Tell Secretary Alex Azar: We Need to Demand Equitable Gun Violence Research and Reform

April 2, 2018 | 4:41 pm
Charise Johnson
Former Contributor

It has been only six weeks since last I wrote about gun violence in America, following the Parkland shooting that took seventeen lives and impacted a nation. In that time there have been 22 more mass shootings, at least 10 of them at schools. The number of deaths by guns in 2018 is at 3,423, and we’re only 89 days into the year—that’s about 38 human lives lost per day. In that time, hundreds of thousands of people have voiced their outrage and concerns over our country’s inaction around gun violence, as we witnessed at last weekend’s March for Our Lives.

March for Our Lives, Washington, DC, March 24, 2018.

We even saw a small victory for federal research into gun violence, as Congress clarified the legislative language that effectively prevented the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the National Institutes of Health (NIH) from pursuing such research. Now we need the Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar to carry this forward and direct his department’s scientists to get to work.

But, as we pause to celebrate the national attention that the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High students have garnered, we must recognize the racial disparities that exist both in gun violence related deaths and in the momentum to seek solutions. The truth remains that the fight has only just begun.

Solutions for gun reform must be inclusive

I’d like to take a moment to recognize all the people who have been advocating for gun reform for years. Namely, I’d like to acknowledge the black youth who have been at the forefront of this fight, with little to no recognition for being the heroes they are.

“Every day shootings are everyday problems,” said Trevon Bosley, whose older brother, Terrell, was fatally shot in Chicago over a decade ago. “It’s time for the nation to realize that gun violence is more than a Chicago problem or a Parkland problem but it’s an American problem. It’s time to care about all communities equally.”

“I am here today to acknowledge and represent the African-American girls whose stories don’t make the front page of every national newspaper,” said 11-year old Naomi Wadler.

“We are survivors not only of gun violence, but of silence. We are survivors of the erratic productions of poverty. But not only that. We are the survivors of unjust policies and practices upheld by our Senate,” said D’Angelo McDade, a high school senior from Chicago.

The youth who spoke at the March for Our Lives rally reiterated an important message to the audience: our solutions for gun reform need to be inclusive.

“We have to use our white privilege now to make sure that all of the people that have died as a result of [gun violence] and haven’t been covered the same can now be heard,” said David Hogg, student and survivor of the Parkland school shooting.

It was not lost on them that young black activists, including those belonging to the Black Lives Matter movement, who have long been organizing and mobilizing their communities to take action against gun violence, have been widely portrayed as domestic terrorists, black identity extremists (yes, really). While the (mostly white) students leading the #NeverAgain movement are heralded and named heroes, black youth are criminalized and seen as divisive, especially for pointing out existing inequities.

Science as a tool for justice (and public health)

Where does the scientific community fit into all this? I’m glad you asked. Women, low-income communities, people of color are all disproportionately affected by gun violence, and by proxy, they are impacted by the dearth of research around these issues—research that could lead to life-saving, science-based solutions. Let the words of the youth serve as a reminder for our federal scientists that, when they begin forming their research questions, they must be deliberate not only in including underrepresented groups, but by recognizing societal (and personal) biases against these communities when designing their research. The methods by which scientists collect, measure, and analyze data must be rooted in equity.

And while conducting research around gun violence is crucial, it is important to remember that science is only a means, not an end. CDC scientists are not to be put on pedestals as the saviors, nor should they be expected to hold the answers of the universe. But they have a role in this fight, just as the hundreds of thousands of marching activists do, just as our elected officials do. We can create effective policy solutions for this public health crisis. Let’s hold Secretary Azar to his word that the CDC will take on gun violence research immediately. We cannot afford further inaction.