Gun violence is a public-health issue
Congressional subcommittee meets on Chicago’s South Side, hears calls to research root causes of gun crimes
By Ted Cox
CHICAGO — Gun violence is an epidemic that needs to be studied and treated like a viral outbreak, according to the testimony offered to a congressional subcommittee meeting Thursday at Kennedy-King College on Chicago’s South Side.
“When we look at gun violence as a disease, that means it can be treated and it can be cured,” said Dr. Selwyn Rogers Jr., a trauma surgeon at the University of Chicago Medical Center.
U.S. Rep. Bobby Rush, who lost a son to guns a decade ago, played host to the meeting of the Subcommittee on Health under the House Committee on Energy & Commerce in his congressional district in the Englewood neighborhood beset by gun violence. “Ten years later, we’re still working to resolve this problem with gun violence in our nation,” he said.
U.S. Rep. Anna Eshoo of California, subcommittee chairwoman, said it was the committee’s first meeting on gun violence as a public-health issue, and it was formally called “A Public Health Crisis: The Gun Violence Epidemic in America.” She called for the collection of data and research on gun crimes “so we can work off facts” in allotting government resources to combat it.
“We have to invest in research to better understand what works and what doesn’t work,” Rogers said. “There’s so much about gun violence that we don’t understand.”
“Gun violence is a crisis,” said U.S. Rep. Danny Davis of Chicago, who recently lost a grandson to guns, “but so is poverty a health crisis, so is economic oppression.”
“Gun violence is ravaging our communities,” said U.S. Rep. Jesus “Chuy” Garcia of Chicago. “It’s time for the government to quit cowering to the NRA and do something about it.”
The National Rifle Association and the gun industry have resisted labeling it as such, however, and they have actively lobbied for and passed legislation that has prevented spending government money to research the problem.
Yet six panelists and nine members of Congress suggested otherwise during Thursday’s hearing.
Dr. Niva Lubin-Johnson, former president of the National Medical Association, cited an NRA tweet from last year in which the gun-rights group told “self-important anti-gun doctors” to “stay in your lane.” “This is our lane,” she pointedly replied.
U.S. Rep. Robin Kelly of Matteson called on the U.S. surgeon general to conduct the same sort of report on gun violence as the office conducted on cigarettes in the mid-’60s, which alerted the public to tobacco as a cause of cancer.
Dr. Ronald Stewart, of the University of Texas San Antonio Health Science Center, compared it to the drive to curb auto deaths that began 50 years ago and, over time, has dramatically lowered highway fatalities.
“This is a crisis,” said U.S. Rep. Jan Schakowsky of Evanston. “It demands a sense of urgency right now.
“Think about if it were a virus what we would be doing,” she added. “What people want to see now is steps, concrete steps, that represent action.”
“Think about if it were a virus what we would be doing. What people want to see now is steps, concrete steps, that represent action.”
U.S. Rep. Jan Schakowsky (One Illinois/Ted Cox)
Speaking on “the intersection of race, which I think in many ways is the elephant in the room,” Schakowsky pointed out that African-American men make up 52 percent of all gun homicide victims, despite only being 7 percent of the U.S. population. African Americans are also between 10 and 14 times more likely to die by gun homicide and assault than whites.
“We are determined to seek some action,” said U.S. Rep. G.K. Butterfield of North Carolina, who pointed out that the U.S. murder rate is 25 times higher than the average for other developed nations. Later citing that in 2017, the most recent year for which complete data are available, 39,773 people died from gun-related injuries, he added, “Inaction is not an option.”
Spencer Leak Sr., a Chicago funeral director, testified, “No week goes by that I don’t serve the families of at least two gun-violence victims.”
Panelists said the root causes of gun violence need to be studied with an attitude toward prevention, with Davis citing the adage, “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.”
Davis also pointed out that an angered or anxious man armed with a toothpick can’t kill a dozen people or more in 30 seconds, but a person armed with an assault rifle can.
“We’ve got to look at where the guns come from,” Rubin-Johnson said, “and how they get into the city.”
Norman Kerr, Chicago’s director of violence prevention, said, “The trends have improved” on gun deaths in the city, which has reported 382 people killed so far this year, the lowest figure in four years. “The vast majority of these homicides are committed with illegal guns,” he said.
Kelly cited statistics that 60 percent of guns confiscated in Chicago come from other states — illustrating the need for national gun control.
Kerr added that research and outreach in the communities afflicted with gun violence was essential. “With an epidemic, you have to go to the population that’s affected, and in this situation you have to go to the population that’s violent,” he said. “This is the group that’s most violent, and if we don’t develop a relationship with them the change is going to be minimal.”
Others spoke on the need for “secondary trauma” to be studied in the aftermath of a gun death, in the families and friends who survive. Pastor Brenda Mitchell of University Park testified on the post-traumatic stress disorder she suffered after her son was killed trying to break up a fight outside a sports bar.
That aroused traumatic memories for U.S. Rep. Yvette Clarke of New York, who said, “There is a lot of walking wounded.
“I’ve had two colleagues in Congress who’ve been gunned down,” Gabby Giffords of Arizona and Steve Scalise of Louisiana, she added. “Thank goodness they survived.”
Davis spoke of the two people convicted in his grandson’s death, saying, “Their families are traumatized as much as our family.” He cited the trauma bill he’d sponsored with U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin.
Panelists and representatives mentioned that the majority of gun deaths each year are suicides, with guns involved in half of all suicides. Rogers minimized concerns about mass shootings — in spite of the media attention they attract — because they make up less than 1 percent of all gun deaths.
Garcia mentioned, however, that mass shootings like the recent one in El Paso, Texas, where Hispanics were the victims, are often cited by the gun lobby and President Trump as proof that nothing can be done about guns and that the real issue is mental health.
“The president is not contributing to preventing these incidents,” Garcia said. “He is contributing to encouraging these incidents.”
The subcommittee hearing included U.S. Rep. Adam Kinzinger of Channahon as the lone Republican. He signaled the receptiveness of many Republicans to acknowledge the problem and work toward solutions.
“A lot of the times both sides retreat to their corners and mistrust each other in the conversation,” he said. “I think there are a lot of areas we can agree. If we can begin to talk to each other again and respect each other again and listen to each other again, I think we’ll be able to make some progress.
“That’s why I’m here,” Kinzinger added. “I’m not here to argue. I’m hear to listen. I’m here to listen to the people of this community, to learn more about what’s working and what more we can do at the federal level to help remedy some of these issues.
“We clearly have a gun-violence epidemic here in America,” he said. “It’s a complex problem that requires a comprehensive, holistic approach. Let’s work together to find real solutions to the gun-violence epidemic.”
Stewart suggested a three-pronged “public-health approach” to the problem of gun violence: recognizing it is a public-health issue and not a political issue, backing violence-prevention programs based on research, and encouraging a public forum for “collegial, civil dialogue.”
“It’s not going to be a Band-Aid solution,” Rogers said. “It’s going to take commitment over time.”
Remarking on the subcommittee meeting held at Kennedy-King College, Rush pointed out that both President John Kennedy and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. were victims of gun violence.