Summit on Reducing Gun Violence in America

Remarks by President Ronald J. Daniels
Summit on Reducing Gun Violence in America
Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health

Good morning. I’m Ron Daniels, the president of Johns Hopkins University.

Before we begin today, I would like to ask for a moment of silence. Our work over the next two days will focus on the wrenching and pernicious effects of gun violence in America – violence that has ravaged far too many families, schools and workplaces, places of worship neighborhoods and communities that dot and define our landscape.

So I ask that we remember the victims, not only in places like Newtown, Aurora, Oak Creek, Tucson and Blacksburg, but victims in Baltimore, Detroit, New Orleans, and Oakland, and countless other communities – large and small – across this country.

Thank you.

On behalf of myself and of Mike Klag, the Dean of the Bloomberg School of Public Health, who is traveling overseas, I am honored to welcome you today.

This Summit was conceived scarcely three weeks ago in the wake of the harrowing events that transpired in Newtown, Connecticut. Daniel Webster and Jon Vernick of the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research, were determined that the debate over gun violence which must follow from this event be informed by the best research and analysis from across our country and, indeed, the world.

And so, for the last several weeks, they have devoted virtually every waking moment (and, in fact, there have not been many moments in which they have had a chance to sleep) to organizing this conference. To the two of them, and to colleagues and staff within the Bloomberg School and elsewhere in the University who have supported them, thank you for your extraordinary leadership.

There is, of course, a distinctive and noteworthy twist to this summit, namely that the distinguished experts who have responded to Daniel and Jon’s invitation aren’t merely participating as speakers, but as authors. That is, each of our speakers has agreed to submit a chapter that elaborates on their remarks in a book to be edited by Daniel and Jon and published by the Johns Hopkins University Press in two weeks time.

This book will constitute a state-of-the-art source-book for policy-makers grappling with the policy options needed to respond effectively to gun violence. By the end of the month, we are committed to seeing a copy of this book on the desks of each and every member of Congress and of appropriate officials in the executive branch. This is no small feat. Accordingly, I would like to thank our speakers and the Press for their herculean efforts in contributing to this summit and the book to follow.

As you well know, we gather exactly one month – to the hour – after the horrific, unfathomable massacre in Newtown. The specter of that event will weigh heavily on our discussions, and on all of the debates currently raging in Washington.

But it’s also important to note where we are gathering.

In the past year alone, there were more than 2,700 gun-related crimes in Baltimore. Sadly, this is a place where gun violence is not a surprising event, but, in far too many quarters of our city, a tragic and all too commonplace part of life.

On this aching anniversary, gathered in a city that must contend daily with the unforgiving toll of gun violence, the importance of this Summit cannot be overstated

Because our conversations over the next two days take place against the backdrop of a bleak, record of stunted policy reform in this area, it is tempting to regard this summit as yet one more exercise in futility. Essentially, the skeptic’s fear is that good ideas for gun policy reform are no match for the formidable interests that oppose gun control legislation. This is so even after an event as cataclysmic as Newtown.

Yet, today, I urge a more optimistic view that is predicated on the belief we are not slavishly tethered to the current matrix of inadequate national gun laws. Despite a long history of failed legislative and policy reform, of opportunities inexplicably squandered, of tepid half measures adopted, progress is possible.

My optimism stems from two sources.

First is the fact that other countries have adopted non trivial policy changes in response to gun violence that have improved public safety without trenching unduly on personal liberty.

It is true that jurisdictions like Australia, Britain and Brazil have never had constitutional guarantees protecting individuals’ rights to bear arms, that their political institutions are different from ours … and that “gun culture” is an alien concept. But there are telling lessons to be gleaned from the approaches these countries have taken to address successfully the wanton loss of life from gun violence. We can and must learn from others.

The second source of my optimism lies in this country’s history.

In recent decades, there is no denying the sea change in public sentiment that has undergirded public health policy reforms in areas as diverse as seat belt usage, drunk driving, and public vaccination.

Big Tobacco presented a seemingly impregnable barrier against regulation – until it happened. This is often the story behind monumental U.S. policy changes. Consider the Civil Rights Act of 1964. It took Lyndon Johnson’s legislative genius to prod the Senate forward, beat back resistance and overcome what had seemed to be an unshakeable logjam.

In short, in our lifetimes, we have observed enough nontrivial policy change to recognize that the apparent iron grip of status quo forces can be shattered, and our policy can progress.

In the next few weeks, we can anticipate and hope that debate over the effective regulation of guns, and the appropriate balance between individual rights and civic obligation, will command sustained and serious attention from our political leadership. Advocates will mobilize as lobbyists ply their cases and politicians spar over the issues.

And in this unruly mix, universities like ours can and will discharge a critical role in providing principled scaffolding for this debate.

Here at Johns Hopkins, our scholars have been investigating the public health effects of gun violence for well over two decades. For the past 17 years, the Center for Gun Policy and Research, envisaged by our colleague Steve Teret, has provided a home for that study, producing nationally recognized research and recommendations aimed at understanding and curtailing the impact of gun violence.

By now – through research produced by this Center and others – we have accumulated a wealth of knowledge, and we hope much of it will come to the fore over the next two days. This Summit has convened scholars and advocates from across fields, and around the world. We want to use this opportunity to cut through the din of the shrill and the incendiary, the rancorous and the baseless, by identifying specific recommendations that evidence-based analysis shows will work, and that can be rendered congruent with principle and with our legal institutions.

Of course, any possibility of change depends on a complex alchemy of ideas, shrewd political strategies and inspired leadership. And in the gun policy debate, as indeed in so many other issues of enlightened public health policy, there has been no more effective leader than the namesake of this school, Johns Hopkins graduate, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

Mayor Bloomberg convened the first Mayor’s Summit on Illegal Guns in April 2006 at Gracie Mansion. Following the event, he articulated the mayors’ shared intention to crack down on illegal guns, “using every tool at [their] disposal.” After all, he concluded, “If Congress won’t take the lead … we have to.”

And so he has.

In the nearly seven years since, he has made the removal of such weapons from the streets of New York a primary focus. He has led the growth of Mayors Against Illegal Guns to include more than 800 municipal leaders of all political stripes, and nearly a million followers. And, as a defender of the 2nd Amendment, he has focused on reasonable, calibrated restrictions that will make the greatest difference for public safety.

In fact, the Mayor – standing alone – may comprise yet a third source for my optimism. In public health issue after issue – from tobacco to obesity – he has exhibited courage, stamina and focused determination when working to enact life-saving policy changes. His ideas are grounded in research and data, and his commitment is absolute.

In short, I would not want to find myself on the opposite side of an issue in which he has invested his considerable intellectual and political skills.

Mayor Bloomberg will speak in just a moment.

At this point, however, I would like to invite to the podium Governor Martin O’Malley, a former Mayor of this great city … a longtime supporter of Johns Hopkins … and a national leader in smart, data-driven efforts around public safety.

Violent crime in Maryland has fallen by more than 24 percent since the Governor was elected to office in 2006. Under his leadership, state officials have participated actively and aggressively in task forces, and in focused partnerships with Baltimore and other municipalities.

The state created assessment tools to identify individuals in community supervision with the greatest propensity to commit future violent crimes … and launched collaborations to share relevant criminal justice information with neighboring states, including Virginia, DC, Delaware and Pennsylvania.

The governor has spoken out in support of efforts to prohibit assault weapons and just last week, predicted that Maryland’s General Assembly will ban such guns during the current legislative session.

All you have to do is look at today’s Washington Post to see the scope of his commitment.

Maryland’s session started last Wednesday, so I know the Governor has a few things on his plate right now. His decision to join us here today is clearly a reflection of his commitment to the cause.

Governor O’Malley, welcome back to Johns Hopkins University.