Anne Arundel County parents gathered at Michael E. Busch Library Thursday to share fears about their children’s safety in the wake of a string of mass shootings across the country in recent weeks.
The gathering was the second annual community meeting of the Gun Violence Intervention Team, which was established to discuss solutions to what many describe as a public health crisis. The team, assembled by County Executive Steuart Pittman two years ago, will issue an annual report on June 14.
The 30 or so attendees, many of whom were wearing orange as part of a nationwide effort this weekend to bring attention to gun violence, expressed exhaustion over the near-daily reports of Americans dying by gunfire and urged county leaders to do more to protect their loved ones and curb the tide of violence.
One of the parents, Kristen Caminiti, a mom of four kids ranging from ages 3 to 12, said she worried about the psychological impact active shooter drills were having on her kids and wished society placed less responsibility on children to prepare for mass shootings.
“We know we’re causing harm by increasing anxiety and depression in our kids,” Caminiti said. “We’re supporting a culture of fear. … I think we really need to look at the response.”
Though gun violence may seem overwhelming, there are initiatives the county is taking to make the community safer, Health Office Nilesh Kalyanaraman said. He reminded those at the meeting that public health campaigns have been successful in reducing smoking-related and automobile-related deaths.
“There are tools to decrease violence,” he said.
Among those initiatives are hospital-based interventions like connecting victims of gun violence with mental health resources and street outreach programs that place conflict mediators on the ground in communities with higher rates of homicides and provide support, job training and cognitive behavioral therapy.
The meeting came on the heels of two high-profile mass shootings that killed 10 people in a grocery story in Buffalo, New York and 19 students and two teachers at an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas. Pittman said the community meeting was scheduled well in advance of those incidents but the timing seemed appropriate to discuss solutions to the growing threat of gun violence. News of another mass shooting broke Wednesday when a man opened fire in a Tulsa, Oklahoma medical office with an AR-15 style rifle, killing two doctors and two other people before taking his own life.
Though counties are preempted from passing legislation around firearm access by state law, Pittman said at a news conference Tuesday he was impressed by what the intervention team has done, like creating community resource tool kits. The County Council has passed laws inspired by the intervention team including one requiring gun stores to distribute literature about suicide and conflict resolution and another requiring gun stores to have certain protective equipment installed to prevent burglaries.
Both laws are now undergoing legal challenges.
“Folks are working at the state level but we are working at the county level,” Pittman said. “There’s so much that hasn’t been done and there’s so much potentially that can be done.”
The Gun Violence Intervention Team was created in 2020 and modeled after the county’s opioid intervention team, a group every county is required to develop by state law. The interagency group includes representatives from the Anne Arundel and Annapolis police departments, the Anne Arundel County Mental Health Agency and Office of Emergency Management and several other health and human services agencies.
In 2021, the group held virtual seminars for residents to discuss their concerns and suggestions on how to combat gun violence.
The county panel grew out of the Anne Arundel County Gun Violence Prevention Task Force in 2019, which was launched in the aftermath of the 2018 mass shooting at the Capital Gazette office where a Laurel man with a long-held grievance with the publication blasted into the newsroom. Five people were killed in that attack: John McNamara, Gerald Fischman, Rob Hiaasen, Rebecca Smith and Wendi Winters.
In the city of Annapolis, the intervention team is working to bring in national experts to analyze the gun violence issues in the city and strategize public health initiatives that can be created to combat the violence.
Gun violence is not just an issue of easy access and political discourse; it’s become baked into American culture, Annapolis Chief of Police Edward Jackson said.
“It’s become a way of dealing with problems. It’s a fascination,” Jackson said. “We have to talk to our children. We have to petition our elected officials.”
It’s important to not become numb to the deaths and hopeless for solutions, Jackson said.
“People die one at a time,” he said. “They don’t die statistically.”
Maryland Policy & Politics
Annapolis Mayor Gavin Buckley compared the response here to that of his home country of Australia, where government officials have created restrictive legislation on gun ownership following mass shootings. He’d like to see that approach taken in the U.S.
“This is not an easy thing to take on,” Buckley said. “On one side there’s a group of people that say we need more weapons and on the other side, probably this side, there are people who say we need less.”
Friday is National Gun Violence Awareness Day and Saturday and Sunday are Wear Orange Weekend to recognize gun violence. However the county decided to observe the initiative on Thursday in order to get as many residents to attend the meeting as possible, said Jeff Amoros, Pittman’s spokesperson.
Since 2020, gun suicides, suicide attempts and homicides in the county have all increased, said Bella Young, health planner for the county health department. Gun suicides or attempted suicides rose 3% from 2020 to 2021, while gun homicides rose 11% over the same period.
Black residents were more affected by gun violence in the county, Young said. Though Black residents make up only 17% of the county, they account for 68% of gun homicides and 64% of gun injuries. White residents, meanwhile, were more impacted by gun suicides. Though white residents make up 67% of the county’s population, 88% of gun suicides and suicide attempts are by white people.
While the disproportionate number of homicides among young Black men may be due to issues with lack of opportunities in education, as well as economic opportunities, Young said, preliminary research suggests the suicide numbers might be high among middle-aged white men because of the mental health sigma preventing them from seeking help and mental health issues among veteran communities.
“We have a long way to go but we start, we grow, we build,” Kalyanaraman said.