Gun violence initiative struggles due to lack of student participation

Alberto Farino | Contributing Reporter

Six months after the University launched a gun violence public health initiative, project leaders held an information session to discuss how to increase undergraduate involvement in the program, which, to this point, had been lacking.

“Gun Violence: A Public Health Crisis” Project Coordinator Paola Rijos-Saitta held a student information session Oct. 9 during which she opened discussion about ways to encourage students to participate in the initiative.

Students and faculty meet in Hillman Hall to discuss the Institute for Public Health’s Gun Violence Initiative. This initiative, launched back in spring, aims to approach the issue of gun violence from a public health perspective.Jennifer Wu | Student Life

Students and faculty meet in Hillman Hall to discuss the Institute for Public Health’s Gun Violence Initiative. This initiative, launched back in spring, aims to approach the issue of gun violence from a public health perspective.

Though the project has been successful in connecting with the St. Louis community, Rijos-Saitta explained that it has been more difficult to get students to be part of this conversation on gun violence.

Rijos-Saitta began by presenting statistics highlighting the severity of the issue.

Contrary to what many believe, she said, crime is localized to specific areas and perpetrators in the city.

“Usually, if we were to estimate how many actors, when we talk to law enforcement, it’s about less than 1,000 people who are committing these crimes,” Rijos-Saitta said.

Attendees then shared a range of ideas that they would like to see implemented, including a testimonial panel to hear from victims’ families and friends and a series of student-led debates on the issue. The purpose of the discussion was to identify reasons that would explain the lack of participation from students and solutions to change the trend and create a bigger impact.

“A student group emailed me today and said they were concerned because they thought [gun violence] was too political of an issue,” Rijos-Saitta said, questioning whether this influenced the lack of student participation in the initiative. Out of more than 200 invitations she sent, from student clubs to faculty, she pointed out that only about 20 people attended this session.

Regardless, students present at the event voiced their concerns about the increasing gun violence, locally and nationally, especially in light of recent school shootings throughout the country this past week.

Junior Deniz Ariturk attended the event seeking ways to contribute to the conversation about gun violence.

“I just wanted to come to this [session] because this is an issue that I’m very frustrated by on a continual basis, and I wanted to know if there was anything students could do on campus to have their voices heard,” Ariturk said.

Rijos-Saitta emphasized that gun violence is a health issue because it can be prevented with proper regulations, which is something that students like junior Sarah Speck agree with.

“A lot of people are opposed to any gun control because they feel this is a mental health issue, but not a lot of success has occurred on that level of improving mental health in the U.S.,” Speck said. “I just feel like the conversation is going nowhere right now.”

Rijos-Saitta also clarified that the initiative does not see entirely banning guns as a solution.

“And we’re not talking here about gun control—what we’re talking about is common sense gun laws,” she said.

In addition, students like Speck do not think that allowing guns on campus, for instance, would solve the issue of school shootings.

“I would feel very unsafe if people were allowed to have weapons on campus,” Speck said.

In a separate interview with Student Life, Chancellor Mark Wrighton expressed his thoughts on this initiative in relation to the recent events, most notably the shooting at Umpqua Community College in Oregon on Oct. 1 that left nine casualties.

“The tragedy of Oregon is just another difficult reminder that gun violence, and I believe mental health challenges are with us in a very significant way,” Wrighton said.

Wrighton also said that this initiative was created to find solutions and spark discussion surrounding violence due to guns.

“At our launch event on April 21, what we said is that we want to take about a year to think about what is it that people are doing—not only here but in other places,” he said. “What are people doing that shows promise in terms of reducing death and injury from guns?”

Ultimately, Rijos-Saitta believes that it is instrumental for students to play a role in the process of creating change towards a solution to this issue and the initiative’s success.

“The way to get buy-in is that it has to come from within. If students don’t think this is important then they won’t attend the events, [but] if a student plans it, we have more likelihood of students coming,” she said. “I would love to see the students talk more about the mental health piece and how access to guns increases the likelihood of someone committing suicide—it increases significantly.”

Student organizations like Active Minds at WashU have become involved with the initiative and hope to encourage more students to join the movement.

Additional reporting by Noah Jodice and Emily Schienvar.

Sign up for the email edition

Stay up to date with everything happening at Washington University and beyond.