Gun violence public health initiative kicks off
Stating that Washington University has a responsibility to play its part in the conversation about gun violence, Chancellor Wrighton kicked off a series of speeches on the topic that some audience members felt skirted around issues of race, mental health and police brutality.
On Tuesday, the University kicked off its public health initiative, in which it took a public stance in favor of understanding and addressing the issue of gun-related violence in St. Louis and in the country as a whole.
Hoping to establish a scientific base for the issue, Washington University’s Institute for Public Health is taking on the challenge through research in a three-tiered process: “what we know,” “what we need to know” and “what to do.” Calling gun violence not only a criminal justice issue but also a public health issue, the University is hoping to reduce the amount of injuries and deaths associated with firearms.
The kickoff event featured keynote speaker Alan Leshner, the former chief executive officer of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, who served as the chair of the Institute of Medicine’s Committee on Priorities for a Public Health Research Agenda to Reduce the Threat of Firearm-Related Violence. Leshner presented the committee’s findings to those in attendance and stressed the need for action.
Chancellor Mark Wrighton began the event with a video presentation that featured harrowing statistics about gun-related violence to raise consciousness about the severity of the issue.
“All [gun-related deaths and injuries] are indicative of a very serious national challenge. The complexity and frequency of gun-related violence and its impact on the safety of our citizens is a public health crisis,” Wrighton said.
Wrighton said that given the school’s status as a prominent research university with leading schools of medicine and social work, he felt that Washington University had a responsibility to play its part in the conversation.
“Bringing together our academic strengths to address major societal challenges is a part of our mission. Our goal by engaging in the conversation is to develop real solutions that have a real chance of making real change,” Wrighton said.
Wrighton brought the issue to the attention of the Institute for Public Health after Chelsea Harris, a teenager who his wife, Risa Zwerling Wrighton, had tutored for many years, was killed.
“The numbers are staggering, the impact is real and far too many of us have experienced the tragedy of gun violence ourselves,” he said.
St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay also spoke, noting the extreme toll that gun violence takes on the St. Louis community.
“Here at home, the social, financial and physical burdens of violence on St. Louis citizens in the metropolitan area are unacceptably high,” Slay said. “Entire neighborhoods, communities and municipalities are affected by violence. Health care costs, safety, social services and property values are disrupted by violence. The combination of concentrated poverty and state and federal cuts in mental health services have been deadly and dangerous.”
He emphasized the importance of an “all hands on deck approach,” asking families, teachers and politicians alike to take up arms against gun violence.
Bill Powderly, the director of the Institute for Public Health explained the importance of considering gun violence as a public health issue.
“We’re in the midst of an epidemic of premature death from gun violence. Last year, almost 14,000 people died of AIDS in the United States. Everyone agrees that is a public health challenge,” Powderly said. “Yet, as you’ve heard, over twice that number of people died prematurely from gun violence, and three times that number had major injuries as a result of gun violence. We need to address these also as a public health problem.”
After the introductions and keynote speech, Bo Kennedy, professor of pediatrics at the School of Medicine and doctor at the St. Louis Children’s Hospital; Nancy Staudt, dean of the Washington University School of Law; Becky Morgan, member of Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America; and James Clark, vice president of community outreach of Better Family Life spoke as a part of a panel discussion.
The event, held in the Eric P. Newman Education Center at the School of Medicine campus, was well attended, with nearly every seat filled. The audience was primarily made up of Washington University-affiliated faculty and St. Louis community members.
When the panel turned to questions from the audience, most who raised their hands to speak had statements to make rather than specific questions. One man talked about his experience as a black man living in a bad community and turning his life around, a few people talked about the organizations they were a part of and some spoke about their personal experiences with gun violence.
Several people also expressed their discontent with the event. One man said that he was displeased by the lack of presence from the Black Lives Matter movement, while a woman spoke about her aunt’s suicide and asked why mental health was not a bigger issue in the conversation surrounding gun control.
Many people were very impressed with the University’s efforts, however, happy to see it getting involved in such a politicized issue.
Lauren Markow, a community member with the organization Hate Breakers, said that she was happy to see Washington University looking at gun violence from the public health perspective.
“At some point you just have to say enough is enough and I think that’s where we are. So I really applaud Wash. U. for taking the resources that is has and really trying to bring it to air,” Markow said. “I think it’s wonderful because I do think it’s a public health problem, I think that is hasn’t been addressed in effective ways because it’s like our region—we have 93 municipalities and things are so divided up, but public health is something that affects all of us on multiple levels, and I think that unless or until we begin to see it as something that really threatens our well being, everyone’s as a community being a public health problem, we won’t get anywhere.”
Edna Boyd said that attending the kickoff event inspired her to get involved in the community.
“I wanted to learn about the direction St. Louis was taking in preventing gun violence, and more importantly what I could do as far as a community person to impact what is going on,” Boyd said. “If this did nothing else it certainly made me realize the importance of community involvement. Until we all become involved, nothing is going to change.”
Sophomore Divya Babbula said that she was happy to see Washington University get involved in the St. Louis community.
“I’m very glad Wash. U. is taking a stance on this issue. I think especially given that we’re in St. Louis and there are a lot of issues that we didn’t really touch on in the panel, such as race and police brutality,” Babbula said. “I think it’s great because it seems to be very transdisciplinary, because there is a lot of input from different academics, professionals and community members which I think is very important, so I’m excited to see where it will go.”