We need to stop conflating school shootings and drug-related gun violence. They are not the same, nor are their causes.

In the later 1980s and early 1990s violence was classified as epidemic in the United States. The U.S. Surgeon General declared it to be a public health problem. Money was available from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) to study nationally and in New York and other large cities what was then called “weapon-related (i.e. gun) violence.” 

In the 1990s I was a violence epidemiologist for the New York City Department of Health assigned to do this work. With a few others, in hospitals and medical examiners offices, I counted the injuries and deaths caused by violence. Our work opened doors. For example, we were invited to very elaborate anti-gun events packed with well-dressed urbanites, with open bars and such highly esteemed speakers as Jim Brady. Brady was the presidential press secretary shot when an attempt was made on President Reagan’s life. The 1993 Brady Bill was named after him, and it sought to restrict gun sales through increased background checks.

This particular posh New York City event was triggered by a 1997 mass assault on the Empire State Building, where one person was killed and six were injured. As I sat and listened to the heated discussion about gun violence and its impact on Jim Brady and tourism, and as I looked through the gun violence pamphlets and posters throughout the room, I was taken by the apparent absence of focus, let alone discussion, let alone mention, of the real problem: near-daily shootings in inner cities, where most of the victims were minority young men and boys. Today, just over 20 years after that NYC event, as I march and attend panel discussions about gun violence, I fear we have not come as far as I hoped we would have.

I realize I am not the first to note that though school shootings did not begin with these events, they began to draw media attention when the victims were mostly white children (now Parkland, and – back to when media first got excited about school shootings – Columbine). What is missed is that by lumping all gun violence together, as if they all have the identical root cause, we’re clouding our vision for finding a workable solution.

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