A boy walks along the temporary fence installed around the parking lot of a King Soopers grocery store in Boulder, Colo., where 10 people were killed in a mass shooting on Monday. A School of Public Health professor of the practice and pediatrician says policy approaches to save lives from the dangers of vehicle accidents and smoking could also be applied to gun ownership. (Photo by AP Photo/David Zalubowski)
Nearly 50 years ago, when as a medical student working an emergency room shift in the South Bronx, Woodie Kessel struggled in vain to help save a child shot unintentionally by a friend who was playing with a handgun.
This preventable tragedy left an indelible mark on him, helping to make gun violence a central theme in Kessel’s career as a pediatrician, child and maternal health advocate, and U.S. assistant surgeon general serving in the Commissioned Corps of the U.S. Public Health Service. Today, the professor of the practice in the UMD School of Public Health is both a researcher and an activist on the topic. He co-edited the new book “Why We Are Losing the War on Gun Violence in the United States” and served on the board of directors of the Avielle Foundation, founded by the grieving parents of a 6-year-old victim of the Newtown, Conn., school massacre to explore how the brain’s workings can lead both to violence and compassion. When the slain girl’s father, Kessel’s friend, Jeremy Richman, ended his own life in 2019, “it showed how these terrible tragedies can have an untoward consequence far beyond the initial event,” Kessel said.
In the wake of the latest mass shootings—one spree that took eight lives, mostly Asians, in Atlanta last week, and a grocery store rampage that killed 10 in Boulder on Monday—he spoke to Maryland Today about what he called “common-sense public health approaches” to reduce gun violence.
After each high-profile mass shooting, there’s an argument over whether this time will be different, and stepped-up gun control will result. What do you think? In the midst of our raw sadness and outrage following the awful tragedies of the last week and that in fact occur daily, we have expressed a deep hope: “Never, never again.” But if you look at history, the murdering of first graders, which led a president to shed tears, it didn’t change anything. The Parkland school shootings, shootings in churches and mosques and synagogues changed virtually nothing from a national legislative perspective. Gun sales have risen during the COVID-19 pandemic. So it’s hard to be optimistic that we can summon the political will this time to advance common-sense firearm safety laws. Yet we are desperate to be optimistic. We are hopeful that our empathetic president of the United States, who wants to exercise leadership in preventing these nightmares, will be successful. We can also be hopeful that our state of Maryland will be a model for enacting laws to promote firearm safety and value life.
So why not nationally too? In most cases laws follow—they don’t lead. Responsibility and accountability are key. Being a responsible gun owner is a choice and one that most gun owners exercise willingly, appreciating guns’ lethality. Responsible individual action precedes national legislative action to assure safety. We stop at stop signs to prevent injury and avoid being ticketed. What we want to do is find ways to make inroads with effective education and awareness campaigns to both remind people that firearms may cause harm—homicide, suicide and unintentional injury—that can largely be prevented if we engage in common-sense practices.
President Biden said this should not be a partisan issue, but it clearly is. How do you solve a problem that many don’t agree is a problem? If you look at national polls, nearly 75% of the American people overall do support common sense approaches: universal background checks, gun permits and licensing, safe gun storage and banning weapons of war on our streets. Our representatives need to actually represent us.
There’s this argument that any increase in gun laws is an attack on the U.S. Constitution and a slippery slope to North Korea-like conditions. How do you counter such black-and-white arguments? That’s certainly the mantra of the NRA. They work to block every reasonable attempt in this area, based upon the slippery slope argument against gun control. I don’t think most people, including responsible gun owners, believe that. Poll after poll suggests they believe in safety as well. They’re not comfortable with the idea that their weapons could be stolen and used in a crime or used by an emotionally unstable person harming themselves or others. We recognize responsible gun owners’ and sports people’s and collectors’ rights. It’s just a matter of convincing the elected officials to pay attention to the polls, and understand that they’re not going to lose their coveted positions by applying common sense to saving lives.
It sounds like you’re describing a political wall that constrains what citizens actually want. Can you talk about how a public health approach to tightening gun laws could advance this cause? The key is taking a thoughtful public health approach, just as we did with efforts to reduce smoking or automobile injuries. This approach asks three questions: What’s the problem? What’s the solution? And what’s the result? Data and evaluation are key. For example, seatbelts showed evidence of reducing injury from an automobile collision. There was resistance to the idea of seatbelt use initially, but education, laws and now safety equipment have lowered auto injuries and fatalities. Today, we don’t think twice about buckling up, and people want to buy cars because of how safe they are. Volvo and Subaru have built their brands around this. With the same technology we have now in our cars and mobile phones, you can make a gun—a smart gun—that can only be used by its owner, and not a child or others to abuse it. You can make a gun that can be fired if it is held proximal to the user’s body in a dangerous way and therefore likely to prevent death by suicide. I think people will actually want to buy smart guns.