not the prevention. They are the disease, not the cure.

“The reality is that guns are the means of violence, not the prevention. They are the disease, not the cure.”

Oliver Hicks

As we move past what has been a multiyear, earth-shattering pandemic, it’s worth remembering the sobering lessons of our ongoing battle with coronavirus: Public health threats cannot be denied — they do not solve themselves.

The cure to this disease is challenging misinformation and rectifying our national conversation. The responsibility for doing so is shared by all levels of government, the media, law-abiding gun owners, and citizens everywhere. We cannot allow gun advocates to conjure up the image of musket-wielding patriots or gun-toting cowboys to rationalize the presence of firearms in our society. Instead, we must be driven by data that demonstrate the inherent risk of guns and by a genuine concern for the safety of our neighbors.

I am a student at Swarthmore College. Recently, I worked with fellow students and faculty in collaboration with local groups to launch Delaware County’s first interactive homicide database. The database documents the 503 homicides that occurred in Delco from 2005 to 2019 with data broken down by year, age, race, weapon type, and other categories. A heat map even shows where these incidents are concentrated.

Philadelphia has a similar database, but nationwide we lack proper gun violence reporting. We need more active efforts like this throughout the country, in counties big and small, to both understand and curb gun violence. This is the only way to create a healthier ecosystem in which guns can still exist.

» READ MORE: For some Black men and teens in Philly, relying on guns has become commonplace

Universal background checks, red flag laws, and gun licensing are all solutions already supported by most Americans. Of course, there are other issues too. Dismantling the National Rifle Association’s massive pro-gun lobby and supporting more funding for gun violence research and reporting are prime examples.

This virus is deadly, but we have recourse. A public health approach to guns can change minds, laws, and culture. It’s time to get healthy. It’s time to beat this virus.

Oliver Hicks is a senior at Swarthmore College studying political science and peace & conflict studies.