Office of the President

August 6, 2019

Universities and the public health crisis of gun violence

Ana Mari Cauce

Support and resources

SafeCampus
Service to connect anyone with concerns about safety with the right resources

UW Counseling Center
Multiple options for students seeking help coping with stress and mental health concerns

Let’s Talk
Free, confidential, informal drop-in counseling service

UW CareLink
Support to help employees or their family members navigate life’s challenges

Bias Incident Reporting Tool
For reporting threats or other bias-related activity, online or in person, that may impact the UW community

In two shootings less than 24 hours apart, at least 31 people were killed. The attack on an El Paso Walmart is being investigated as an act of domestic terrorism due to the alleged perpetrator’s white nationalist views. This and the tragedy in Dayton were the 31st and 32nd mass killings^ this year. They follow closely on the heels of the mass shooting at the Gilroy Garlic Festival in California, adding to the daily toll of murders and shootings that shatter lives and families across the nation, including a spate of horrific gun violence in Chicago that claimed more lives this weekend.

The factors that have created this uniquely American tragedy are numerous and complex. Access to mental health care — an acute issue considering most gun deaths are actually suicides — and the proliferation of easy-to-obtain, high-capacity guns are just two of the issues we need to address. We also face the social contagion of racism, bigotry and hatred, which has been shown to spread violent acts like a virus, adding fuel to this public health crisis. While we again express condolences, “thoughts and prayers” are glaringly insufficient to answer the questions of why America, alone in the world, suffers from such rates of gun deaths and what we can do to put an end to them. We must come together to honestly address these questions in the name of public safety.

As research universities, we and our peers use evidence-based scholarship to change our world for the better. Yet the federal government, which funds research in a wide range of topics, has for decades been virtually absent from funding research into gun violence as a public health issue. Congressional actions all but halted this research after a 1993 study concluded that having a handgun in the home tripled the chances someone will be killed there. (One of the three areas examined in that groundbreaking study was our own King County.)

Some federal research restrictions were lifted last year, and the state of Washington funded research recently at our Harborview Injury Prevention & Research Center into this urgent public safety issue. Meanwhile, the UW’s Forefront program has been engaged in an innovative campaign to reduce the use of firearms in suicides, which account for the majority of gun deaths in our state and nation.

Clearly both more research and action are needed. Yet all the data in the world will be useless without the political will to stem a public health crisis that killed nearly 40,000 Americans last year.

Universities have not just the ability, but the responsibility to advocate for research into this and other threats to public health — and we all have the ability as private citizens to advocate for action. We must find a way to come together, those who do not own guns and those who are responsible gun owners, to deal with the public health threat posed by gun violence and hateful rhetoric. Simple compassion and decency demand it of us. We can do more than think about the victims and pray for something to change. Universities can provide the foundation upon which our nation can take evidence-based action to stem this uniquely American epidemic.

For anyone who wants help in dealing with these tragedies, I encourage you to make use of the resources listed with this post. And as we grieve for the victims of these shootings, let’s remember to take care of each other. We can and we must hold each other up as we work to stop the spread of hate and violence.

 

^The U.S. Department of Justice defines a “mass killing” as involving three or more killings in a single episode. Other measures that take into account victims who survive have tallies that are much higher.