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Advocates Push Public Health Campaign To Combat Gun Violence


So if not technology and smart guns, then what? Some would argue that public health campaigns could make a big difference when it comes to gun violence. After all, public health efforts around smoking and seatbelts have saved millions of lives. So why not billboards and public service announcements about guns? To explore this idea further, we called Daniel Webster. He's director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research in Baltimore, and he imagines that campaign against gun violence could look something like the very effective campaign waged against drunk driving.

DANIEL WEBSTER: When we made incredible reductions in drunk driving, it was a multifaceted effort. We were not only trying to change attitudes. We were trying to change - and we did change policies. We made penalties differ. We made threshold for drunk driving lower. So I could imagine something very similar with gun violence where we make a statement of, this is intolerable level of guy violence. We need to act individually and collectively and make transferring guns to someone who is dangerous socially costly and a bigger deal than it is right now.

MCEVERS: Is there research to show that public awareness campaigns like this or targeted education campaigns can help to curb gun violence?

WEBSTER: We do not have evidence that an awareness campaign will affect gun violence. I'm not saying it won't, but we don't have evidence right now. We do have evidence, however, that on the other side of the gun violence problem, individuals who might be prone to misuse guns - there have been public health efforts. We have them in Baltimore, and there are many other cities in which outreach workers reach out to the highest-risk individuals and do two things, basically. One, help in immediate crises to resolve conflicts that might otherwise lead to shootings and, secondly, through that process, also start to change social norms about what you do when someone provokes you, challenges you, does something. You don't have to pick up a gun to respond. What are the other ways? We've found that those types of interventions have been successful in reducing violence and even in changing attitudes.

MCEVERS: I mean, with 30,000 deaths from gun violence each year in this country, why aren't we seeing more public health officials taking this on?

WEBSTER: Well, I - sadly, I think there's been some political barriers to public health getting fully involved. The CDC has had budget cuts when it got involved in gun violence research. I think that that has been one aspect of it - that there's sort of concern that there isn't the support - literally, the financial support...


WEBSTER: ...To do that kind of work by public health agencies and organizations. But I definitely see that changing. There's definitely more and more people in public health who are recognizing that this is a real crisis, that it affects communities beyond the gunshot wounds itself. There's an incredible amount of psychological trauma when you live in a neighborhood where people get shot on a regular basis.

MCEVERS: I mean, you're somebody who's devoted your career to studying gun policy and gun violence. What other research do you think needs to be done to tackle what President Obama calls an epidemic of gun violence in this country?

WEBSTER: Well, I'm afraid that would be a long list. But I think some of the most critical things that we really need to better understand is how dangerous people get access to guns when they are legally prohibited from having them and sort of tracing, in essence, the history of a gun. How does it start in this legal commerce and get into the most risky context? We know that social networks are incredibly important in gun violence. All of our behavior is very influenced by our close friends, family members and associates. And so how do we use that information with interventions that we can greatly reduce the risk?

MCEVERS: Daniel Webster is director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research. He joined us from Baltimore. Thanks so much.

WEBSTER: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.