Confronting the epidemic of gun violence in America may seem a dispiriting challenge given the current configuration of Congress. But rather than giving up the struggle, experts from educational institutions across the Washington, D.C., region, the George Washington University among them, have joined forces to chip away at the problem in different ways.
The 120 Initiative, a group of more than 100 experts from member institutions of the Consortium of Universities of the Washington Metropolitan Area, has issued a white paper on gun violence reduction. The initiative’s name calls attention to the more than 120 people, on average, who die every day in America of gunshot wounds, by homicide or suicide.
The white paper was issued recently and a regional conference of the 120 Initiative was held. The conference, at the National Building Museum, featured panels and breakout sessions in which experts discussed the group’s research-informed proposals for how to stem the tide of gun violence.
GW faculty members are well represented in the 120 Initiative. President Mark S. Wrighton is a member, along with his wife, Risa Zwerling Wrighton.
“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 when the 120 Initiative launched. “Our university must help contribute solutions to overcome this major public health crisis.”
Other members from the GW faculty include Jeff Delinski, program director of the Homeland Security Undergraduate Program in the College of Professional Studies; several from GW’s Milken Institute School of Public Health, including Adnan Hyder, director of the Center on Commercial Determinants of Health (CCDH); Amita Vyas, director of the Maternal and Child Health program; Associate Professor Naomi Seiler; Professor Mark Edberg; Associate Professor John (Jack) Sandberg; Research Professor Katherine (Katie) Horton; and Assistant Research Professor Nino Paichadze.
Though he couldn’t attend the conference due to a scheduling conflict, Hyder said, he was happy to contribute to the process resulting in the white paper, and he strongly advocates for its recommendations. He stressed that the paper was a product of the entire group, not of any particular members.
“The report is not attributable to individuals,” Hyder said. “The white paper is based on the participation of more than 100 experts at various meetings and town halls.”
Delinski described the "very methodical" process of creating the white paper.
“We started with everyone submitting ideas that were then put into general categories, and focus groups were then formed to flesh out those general ideas,” he said. “Each focus group was tasked with prioritizing the best ideas from each of those groups.”
Delinski, who previously spent 25 years as a member of the Metro Transit Police Department, served as a member of the criminal justice and law enforcement group. At the conference, he was on a panel discussing gun safety, addressing such topics as safe gun storage, training and locking mechanisms. On a personal level, Delinski said, he is deeply disturbed by the current epidemic of gun violence, which spurs him to contribute his expertise to address the problem.
“It’s very troubling to see the constant news reports pertaining to mass shootings in our communities,” Delinski said. “So anything I can do now as an educator with a law enforcement background to help, I’m more than happy to do.”
One of Delinski’s recommendations include the widespread implementation of “lethal means counseling,” or working with health care providers to better equip them to treat patients at risk of suicide. These professionals, in turn, can help a troubled person’s friends or family members to secure weapons.
“I also want to make it clear that mental health is not necessarily a predictor of violence to others,” Delinski added.
Other commonsense measures recommended in the white paper include readily available gun safety courses, increased use of public safety announcements and the establishment of gun buyback programs. One of the ideas Delinski favors is providing free gun locks.
“I don’t think money should be a factor when it comes to gun safety,” Delinski said. “Why not make gun safety education free, so people know how to properly handle a weapon?”
As a specialist in injury prevention, Hyder advocates looking at the role of the gun industry in the creation of public health problems.
“We’ve just started work on this area at GW, through our center,” Hyder said. “We’re looking at the role of industry in the causation, and hopefully at some point in the solution, of public health problems. We believe that marketing of products like firearms, especially to vulnerable populations such as the teenage community, is a very serious issue.”
According to the report, “Firearms are the leading cause of death for children and adolescents (1-19 years of age).” The marketing of guns to teens is comparable, Hyder said, to the way the tobacco industry used to market to young people.
“Another thing we feel is very important is the fact that the gun industry is relatively protected, at least in this country, from lawsuits,” Hyder said. “Why is that so? Why have those special protections been given to this particular industry?”
The report recommends limiting gun purchases and manufacture through taxation, and also addresses the role of the community in interrupting the cycle of violence. As community members informed by their research efforts, educators can play a vital role.
“We didn’t want everything to be, ‘Change the law, change the law, change the law,’ because that could take years to happen,” Hyder said. “The consortium reminded us to always think about things we could do in the interim while we wait for the laws to change. Jurisdictions can do things—a gun buyback can be done by a city; it doesn’t require the Senate or Congress to pass a law.”
Another recommendation in the white paper is the expansion of “red flag” laws, such as limiting gun availability to perpetrators of domestic violence. The report also recommends that journalists covering homicides or mass shootings focus on the victims instead of the shooters.
GW alumnus Andrew Flagel, B.A.’90, M.A. ’94, is the president and CEO of the consortium, as well as a senior visiting scholar at the Graduate School of Education and Human Development. In his introduction to the white paper, Flagel wrote that the recommendations it contains “by no means replace the need for legislation.” Further, he wrote, “Some of the most effective ways to reduce gun violence require addressing root causes such as poverty and … increasing access to education, housing, food and medical services.”