By Greg Varner
With gun violence at epidemic levels in America and the seeming inability of Congress to treat the problem sufficiently, it’s time to think outside the box. The Consortium of Universities of the Washington Metropolitan Area is doing so with its new 120 Initiative, bringing together administrative and faculty experts to address the scourge.
George Washington University President Mark S. Wrighton is one of more than a dozen higher education leaders in the area backing the effort. Wrighton and his wife, Risa Zwerling Wrighton, previously worked to combat gun violence in St. Louis; she recently published an opinion piece on this topic in The GW Hatchet.
The Consortium cited statistics from the Gun Violence Archive that say the United States has had at least 314 mass shootings since the start of 2022, and gun violence through suicide, domestic abuse and other assaults has resulted in more than 23,500 deaths so far this year.
“The George Washington University and our Consortium partners across the region have a unique ability to convene and bring to bear the research and expertise to address the most pressing challenges of our times,” Wrighton said. “Our university must help contribute solutions to overcome this major public health crisis.”
Several experts from the GW community will join the new initiative, named in remembrance of the more than 120 people who die every day as a result of firearms. They include Adnan Hyder, director of the Center on Commercial Determinants of Health (CCDH) and a professor of global health at GW’s Milken Institute School of Public Health.
“The issue of gun violence has been extremely complicated,” Hyder said, “because, unlike other diseases, it has become integrally linked to an issue of constitutional rights granted by the Second Amendment. I think that the conversation has to be shifted to the domain of public health.”
One of the many other GW faculty members joining the effort is Amita Vyas, associate professor and director of the maternal and child health program in the Milken Institute School of Public Health.
“I joined the 120 Initiative because I firmly believe that a public health approach to prevent gun violence, one that addresses both firearm access and the factors that contribute to and protect from gun violence, is what is needed,” Vyas said. “The problem is complex, and therefore the solutions are complex and require multiple strategies. As a consortium of universities, we bring together diverse expertise that will enable us to develop comprehensive strategies and evidence.”
Both Vyas and Hyder acknowledge that a major solution to the problem of gun violence is staring us in the face.
“Global evidence is very clear,” Hyder said. “The more guns you have, the more gun violence you have, irrespective of the details. And the fewer guns you have, the less gun violence you have. Therefore, anything we can do to limit the access to these weapons, whether it is limiting their type, or increasing the age at which you have access, or changing the conditions under which access can be granted, everything is important.”
Vyas said a key to the 120 Initiative is that it is a large collective. “And with that, it brings a level of influence and visibility,” she said. “We can't give up because of inertia in the U.S. Senate or other levels of government. We need to keep raising issues, providing evidence and testing solutions.”
While it is difficult, at least for now, to address the problem at the national level, local efforts may be more likely to succeed.
“When the federal government appears not to work, then you try to do what you can at the local level,” Hyder said. “What can mayors do? What can police departments do? What can every household do in terms of limiting children’s access to guns? Some evidence is available, but not all, and there is room for more research.”
Apart from developing action plans that various stakeholders might implement, the 120 Initiative can exert greater pressure.
“Universities are where people are being trained in medicine, in research, in public health,” Hyder said. “We therefore have an important role to play in establishing this as a public health issue, a medical issue, etc., depending on the nature of the school or the university.”
As a specialist in global health, Hyder said the United States could learn from other nations about how to address gun violence, and that he hopes the 120 Initiative will introduce “at least a little” global dialogue. He believes regulating the gun industry is an important area of focus.
“I believe that the industry has a major stake in the creation of this violence by flooding the market with their products in any way possible,” Hyder said. “Regulating this industry is very important. When a toy doesn’t work, we can sue the toy manufacturer for not meeting safety standards. We should be able to do that with the gun industry as well.”
Vyas, a specialist in child and maternal health, concurs. It is also important, she said, to find ways to help those affected by gun violence.
“The serious consequences of gun violence affect entire communities, families and children,” Vyas said. “Approximately three million children witness gun violence each year, in their homes, schools or community, and therefore gun violence is not just an issue of gun regulation, but also of addressing the impact on those who have been affected by this violence.”
Other members of the GW community who have joined the initiative from the Milken Institute School of Public Health, include Associate Professor Naomi Seiler; Professor Mark Edberg; Associate Professor John (Jack) Sandberg; Research Professor Katherine (Katie) Horton; and Assistant Research Professor Nino Paichadze. Additional members are President Wrighton and his wife, Risa Zwerling Wrighton.