Forum addresses public-health side of gun violence

Dr. Beth Ebel, head of Harborview’s Injury Prevention Research Center, talks about five strategies to keep gun violence down at the Gun Violence: A Public Health Crisis forum in downtown Seattle. 

Photo by Anastasia Stepankowsky

Unlike previous discussions addressing the issue of gun violence, a community forum at Town Hall Seattle on Monday night viewed the matter through the lens of public health.

Community members filled the 250 seats in Town Hall to hear panelists from the UW and King County at the forum “Gun Violence: A Public-Health Crisis.”

“Gun violence has been so much taken over by emotion, by politics, by posturing, by ideology, that we think it’s very important to bring this perspective in a public way,” said Howard Frumkin, dean of the UW School of Public Health, who gave the opening remarks.

The goal for the night, Frumkin said, was to “move well beyond ideology and inflexibility” and discuss a variety of solutions based on scientific research.

“We want to point out that gun violence is a public-health problem, judged by the standard health metrics of morbidity, and mortality, and health-care cost,” he said.

The forum lasted two hours and featured five panelists who addressed various aspects of the issue. While the audience was older, the forum also drew several young adults.

Cintya Beristain-Munana, a Seattle University senior studying social work who attended the forum, said the main barrier to implementing stricter gun regulation in the United States is that guns are such a prominent part of the culture.

“People are so used to it; it’s a normal thing to have a gun in your house,” Beristain-Munana said. “In other countries, it’s like, ‘What do you have a gun for? Don’t you trust the police?’”

The first panelist David Fleming, director of Public Health for Seattle & King County, addressed the “overall magnitude” of the gun violence issue. He said that in King County, approximately 130 people are killed by firearms each year.

While the high rate of gun violence in the United States compared to other countries is “sobering,” it is also a source of optimism, Fleming said; it proves the problem is solvable.

“We as a country need to learn from other countries that are like us and adopt other strategies that they have found successful here,” he said.

According to a report compiled by The Guardian in 2012, the United States has the 26th-highest firearm homicide rate in the world, higher than many other first-world countries, including Canada, the United Kingdom, and Australia.

The forum also addressed the issue of mental health. Amnon Shoenfeld, director of King County’s Mental Health, Chemical Abuse, and Dependency Services division, said the vast majority of people dealing with mental illness aren’t dangerous. He added that the media’s portrayal of those with mental illnesses who commit gun crimes can be misleading as it doesn’t focus on the other factors leading to violence.

Responding to the issue of partisan divide on gun control, Frumkin said finding a middle ground is possible.

“Many gun owners, including members of the NRA, are showing now in polls to be more open to some measures, such as background checks,” he said. “I think the political landscape is shifting on this issue.”

According to a survey published by Johns Hopkins University on Jan. 28, 84 percent of gun owners and 74 percent of National Rifle Association (NRA) members support universal background checks. The survey also found that more than 71 percent of gun owners support both stricter gun regulations for felons and stiffer penalties for those who sell guns illegally.

City Councilmember Sally Bagshaw called for stricter gun regulations in Washington at the forum.

Specifically, she called for universal background checks and stricter regulation for where people can carry guns. But she also said it should be illegal to buy an assault rifle in this state. The statement was followed by a round of applause and shouts of “amen,” as well as some shouts of protest.

“[Assault rifles] have one purpose and one purpose only: hunting people,” Bagshaw said.

Near the end of the forum, an anonymous question posed by a UW student asked what the university was doing to increase campus safety.

“In the long run, we hope we can prevent violent crimes at their root so we don’t get so many such [UW Alert] emails,” Frumkin said.

Reach Arts & Leisure Editor JosephSutton-Holcomb at arts@dailyuw.com.Twitter: @analogmelon

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