It is hard to overestimate the challenges of finding agreement on ways to address gun violence. We often attribute this to polarization, and there is little doubt that finding consensus in this atmosphere is rare. Gun violence adds elements of fear for the safety of our families and our community, and it is a very real challenge that competing views point to supporting data that are often unclear.
Nevertheless, six months ago the presidents of the colleges and universities in the Washington, D.C. region charged our organization, the Consortium of Universities of the Washington Metropolitan Area, with bringing together the best and brightest researchers across our institutions. We came together for months of meetings and workings groups seeking to identify the potential solutions to reducing gun violence that showed the most promise. To my surprise, we were able to find a great deal of common ground – although not without continuing areas of reasonable debate.
Gun violence itself is often misunderstood as focusing on mass shooting events, which themselves can be defined in different ways. While those events are terrifying and receive tremendous coverage, far more people in our country die from suicide or homicide by gun than in mass shootings.
Solutions have to start with understanding the causes of that violence, and we know that far more research is needed. It seems evident to suggest that less ready access to guns would reduce suicide by gun, and likely homicides as well – yet according to our experts, gun buyback programs, which are often very comforting to a community, have had little impact on gun violence.
Community intervention programs were the single solution that found the most common ground in our discussions. These programs engage local communities, sometimes through community-based organizations, schools, places of worship, or hospitals, in interrupting patterns of violence.
They are very promising – and best of all, compared to most solutions, they are very inexpensive. It is an area where far more investments should be made both in expanding and piloting programs, and in long term research in their outcomes.
Our experts also had many ideas for communication and education campaigns. Of course, past public health campaigns have mixed results. From encouraging use of seat belts to discouraging illegal drug abuse to COVID vaccinations, we can all readily remember campaigns that seem to have worked, and just as many that did not.
Nevertheless, our experts highlighted a number of very targeted campaigns that were likely to generate success, including anti violence campaigns and conflict resolution training in schools, but only if they can be done without vilifying gun ownership. Additionally, there was admiration for the very promising field of pushing back against online efforts by extremist groups to incite violence.
There seemed to be little or no downside to ideas surrounding increased safety and training. Many of our most ardent gun rights supporters felt most passionately that providing easier access to safer gun storage and better training would make everyone safer.
I was fortunate to be in the room for discussions with so many amazing experts giving their time and talent to respond to this crisis. From them, I learned that all of these proposals will work best if aligned with wise legislation and policy, and that it is likely the best ways to reduce overall violence is to address root causes of economic equity and marginalization.
It was shocking to me that the primary cause of death in children in our country has relatively little funding for research. Most of all, it was hopeful to find that by collaborating across diverse thinkers from many disciplines, we were able to find that elusive common ground. It made me believe, more than ever, that even on subjects where we have such deep divides, we can come together to find ways to make our children safer.