SPH Addresses Gun Violence in Special Forum

National public health faculty, government, advocacy experts convene

h_butoday_gun-forum-deleoRepresentative Robert DeLeo, speaker of the Massachusetts House of Representatives, was among those speaking at the daylong School of Public Health meeting on gun violence that drew members from public health schools across the country. Photo by Michael Saunders.

There is no doubt that one of the most pressing public health issues facing the nation is gun violence. The statistics are overwhelming and unassailable and calls for action are sounding throughout the country. More than 30,000 gun deaths and 70,000 gun injuries occurred in 2013, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Earlier this week the BU School of Public Health convened an unprecedented gathering of deans and faculty from 42 public health schools across the nation to discuss the need to draw more attention and resources to the issue.

The forum, titled Public Health and the Firearm Epidemic, also included representatives of 17 other public health, government, and advocacy organizations. The goal of the event was to serve as a first step in “building consensus that gun violence poses a serious public health threat that can no longer be ignored,” said Sandro Galea, dean of SPH and Robert A. Knox Professor, who spearheaded and led the daylong forum.

The closed-door meeting was divided into sessions on research, advocacy, and politics, followed by a breakout session for participants to come up with a public health agenda to move forward.

The discussion of data and research to date was led by experts from SPH, Harvard University’s T. H. Chan School of Public Health, the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, and the University of Iowa College of Public Health. Leaders of three national gun safety advocacy groups—Everytown for Gun Safety, Americans for Responsible Solutions, and Stop Handgun Violence—also shared their experience and insight.

Maura Healey, Massachusetts attorney general, stressed the importance of framing gun violence as a matter of public health, and regulation of guns as improving health and safety, not as infringing on rights. “We need to treat guns as consumer products, to frame this as a consumer safety issue,” Healey said, noting that the United States sees 90 deaths, 6 of them children, and 200 injuries from guns every day, and 51 women fatally shot by an intimate partner every month: “If that isn’t a public health crisis, I don’t know what is.”

Massachusetts has one of the strongest gun safety laws in the country, and Robert DeLeo, speaker of the House of Representatives, shared what he learned while leading the passage of that gun safety law in 2014. The process was surprisingly difficult, he said, but taking the time to establish consensus ultimately made for better legislation. “It’s better to do it in a slower manner and get it done right than to try to do it hastily and have it challenged by the judiciary,” he said.

Following the forum, Galea said that he was encouraged by the sense of optimism shared by the speakers and participants, particularly after the unexpected results of the presidential election—a president-elect who is vocally opposed to gun regulation. “I actually think this discussion is more important than ever, and that it’s more important than ever for public health to have clarity of voice,” he said. “We have not capitalized on the mass of academic public health coming together to push ideas forward, and part of the intention here is to be that catalyst.”

Research into gun violence has been hampered by a lack of government funding. The CDC has not funded research into gun violence in more than 15 years because of a virtual ban on such funding by Congress. BU, Harvard, and other schools of public health have proceeded with studies of gun violence prevention despite the lack of funding, and the US Justice Department recently awarded $3.3 million to BU, Harvard, Northwestern, the University of California, Davis, and the City of New York and Center for Court Innovation for firearms-related research.

Author, Michelle Samuels can be reached at msamu@bu.edu.