07/20/2012 01:26 pm ET Updated Sep 19, 2012

Why the Gun Control Debate Doesn't Do Justice to Colorado Killings

Why must the tragic Colorado theater shootings stimulate a debate on more than mere gun control? Not simply because, or however remarkable the fact that, violent mass killings -- whether in Columbine, Virginia Tech or now Aurora -- tend to have little sustained influence or impact over public attitudes vis-à-vis gun control, but because the root cause of violence is much more multifaceted and complex than mere access to military-grade weaponry.

Yes, it is very easy to get an AK-47 in Colorado. In fact there are no limits on AK-47 ownership. There are no limits on handgun purchases per month. Additionally, there are no permits or licenses required for gun ownership in Colorado, the Attorney General has no authority to regulate guns, and general safety measures, like requirements on safety locks, are completely absent in Colorado.

The same goes for Tennessee too, the state whose license plate was on 24-year old James Holmes' car, which was parked in the Aurora theater lot while Holmes killed a dozen theatre-goers and critically injured another 50 people. The only thing going for Colorado on gun ownership is the background checks required at gun shows, a measure brought about by public pressure. But that's about it. This is the reality, despite the fact that a majority of America still favors stricter gun control laws.

But no, it is not just about gun access. In our work on the US Peace Index, an index that ranks US states and cities based on their level of violence using data on homicides, violent crime, incarceration rates, police per capita and access to small weapons, Colorado state ranks in the bottom half of the Index and no Colorado city ranks in our top 60 most peaceful cities in America. And Tennessee is the country's second most violent state for several years running.

What we find in our data, compiled from only highly credible sources (FBI, DOJ, CDC, etc.), is that violence is directly and strongly correlated with socio-economic data on education, health, poverty, inequality, basic services, labor participation and social capital. States that are more peaceful have higher education levels, higher health-insured rates, lower poverty and inequality, better access to basic services, higher labor participation rates, and higher rates of social capital (i.e. volunteerism, community involvement, perceived trust, group membership, etc.).

Either way, all this violence is costing our struggling economy billions of dollars. In the last year alone, violence in America cost our economy a whopping $460 billion. Colorado's share of that was nearly $7 billion. One homicide, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, can cost well over $1.3 million -- and that's just in medical, judicial and police costs. There is a much bigger cost to the economy. Consider that the 12 killed in Aurora will no longer be part of America's workforce, ever. That's a long-term cost that must be calculated as well when understanding the devastating impact of violence to America.

Then there are the less quantifiable measures like shame and guilt (see Harvard Medical School professor James Gilligan's work on Preventing Violence or UK economists Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett's work on Spirit Level: Why Greater Equality Makes Societies Stronger) that arise in highly unequal societies. America has the highest income inequality rates in the rich world. That correlates strongly with high rates of social-health problems, from homicide and violent crime to mental illness and drug addiction. We must acknowledge that basic human needs for meaning, connectedness, security, recognition and autonomy are real and worth addressing by policymakers. When they are threatened or unmet, conflict often arises and can, if aided by easy access to weapons, turn violent.

All of this is to say that when we are evaluating Colorado's impact on our society, beyond the deeply tragic and emotional costs, we must consider the comprehensive causes of this violence and the costs of this violence to our society. It is not just about guns. But guns do give voice to a much bigger issue that's not being addressed -- that of the socio-economic health of this country. Going forward, this is what the debate must be about.

Michael Shank is the vice president at the Institute for Economics and Peace. Michael is also an associate at the Global Partnership for the Prevention of Armed Violence, a board member of the National Peace Academy, and in the PhD program at George Mason University's School for Conflict Analysis and Resolution.