University Initiative Works With Students to Organize Gun Violence Action Week

October 5, 2020

Gun violence in the United States is a national crisis, which this year alone, has killed nearly 32,000 Americans, and injures well over 100,000 each year. And there are early signs that the pandemic could be exacerbating the problem.

A new initiative called SURGE (Scientific Union for the Reduction of Gun Violence) has brought together faculty, staff, and students from across Columbia University to make gun violence prevention a top research priority and promote scientifically supported solutions. Starting today, as part of the student-led Gun Violence Action Week, the group, which includes several Columbia Mailman members, is supporting a series of virtual workshops, panel discussions, and town halls on gun politics, intimate partner violence, suicide prevention, and other relevant topics.

SURGE got its start earlier this year, as Charles Branas, chair of epidemiology, and Sonali Rajan, associate professor of health education at Teachers College, along with two of their long-time collaborators Lou Klarevas and Ted Alcorn organized a university-wide meeting for researchers interested in gun violence research and prevention. Since the initial meeting, the group has brought in members from Barnard College, Columbia Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons, and the Columbia Schools of Law and Social Work.

Branas and Rajan emphasize that SURGE is a scientific entity that will focus on generating new evidence, interdisciplinary collaborations, and creative ideas that, they hope, go beyond traditional solutions to gun violence.

“When you ask people what comes to mind when they think about the prevention of gun violence, they tend to think of reactive solutions,” says Branas. “But part of drawing on the public health mindset is to actively prevent gun violence well before it happens and to imagine patterns, identify interventions, and allocate resources that can bring about lasting change.”

The two scholars have co-authored several publications on topics such as the risks of arming school teachers and missed opportunities to better support youth who have been exposed to gun violence. Their collaborations have convinced them that, as they put it, “the more people we have working on the issue of gun violence, the more likely we will be able to develop impactful solutions.”

With Columbia Mailman School colleagues Paul Reeping and Kara Rudolph, Branas recently wrote a piece for the Journal of the American Medical Association entitled “Beyond Gun Laws” that went to the heart of looking for solutions that don’t rely on laws or law enforcement to prevent gun violence.

Beyond this week’s events, SURGE will continue to disseminate its work, including through a podcast series called (Re)Search for Solutions produced by Rajan in conjunction with her Teachers College colleague Lalitha Vasudevan. The series aims to “disrupt the singular and oftentimes narrow discourse” about solutions to gun violence. Episode One, for example, draws on Branas’s research and transports listeners to a Philadelphia neighborhood where community members have cleaned and greened empty lots that once harbored criminal activity. Episode Three explores the powerful work of SURGE faculty member Katherine Keyes at Columbia Mailman School on the prevention of gun-inflicted suicide.

The SURGE website showcases the many gun violence-related courses taught across Columbia’s schools, which Branas and Rajan credit as an impetus for making the initiative a reality. One of those classes, “Social Policy and Prevention,” taught by Teachers College Professor of Health Education John Allegrante, uses gun violence as an example of how social, economic, and historical influences shape U.S. health policies, and, by extension, health outcomes. Other courses include “Gun Policy in the U.S.,” taught by Matthew Lacombe, assistant professor of political science at Barnard; a “Seminar in Social and Legal Regulation of Firearms,” taught by Columbia School of Law Professor Jeffrey Fagan; and “Gun Violence in the U.S.: Evidence and Action” by Ted Alcorn at Columbia Mailman. 

Meanwhile, SURGE joined with other higher education institutions earlier this year in successfully lobbying the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the National Institutes of Health to set aside $25 million for the study of gun violence as a public health crisis, with more federal funding expected in the coming year. And SURGE faculty are engaged with students from across the university on a range of research, advocacy, and practice efforts.

“We are looking to train the next generation of scholars in this field because we are now in a situation where we need to basically recover from a ‘lost generation’ of firearms research due to decades of intimidation and obstruction of legitimate science to prevent gun injuries and deaths,” says Branas.

This story was adapted from an article by Teachers College.