GW gun violence prevention panel

An April 5, National Public Health Week event at George Washington University explored the relationship between mental health and gun violence. The event included, from left, Georges Benjamin, MD, APHA executive director; Daniel Webster, Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health; Paramjit Joshi, Children’s National Medical Center; Richard Cooter, George Washington University; and Olga Acosta Price, George Washington University. (Photo by Daniel Greenberg/APHA)

Gun violence has become an epidemic in the U.S., with more than 30,000 people dying from gunfire each year. The debate, discussed by a panel of experts last Friday at George Washington University, centers on how to prevent it.

“From Dialogue to Action: Preventing Gun Violence” looked at solutions from a range of perspectives, including emergency preparedness, gun research, public policy, mental health and school workforce.

“In my early years, I practiced emergency medicine in Washington, D.C, — and it was a challenging time; we had drive-by shootings,” said Georges Benjamin, MD, executive director of APHA. “So when you hear of the Dec. 14 shooting in Newtown [Conn.], it takes you back and makes you realize that this phenomenon is nothing new. And that dealing with gun violence prevention is an important public health problem.”

Benjamin cited the $32 billion cost per year from the nation’s gun violence, but that “it’s largely preventable if you’re using smart public health measures.”

What are those measures? Daniel Webster, professor at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, discussed policies that effectively keep guns out of the hands of high-risk people. Richard Cooter, who teaches forensics at George Washington, argued the difficulties in relating mental illness to incidents of gun violence.

“Sometimes we focus on, ‘Let’s limit the number of shooters,’ when what we really should be talking about is limiting the number of victims.”

Richard Cooter, professor at George Washington University

“I’m a lawyer, I’m a psychologist, but I’m a father,” Cooter said. “So the more I think about it — if we can’t incapacitate the mentally ill, then what do we do? From my perspective we’re focusing sometimes on the wrong issues. Sometimes we focus on, ‘Let’s limit the number of shooters,’ when what we really should be talking about is limiting the number of victims.”

Olga Price, professor at George Washington School of Public Health and Health Services, argued the needs of child development and teacher preparation programs in creating healthy student environments. According to Price, the majority of people with mental illness are not violent, and those with mental illness are more likely to direct guns at themselves than others.

“Schools and those in school must be invited to play a meaningful role in any system of care in and any solution that we have — where young people are the focus,” Price said. “Seventy-five percent of children receiving mental health support receive it in school.”