Nov. 12 2019

Student Q&A: Taking Action to Prevent Gun Violence

Before he pursued public health, Paul Reeping was a high school teacher in Chicago’s South Shore neighborhood, a known hotbed of gun violence. Over just three years, three of his young students were killed in shootings and many others injured. Despite this violence, he liked teaching but eventually decided to pursue an MS in public health at Harvard. Influenced by his experiences in Chicago, he concentrated his studies on gun violence prevention—a focus he continues today as a doctoral student in epidemiology at the Columbia Mailman School.

Under the tutelage of Charles Branas, chair of epidemiology and a leading researcher on gun violence prevention, Reeping published a study in the British Medical Journal that found U.S. states with more permissive gun laws have higher rates of mass shootings. The research drew attention from both sides of the gun debate, and Reeping was quoted in several news stories.

This Friday, as part of Gun Violence Action Week at Columbia, Reeping is moderating a panel discussion on Gun Violence & the Media with Jennifer Mascia, a writer at The Trace, a publication dedicated to covering gun violence, and Desmond Patton, assistant professor at the Columbia School of Social Work who examines pathways to violence among low-income youth of color. A day earlier, Charles Branas and Angela Mills, chief of Emergency Medical Services at NewYork-Presbyterian/Columbia, will co-lead a case study on gun violence prevention.

When did you decide to study gun violence as a public health issue?

I was at Harvard working on my MS in 2014 when I was invited to give a talk based on my experiences as a high school teacher in Chicago. The South Shore neighborhood where I taught had rampant gun violence. Shootings were a regular occurrence. One time I was looking out the window and saw someone struck by a bullet. In three years, three of my students—Marc, Jamon, and Alix—were killed by gun violence. The day I gave the talk at Harvard the third student, Alix, was killed. After that, I switched from infectious diseases to gun violence prevention. One of the first things I did was survey my old students. Not surprisingly, I found that a majority of them had personal experiences with gun violence.

Were you afraid for your safety?

I never felt like I was a target. As a white man and a teacher, if I were shot it would be on CNN. In contrast, most shootings in that part of Chicago are routine and they are not intensely investigated. We still don’t have answers about the three fatal shootings involving my students.

you published a paper with Dr. Branas showing that states with more permissive gun laws have more mass shootings. What was the reaction?

After that paper came out, the NRA sent an email to their members. Strangely enough, their criticism of our research singled out the source of our information on state-level gun policy, which was their own NRA-approved Travel Guide. There were a number of news stories, including one in Newsweek that Kamala Harris posted on her Facebook page. David Hogg, the Parkland activist, also tweeted about our paper.

What’s next on your research agenda?

We want to understand which state laws are making a difference in reducing mass shootings; some policies could drive the whole association, and others might not matter at all. We also have two other papers accepted for publication. One looks at rapid response to mass shootings and whether police transport of victims can help. A second paper looks at state-level policies as they relate to school shootings. That one is supported by the NIH, which has just restarted funding research into gun violence prevention after a lengthy hiatus. For my dissertation, I intend to focus on the effect of gun-free zones.

You’re moderating a panel on gun violence and the media. What’s your take on the national conversation right now?

There is some research showing that perpetrators of mass shootings do it for fame. I think it could help if the media decides to not identify the shooter. It’s also frustrating to see the media ignore all the other types of gun violence. I had three students killed and many other injured—taken together, these murders would have counted as a mass shooting, but separately, they were no less tragic.

Is there reason for hope?

The community of gun violence researchers is more optimistic than they have been in a long time. It really feels like a community now. More broadly, we’re finally seeing a serious conversation about gun violence prevention in the presidential debates. And in the recent election, we saw the Virginia State Senate and Congress turn blue—which may in part relate to Michael Bloomberg’s efforts on gun policy. It’s amazing to see how quickly things can change.