SPH Forum: Commonwealth Leaders, Advocates Tackle Gun Violence

Success of bipartisan gun safety legislation, policy changes needed to create safer communities discussed

The data are clear: gun violence remains a uniquely American epidemic. But among the roughly 100 firearm-related deaths that occur nationwide each day, Massachusetts has the lowest gun death rate in the continental United States year after year.

On March 11, the BU School of Public Health held a Dean’s Seminar titled Tackling Gun Violence to discuss the issue. Among the panelists were elected Massachusetts officials Charlie Baker, governor, Maura Healey, attorney general, and Robert DeLeo, speaker of the House of Representatives.

Cohosted with WBUR’s Cityspace at the Lavine Broadcast Center and the Boston Globe, the two-hour event turned into a robust conversation on the commonwealth’s unprecedented success with bipartisan gun safety legislation and the policy changes still needed to create safer environments in all US communities. It was held before a packed audience at the new CitySpace venue on Comm Ave.

Also on the panel were Stop Handgun Violence cofounder John Rosenthal, Boston Globe columnist Nestor Ramos, Sam Zeif, a survivor of the February 2018 shooting at Parkland, Florida’s Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, and Sandro Galea, SPH dean and Robert A. Knox Professor. The panel was moderated by WBUR senior correspondent Deborah Becker.

The panelists examined the steps and strategies that Massachusetts policymakers and activists have adopted to lead the nation in enacting sensible gun policies. At 3.7 deaths per 100,000 people, the current gun death rate in Massachusetts is six times lower than it is in Alabama, the state with the highest rate.

“Massachusetts has enacted a rich network of provisions, laws, policies, and guidances that collectively lower the risk of guns causing death,” Galea said. But he went on to note that it is difficult to pinpoint any one policy or action that can be broadly attributed to a reduction in gun deaths, because the effects of policy changes “vary from jurisdiction to jurisdiction.”

Since gun safety advocacy organization Stop Handgun Violence was founded in 1994, Rosenthal noted, it has paved the way for stricter gun control laws and regulations, including renewable licensing and registration of firearms, criminal background checks for private sales, safe storage and child access prevention laws, and a permanent ban on military-style assault weapons and large-capacity magazines.

Rosenthal, who is himself a gun owner, said that his organization’s leaders achieved these goals by making it clear to other gun owners that they had no intention of banning most weapons.

”We’re an urban state with the lowest gun death rate in the nation,” he said, “and we’ve proven the NRA’s worst nightmare—that gun laws save lives and you don’t have to ban most guns in order to do it.”

Despite the progress that Massachusetts has made, Baker stressed the need for continued research on gun violence, which can lead to effective policy related to the racial disparities among gun violence victims, and for adequate mental health services for schools and communities.

“One of the biggest problems we have with a lot of issues around gun violence is the lack of data that’s available,” Baker said. “One of the things that’s been proven over time is that you can use data to improve policy.”

In particular, he said, more research was needed to understand the number of guns illegally trafficked across state lines—a particular issue for Massachusetts, where neighboring states such as Vermont and New Hampshire have fewer regulations on background checks and bump stock purchases.

John Rosenthal, Chair, Stop Handgun Violence, from left, Robert A. DeLeo, Speaker of MA House, Professor Sandro Galea, SPH Dean, and Deborah Becker, panel host and WBUR reporter at the panel discussion about gun control in Massachusetts March 11, 2019 at CitySpace.

Stop Handgun Violence chair John Rosenthal (from left), Robert A. DeLeo, Massachusetts House speaker, Sandro Galea, SPH dean, and WBUR senior correspondent and panel host Deborah Becker at the discussion about gun control in Massachusetts.

DeLeo underlined the fact that researchers and policymakers need to look beyond the mass shootings that get mainstream coverage and focus on the shootings that occur every day, especially in communities of color.

“We need to examine the root causes of gun violence in order to expand our prevention efforts and address the disproportionate number of people of color who are affected, as well as socioeconomic inequities and behavioral health,” DeLeo said.

Monica Cannon Grant, CEO of the nonprofit Violence in Boston, drew cheers when she interrupted the panel to protest the lack of priority paid to shootings in communities of color. “You need to talk to the people closest to the problem,” she said. “None of you dodge bullets for a living.” Becker then invited Cannon-Grant to join the panel.

“There’s a missing piece to this conversation,” Cannon-Grant said when she was seated onstage. “This is not an either/or—this is an and/also.”

Almost every speaker criticized the National Rifle Association and its progun lobbying power over US Congress members.

Ultimately, gun violence “is a political issue,” said Healey, “and Congress doesn’t always work on behalf of the people who elected them.” She noted that as a result of massive public protests by groups such as March for Our Lives, NRA contributions to candidates have finally decreased. “Make people take the votes, and then you can give them the support.”

Survivor Zeif’s best friend, Joaquin Oliver, was killed in the Parkland shooting. Zeif said he believes Oliver would be alive today had he gone to school in Massachusetts, because of the commonwealth’s “common-sense policies and laws,” such as the ban on military-style assault weapons. “I don’t know why the rest of country isn’t on the same page,” he said. “There’s a lot more to be done, but you guys have the right mind.”

Ramos said the best thing Massachusetts can do is convince other states to adopt similar policies—but he noted that the commonwealth’s low gun death rate “is not all about laws.”

“We have a lot of cultural advantages and healthcare advantages,” Ramos said, expanding upon Galea’s earlier points. “Our gun ownership rates and suicide rates are much lower, for reasons that have little to do with laws.”

During the Q&A, several audience members, including teenagers from the nonprofit Center for Teen Empowerment, whose mission is to “empower youth to, in collaboration with adults, create peace, equity, and justice,” called on the panelists to focus “less on the guns, and more on the people.”

“Guns are objects, and we can’t really change objects,” said 16-year-old Gabriel Petit. “It’s the person we can change.”

Jillian McKoy can be reached at jpmckoy@bu.edu.