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Anne Arundel’s Gun Violence Prevention Task Force seeks public input at final town hall

People clasp hands in a vigil mourning mass shootings and other victims of gun violence in there lobby of the Arundel Center in Annapolis, where it was moved because of rain. The Anne Arundel County Gun Violence Prevention Task Force organized the vigil.
People clasp hands in a vigil mourning mass shootings and other victims of gun violence in there lobby of the Arundel Center in Annapolis, where it was moved because of rain. The Anne Arundel County Gun Violence Prevention Task Force organized the vigil.(Joshua McKerrow/Capital Gazette)

Anne Arundel County residents will have one last chance to weigh in on recommendations put forth by the Gun Violence Prevention Task Force at a public hearing hosted by County Executive Steuart Pittman at 6 p.m. Wednesday at Anne Arundel County Medical Center’s Belcher Pavilion.

The list of 30-plus ideas are all generally related to intervening before gun violence occurs, expanding community outreach and education, promoting and supporting gun safety regulations at every level of government.

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Before the team of experts, lawmakers and concerned citizens cement their list in a final version of the report this spring, they are seeking public comment. Pittman will be joined by members of the task force including Health Officer Dr. Nilesh Kalyanaraman and chair Bishop Charles Carroll.

Chief among the long list of recommendations was the notion that gun violence must be declared a public health crisis. Although Pittman and the County Council have yet to issue any formal decree, Pittman and other county officials have made clear that they will take a public health approach to the issue.

Kalyanaraman is working to convene an interagency gun violence intervention team — which will mimic the county’s approach to the opioid crisis. It will focus not on guns, but on saving lives.

“The public health approach really focuses on how do we keep people safe,” Kalyanaraman said. “I think that pulls us away from the guns versus no-guns question, which is contentious and is wrapped up in Second Amendment issues. This is much more about how do we keep people safe and that is a health issue.”

In a recent op-ed in The Capital, Pittman said this team will be tasked with data collection, regional cooperation, public education, engagement of the private sector, and implementation of best practices.

Pittman said the team will include officials from public safety, health, mental health, social services and criminal justice.

“The magic is that we direct every talent in local government toward a public health crisis,” Pittman wrote.

He said he thinks Anne Arundel County has the potential to set an example for the rest of the state by putting politics aside and reducing gun violence.

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After the Gun Violence Prevention Task was convened last April, some gun rights advocates said their voices weren’t being considered in the conversation. As a result, the task force added more opportunities for public comment.

The same week the task force issued its preliminary report, a group of Second Amendment activists sent out what they called an “independent report,” after they said hunters, gun collectors and other gun owners were not invited to serve on the task force, to be part of the county’s group.

They described the task force as “flawed from the start” because it lacked representation from gun owners and pro-Second Amendment groups. Their report urged the task force to “avoid making recommendations that are rooted in an emotional response to the complex issues surrounding gun violence and Second Amendment rights in our society and our community.”

The report emphasized the need for suicide prevention and education laid out in the report but opposed additional gun control laws. Daryl Hodge, one of the report’s authors, attended the presentation of the preliminary report in December but said he wouldn’t attend Wednesday’s public hearing.

“We tried to make comments all throughout the process from May through December (but) we were limited to two minute public comment periods,” Hodge said. “They've made it clear they don't want to hear from opposing viewpoints.”

Wednesday’s public hearing will be the last chance to give in-person testimony on the recommendations, but the task force will continue accepting written testimony via an online form.

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Upon the release of the county’s report in December, Pittman said he stood by the decision to not include gun rights experts because the task force was not meant to examine or interpret the Second Amendment.

“We don’t have the power to do that at the county level,” Pittman said.

Task force member and Councilman Nathan Volke, R-Pasadena, took matters into his own hands following the release of the recommendations. Volke said he was struck by the fact that 67% of firearms deaths between 2013 and 2017 were ruled suicides, and led the County Council in declaring suicide a public health crisis.

The council unanimously passed Volke’s resolution without the endorsement of Kalyanaraman — who said suicide has been treated as a public health issue for decades, and although “every suicide is a tragedy” it would be inaccurate to call it a crisis because rates have been fairly steady. Still, after much emotional testimony, the council approved it.

For Volke, who said that he is a gun owner, this move was more appropriate than declaring gun violence a public health crisis — which he said he wouldn’t support.

Pittman, who said he supports increased mental health supports throughout the county, said in a previous interview with The Capital that he won’t turn his back on the recommendations of the task force.

“If we don’t address gun violence then we’re abandoning the families of victims of homicides,” Pittman said. “And not only homicides but gunshot wounds, burglaries, rapes, and every other violent crime that is committed with the use of a firearm.”

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