University-hosted conference aims to shift conversation around gun violence

Experts at the conference, co-hosted by the University’s School of Public Health, want the public to view gun violence as a health issue.

by Sally Samaha

Health professionals, advocates and public officials hope to leave a first-annual conference co-hosted by the University of Minnesota School of Public Health this week with a plan to address gun violence as a public health issue. 

The Northstar Public Health Conference, held Wednesday and Thursday on West Bank, seeks to clear up misconceptions about gun violence and mental health with research presentations from experts in fields from law enforcement to urban violence. 

“This is not about the Second Amendment,” said University School of Public Health Dean John Finnegan. “What we do have an interest in is really looking upstream to what we can do to education, technology and public policy to prevent the damage of [firearm] misuse.”

One of the conference’s primary goals during its 18 breakout sessions exploring the causes of gun violence is to dispel the idea that most gun-related deaths are homicides, he said. 

“Even though homicide gets all the news coverage, in fact it’s suicide that is more of the cause of firearm-related violence than homicide,” Finnegan said

About 60 percent of gun-related deaths in the U.S. are suicides, he said.

In Minnesota, the rate is even higher. About 80 percent of gun deaths in Minnesota are suicides, said Dr. James Hart, former president of the Minnesota Public Health Association, who will participate in the Nobel Peace Prize Forum at the conference.

The focus on gun ownership as a constitutional issue limits productive discussion about firearm violence, said Rev. Nancy Nord Bence, conference coordinator and executive director of Protect Minnesota, one of the conference co-hosts.

Viewing gun violence as a public health epidemic instead would be a better way to come up with an action plan to prevent gun-related injury and death, she said.

“Of all the developed countries in the world, America has the highest rate of gun violence … and we need to, at the very least, raise awareness,” said Imam Asad Zaman, the executive director of the Muslim American Society of Minnesota, who will also attend the conference. “Gun violence affects my community like it affects every other community in America.”