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ANNAPOLIS — A roundtable discussion hosted by Congressman John Sarbanes (D-Md.) brought together elected officials, public health experts, community leaders and stakeholders to discuss causes and solutions to the gun violence epidemic on April 1.
Sarbanes noted the number of recent mass shootings that seem to be becoming the “new normal” from the Capital Gazette shooting that took place right in Annapolis, to the most recent shooting in Christchurch, New Zealand.
His hope, he said, was to leave the meeting armed with a better understanding of the issue and solutions that he can take back to Congress to take action on them.
But getting gun legislation passed on a federal level is an obstacle in itself, he said.
“So much of my experience over the last decade has been having these mass shootings occur, these tragedies, and then not being able to do anything about it,” Sarbanes said. “You come away with a sense of powerlessness which is really defeating for policymakers, and I think defeating for the country as well.”
Part of this comes from the Dickey Amendment, Sarbanes said, a requirement on appropriations bills where the Centers For Disease Control and Prevention cannot “use any dollars to promote or advocate for gun control” preventing them from bringing proper statistics and data to allow policymakers to make informed decisions.
However, recent legislation was passed which clarifies the language around this barrier allowing policymakers to take better steps towards gun legislation. The House of Representatives recently passed the Bipartisan Background Checks Act to strengthen America’s background check system for gun purchases.
“It was bipartisan, we didn’t have a lot of people from the Republican side, but this background check bill did have bipartisan support which is a good place that we can build from,” Sarbanes said.
On top of the legislative aspect, the group talked about ways to address the issue through the lens of public health.
“One of the reasons I’m most attracted to addressing the issue of gun violence through the lens of public health is because…you see that there is an opportunity to maybe bring the temperature down on this discussion around the data and statistics and approach it that way because it is an emotional issue,” Sarbanes said.
Executive Director of American Public Health Georges Benjamin compared it to the safety of cars. Dangerous driving was once a bigger problem than it is now, he said, where the vehicles themselves were not safe, the roads were not safe and drinking and driving were common, but people recognized this and made changes.
“We can make firearms safer, we can make people safer with their firearms and we can make the environment safer with people and firearms in them,” he said.
In addition to safety, the conversation shifted to how to have these kinds of conversations on such a sensitive topic.
“It’s about preventing disease, injury, needless death. It’s about promoting health and wellness with the idea of prolonging a high quality of life,” said University of Maryland Dean of the School of Public Health Boris Lushniak.
Beyond just coming up with solutions, he said, it is also about getting everyday people involved.
“Yes the feds play a role in this, yes state and local governments play a role in this,” Lushniak continued. “But citizens play a role in this, organizations play a role in this; students sitting at our table play a role in this.”
They discussed a number of reasons why people turn to guns and how leaders can address those issues. Factors such as fear, lack of opportunity in low-income communities, the availability of guns, hate crimes and mental health were all brought up.
“When a person feels powerless, a gun gives them power,” James Spearman, a retired police officer and a member of the Caucus of African-American Leaders. “When a person doesn’t have a voice, a gun gives them a voice. When a person doesn’t have control of their life, a gun gives them control. It doesn’t matter how old you are. It doesn’t matter where you come from.”
The Rev. Stephen Tillett, senior pastor at Asbury Broadneck UMC, said that young people are going to be the key to change. There will be a shift and young people will be the ones to “turn the thing on its head.”
“I hate to say it, but it’s our new normal,” said Mackenzie Boughey, an organizer for March For Our Lives Annapolis, who was in elementary school when the Sandy Hook shooting happened. “Until the past year or so, a lot of us felt like we didn’t have a voice and that we weren’t being taken into account.”
Boughey said that despite all of the active shooter drills that she and her peers have had, they felt as though nothing was beginning to change until very recently.
“The really cool thing is that everyone knows that gun violence is an issue and everyone has different opinions on it, but we’re actually talking now in a more open environment on our different opinions where we can compromise or discover new ideas about how to work together, and that’s been a really cool experience doing that,” she said.