Confronting Gun Violence With Scholarship

April 1 panel will bring together U.S. senators, scholars, advocates to address urgent policy questions

A 2019 rally against gun violence in New York City. An April 1 panel organized by UConn scholars brings together researchers, lawmakers, and activists to share perspectives on the persistent public policy issue.

A 2019 rally against gun violence in New York City. An April 1 panel organized by UConn scholars brings together researchers, lawmakers, and activists to share perspectives on the persistent public policy issue. (Photo by JOHANNES EISELE/AFP via Getty Images)

As Americans mourn in the aftermath of two more mass shootings in a seemingly unending litany of tragedies, a familiar – and urgent – question is inescapable: how can we stop this?

On Thursday, April 1, a virtual panel organized by the University of Connecticut’s Gun Violence Prevention – Research Interest Group, which is housed within the Institute for Collaboration on Health, Intervention, and Policy (InCHIP), will try to provide answers to that question, marshaling the perspectives of scholars, advocates, and both Connecticut’s United States senators to do so.

“Gun Laws in America: What Works and What’s Possible,” scheduled to begin at 1 p.m. and last about an hour, is free and open to the public, but advance registration is required.

Organizing a panel discussion with both U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal and U.S. Sen. Chris Murphy while Congress is in session – and coordinating the schedules of other participants around the country – is a tall order, but there are few public policy discussions with the visceral urgency of the gun violence discourse.

In advance of the event, UConn Today spoke with two of the organizers – Associate Professor of Public Policy Kerri Raissian, and Associate Professor In-Residence of Public Policy Jennifer Necci Dineen – to learn about the objectives of the panel, and the scope of the problem of gun violence in America. The conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Could you describe the general goals of the panel, and what you hope people will take away from the day?

Jennifer Necci Dineen: It is our hope that “Gun Laws in America: What Works and What’s Possible” explores the interplay between national, state, and local gun laws, which types of laws have a causal effect on gun violence, and the extent to which laws can promote successful interventions in our communities. We hope audience members gain increased understanding of how national legislation and court cases can impact gun violence and our ability to mitigate gun violence in our state and communities. This is especially true in states like Connecticut, with more restrictive guns laws on the books than many other states.

Kerri Raissian: We hope the panel reinforces the ideas that even though gun violence is a pervasive problem in the US, it is not without policy solutions. Research has shown some policies can reduce the risk of gun violence, and much of the public actually supports many those policy solutions. Universal background checks are an example. However, for whatever reason, those solutions have not become law –at least not at the federal level. This is a bit of a conundrum, at least to me. The panel will offer some discussion about the tension between constitutional protections and policy solutions.

I would also like people to better understand the effect gun violence has on our communities, particularly our youth. The costs of gun violence are enormous – especially the costs borne by our youth, and they deserve more attention.

Given the recent tragedies in Atlanta and Colorado, gun violence is once again at the forefront of public discussion. What insights can scholarship and research bring to this debate? What types of research can be helpful to policymakers?

JND: The recent mass shootings have again focused public attention on the public health crisis that is gun violence. Scholarship and research can give us a better understanding of the breadth and depth of gun violence and how effective various laws are at reducing firearm-related injury and death. Mass shootings are both terrifying and tragic, and they are effective at getting Americans to confront the existence of gun violence in our country, but we know from scholarship that mass shootings account for a very small percentage of gun deaths in America. Let us be clear, that makes them no less tragic, but we don’t talk enough about the main source of gun deaths: suicide, which accounts for 6-in-10 gun deaths.

Work of scholars like panelist Dr. Cassandra Crifasi and UConn’s Dr. Raissian explore the relationships between gun policies and firearm outcomes – like injury and death – to increase our understanding of whether and how laws like “permit to carry,” or domestic violence laws that restrict gun ownership of those convicted of a violent offense, might prevent injury and save lives. Places like the Brady Center – of which [panel moderator] Mr. Alan Bennett is a board member, and which has been key in passing background check legislation – use research on evidence-based practices to inform legislative strategy. So scholarship can teach us about which policies and interventions are effective at reducing injury and death, and which are not. That information can be powerful in helping policy makers and activists decide how to invest limited resources in a way that saves the most lives.

KR: I think research can fill several needs: First, to expose misinformation. The old line “guns don’t kill people, people kill people” is rooted in falsehood. People do kill people, but guns make it easier, faster, and safer for the shooter. Second research has demonstrated that many policies do actually work – in particular, safe storage, universal background checks, and laws that prohibit domestic violence offenders – and so there really is a role for policy in gun violence prevention. This is not to say we shouldn’t make other investments, like improving access to mental health services, but the idea that we somehow have to choose one or the other is a false dichotomy. Finally, there really is a lot of public support for many of these measures, especially once the public understands their value – i.e., that they work.

I know this panel follows a successful event with a similar focus in the fall. What do you see as UConn’s role in promoting discussion and inquiry on this topic?

KR: Gun violence is a multifaceted social and health problem. It costs the state approximately $1.2 billion a year, and in 2019 there were 181 firearm deaths in Connecticut. Researchers across UConn – UConn Health, the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, the School of Social Work, UConn Law, and others – are conducting high quality research in the area of gun violence prevention. Dissemination is key!

JND: Being the state’s flagship university and an R1 institution positions UConn to create space to explore society’s biggest challenges, and potential solutions to those challenges. A topic like gun violence can be so charged, and it is important for institutions like UConn to create a safe space for conversations like these panels. And, to make these conversations accessible to the future leaders, policy makers, physicians, and elected officials that we train in our classrooms every day. In addition to producing the actual discussion, UConn can share additional resources – reading lists, discussion questions, etc. – to extend and continue these important conversations in University classrooms.

KR: We can also host events like these that facilitate conversation between policymakers, researchers, community activists, and the public. These events may also spark new ideas for new research that can ensure UConn researchers are answering policy relevant and timely questions.

While organizing a virtual panel isn’t “easy” by any means, are there opportunities in this format that wouldn’t be possible with an in-person event, e.g. participation from people around the country, greater range of perspectives, etc.?

JND: Absolutely! While organizing a virtual panel has its challenges, we can’t imagine how challenging it would have been to organize a similar in-person event! Being able to find an hour where Senators Blumenthal and Murphy were both available was amazing, and probably would have been impossible if we had needed to coordinate travel schedules as well. We are also able to include UConn faculty and students from across different campuses. We are pretty sure that would have been next to impossible if we all had to be in the same location. The virtual panel also allows us to reach people across the state and the country. The fall panel with Senator Murphy had more than 300 live viewers from across the country. Being virtual lets us include many, many more people in important conversations.

Is there anything else you’d like people to know about the panel?

KR: One of the things we are really proud about is the range of diverse perspectives that will be represented: government, law, social work, the youth community. And yet, even with this range of diversity, we are missing a lot of voices. Gun violence affects so many people across age, race, and socioeconomic status, it is impossible to have one comprehensive panel. So while we know this panel is diverse, it is not all encompassing. We will continue to strive to host events that highlight the myriad of ways gun violence disrupts communities, and highlight the way research can or should provide solutions.