A group of politicians, community leaders, law enforcement, gun control advocates and public health officials gathered at Anne Arundel Medical Center Monday to talk about gun violence as a public health crisis and concluded that change starts with more productive conversations.
The key to advancing that conversation and finding common ground, those gathered for the roundtable hosted by U.S Rep. John Sarbanes (D-Md.) said, could be focusing on safety — as was the case with cars in the past.
“Many many years ago driving and kids was a problem. Many of our kids were dying as a result of automobile accidents,” said Dr. Georges Benjamin, executive director of the American Public Health Association. “Cars were fundamentally unsafe.”
Eventually concerned citizens and researchers got together and inspired change, Benjamin said, pushing back against an industry that had no intention of making cars safer — and making the environment safer for motor vehicles.
Now, he said, car companies tout vehicle safety ratings when they market their new models every year.
“We can make firearms safer,” Benjamin said. “We can make people safer with their firearms. And we can make the environment safer with people and firearms together.”
Rachel Dodge, a pediatrician in Dundalk and a regional representative of the American Academy of Pediatrics, told the group she’s learned from the conversations she’s had with friends who grew up with her in Baltimore County, many of whom grew up around guns and are National Rifle Association members. She employs what she learned from those conversations to talk to parents of her patients.
“When I talk to my (patients’) parents that are hunters: ‘Is your child getting the gun safety?’ ‘How are you guys keeping your guns?’” Dodge explained. “I’m not accusatory of them having guns, you have to talk about why it’s important that those guns are safe and that people understand them.”
Dodge’s account piqued Sarbanes’ interest. He asked whether conversations about gun safety — and what can be done to guns to make them safer — was a fruitful conversation, one that people were open to.
Getting people to see things from a public health perspective is challenging, Dodge said. Giving people a comparison can be helpful.
“The one place that I have been able to engage people excellently is around cars and the parallel between cars and guns has been a fabulous discussion,” she said. “People stop and say, ‘it’s true, we do need a license to drive a car.’”
Pediatricians are uniquely poised to talk to families about gun safety, said Dr. Maria Brown, president of the Maryland Chapter of American Academy of Pediatrics. She’s been going around the state talking with pediatricians about how to bring up guns in the house as a “completely, non judgmental database question that everybody gets asked.”
An approximately one-hour roundtable discussion can only scratch the surface of a problem as diverse and complex as gun violence. And at the beginning of the meeting of minds, Sarbanes said he wanted to know what he should bring back to Congress.
Some raised concerns about oversimplifying the message. There are so many facets of gun violence. Other experts chimed in with points of socioeconomic indicators associated with urban gun violence, suicide and mental health, hate and the emergence of white supremacism and domestic terrorism.
“If we go into this thinking one solution is going to solve this problem, then we shouldn’t have had this meeting,” Dr. Boris Lushniak, Dean of the University of Maryland School of Public Health, told Sarbanes. “The reality is, I think what we want congressman, at least from my perspective, is let’s make headway somewhere.”
If it’s the safety issue, so be it, Lushniak said. It won’t solve all the problems, but it’s a public health issue. “We talk about safety of products as a public health in prevention.”
Lushniak added that the conversation of safety surrounding firearms often gets stalled by NRA counterpoints — with every road becoming a slippery slope impeding Second Amendment rights.
“I’m probably one of the few NRA members in this room,” said Rev. Stephen Tillett, pastor at Asbury Broadneck United Methodist Church and co-chair of the Gun Violence Reduction and Safety Research Action Team for Anne Arundel Connecting Together. “I can tell you that a majority of NRA members favor more background checks. They favor banned bump stocks,” among some other measures.
Sarbanes called the discussion “extremely helpful” in closing. He said he’d returned to Washington armed with new ideas and that he’ll push for those on the opposite ends of the spectrum to come together over the idea of gun safety.
“I think there’s real opportunity there,” he said.