Hours after a mass shooting that left at least 26 people dead at a church in Texas, APHA Annual Meeting attendees convened for a town hall event on gun violence on Sunday evening.

Led by past APHA Presidents Linda DeGutis and Carmen Nevarez as well as Debbie Azrael, a researcher at the Harvard Injury Control Research Center, the gathering emphasized the need for public health workers to initiate conversations on how to keep people safe in communities where guns are present — especially between people with differing views on gun ownership. Comments from the audience began on a heartbreaking note when a member of APHA’s Oral Health Section shared her experience knowing people affected by recent mass shootings.

“I find some level of comfort coming here,” she said. “Being surrounded by people who are hopefully going to address this issue.”

From there, attendees voiced their concerns and ideas for tackling the issue of gun violence as a public health community. They discussed the need to create better methods of tracking where guns are in communities and advocating for background checks on those who purchase guns. The conversation included comments from two different gun owners, who noted that there should be a distinction made between gun owners who acquire and use their guns according to the law and those who do not.

“Increased gun laws only pertain to me and law-abiding gun owners,” one said. “The murder rates and violent crime rates with gun use usually aren’t done by law-abiding citizens.”

Many participants welcomed input from the gun owners. DeGutis noted that it’s important to engage APHA members who are responsible gun owners and who can contribute to the conversation and broaden understanding on how to approach the topic.

“We need to hear what everyone thinks about this issue,” she said.

APHA’s Executive Director Georges Benjamin also stopped by the event — organized by the Maternal and Child Health Section’s Gun Violence Prevention Committee and the Intersectional Council on Gun Violence Prevention — and shared his views on the issue and what he envisions as APHA’s role in curbing the gun violence epidemic.

“We need to study [best practices] to show that they work,” said Benjamin. “I think the fundamental problem is that we’ve been prohibited from doing that.”

Degutis, a former director of the National Center for Injury Prevention and Control at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, agreed, noting a federal funding restriction has effectively shut down the agency’s research on gun violence prevention.

The session ended — like many sessions at APHA Annual Meetings do — with a call to action.

“When you leave here today,” Benjamin said, “the next thing you need to do is get ready to act.”

Find more resources on APHA’s gun violence page.