What Justine Damond’s Shooting Death Tells us About America

The dark side of American policing once again became an international story late on July 15, when Minneapolis police shot dead Justine Damond outside of her own home, after she called 911 for police help.

The 40-year-old Australian woman and Minneapolis resident became an unlikely victim in a pattern of civilian shootings that are unheard of in Europe, Canada, Japan, South Korea, New Zealand, and Australia.

Australian citizen Justine Damond was killed by Minneapolis Police on July 15, 2017. Her shooting has sparked international concern about the number of police shootings and prevalence of gun violence in the United States. (Source: website of the deceased.)

The intense global coverage of Damond’s killing was inevitable given the unlikely profiles of the deceased and the trigger man.

A Victim and a Cop—How Both Defied the Uncomfortable Normal

Damond ultimately shared a fate of African-American men killed by law enforcement in recent years. Such men are easily categorized as a potential threat or criminals to police or to the public who fear them.

No one could claim Damond had any resemblance to Ferguson resident Michael Brown, the 18-year-old African-American man who was gunned down by white police officer Darren Wilson, 28, in August 2014.

Damond was white woman. She had blonde hair. She was unarmed and dressed in pajamas outside of her own house, on the eve of her marriage. Damond had called 911 as a good Samaritan, in response to sounds of a possible sexual assault she reportedly heard outside of her residence.

Damond was exactly the type of person all of want as a neighbor because of her concerns for others.

Damond also was a former vet and yoga instructor who moved to the United States in 2015 and was engaged to American businessman and Minneapolis resident Don Damond.

More importantly, she emigrated from Australia, where police seldom use deadly force and where there are strict gun control laws, first implemented two decades earlier.

The officer who killed her because of his alleged fear an ambush did not fit the profile of other officer-involved killings as well.

The policeman, Mohamed Noor, 32, is of Somali descent and a Moslem. Less than two years on the job, he was recruited by the Minneapolis police from the immigrant Somali community, where some young Somali-American men have been connected to the Islamic terror group al-Shabab in Somalia.

The Minneapolis Star Tribune provided detailed coverage of the killing and of the shooter, officer Mohamed Noor, a Somali-American recently hired two years ago by the Minneapolis Police Department.

Noor represented a model for others to follow and to bridge cultural divides.

In other words, a black man of Somali descent and Moslem American from a community that already was in the media crosshairs shot and killed an obviously attractive, white, middle-class, and foreign woman in a major American city.

Many observers were stunned the killing could have occurred to an innocent civilian who had called for police help to investigate a possible sexual assault—actions that police encourage every citizen to do in nearly every city in the United States.

Damond’s Killing: A Rorschach and Rashomon Study of Officer-Involved Shootings

The shooting death is already a Hollywood movie before all of the facts and fogs of conflicting stories will ever be known.

What little we know are the likely time of Damond’s death after her 911 call and that Noor, sitting in the patrol car’s passenger seat, shot her to death from the driver’s side window.

A witness reportedly has come forward saying he was biking home and filmed the effort to resuscitate her by Noor and officer Matthew Harrity. She was shot at nearly point-blank range in the abdomen, and the chances of survival would have been slim, even with the best medical help, were she even alive.

The more murky “facts” surrounding Damond’s death also call into question police accountability through the use of body cameras—an issue that has been hotly debated in the wake of repeated “officer-involved” shootings of minorities nationwide.

In this case, the two officers dispatched to Damond’s 911 call had turned off their body cameras, in violation of the city’s official and controversial video policy implemented a year earlier. To date, no explanation has been provided why the pair had not followed mandatory procedures to record their actions with body and dashboard cameras precisely to avoid the cloudy circumstances that now surround this killing. Police departments nationally have bristled at civilian demands for police-worn body cameras for years.

Officer Noor’s claim of being startled by a loud pop at the sight of a woman in pajamas has been lambasted by many who have voiced outrage.

Many minority activists demanding policy accountability for shootings of civilians allege non-white victims of police shootings often say they posed no threats before they were gunned down, like former Ferguson resident Brown. No jury has sided with the victims since Brown’s death.

The shooting had other ingredients for becoming an international incident:

  • The officer’s status as a Moslem man from an immigrant community potentially will attract the interest of Moslems globally. Many in that community are fearful and resentful of stereotyping, and President Donald Trump’s rhetoric against Moslems in the United States and his recent travel ban of Moslems from six Moslem-majority nations have alarmed many in the Moslem world.
  • Inside the United States, more white Americans, notably those who live in the suburbs and who are supposedly immune from heavy-handed, militarized policing, might become more alarmed that they too could be killed for engaging law enforcement for help. The shooting creates a PR barrier even among the police’s large and ready-built fan base.
  • Women in particular might be more fearful of ever calling any police officer for assistance, given the violence on display in Damond’s death. It would be fascinating to do a poll how many American woman who self-identify as middle-class and educated feel safe contacting local police for assistance, particularly in cases of domestic violence.
  • Foreign nationals, particularly international students and more affluent Asians and Europeans, might reconsider travel to the United States for travel, study, or business, given the racial dynamics of the shooting showing starkly that, yes, even white, blonde yoga instructors with charming Aussie accents are not safe in a secure area, from the local authorities.

Damond’s Death: Black, White, and Somewhere in Between

Within days after the shooting, troll commentaries in media stories on sites like Yahoo News were swift to describe the shooter’s ethnicity and religion as likely reasons why Noor killed Damond.

Other commentators on many news web sites mocked the irony that police thought the blonde female victim was accidentally mistaken for a large, scary black man.

Writing about the irony of the killing, The Root wryly noted, “Why is it that the one shooting that suddenly has white people fearing the cops is the shooting that takes one of their own? I’ll tell you why. It’s because they finally found their ‘perfect’ victim. She was white and blonde and rescued ducks out of sewers. She was the antithesis of the ‘superpredator’ image they want you to believe represents blackness. She didn’t deserve to die. But neither did any of the others.”

In Minneapolis, the response has defied some expected outcomes of those quick to frame the issue as black and white. Some who joined in protests a day after Damond’s death were African-American activists, who had protested the shooting of unarmed black motorist Philando Castile, 32, just outside of St. Paul by a Hispanic police officer, Jeronimo Yanez, on June 6, 2016.

Only a month earlier, on June 6, 2017, a jury acquited Janez. The story drew heated debates and national coverage and framed the public response to the Damond shooting from the start.

Castile was gunned down reaching for his wallet—a killing caught on the police dashboard camera. It is profoundly troubling footage to observe. His killing at the hands of a uniformed police officer—Hispanic, not white—was just another in a series of high-profile shootings of African-American men in the past three years that helped to launch the national Black Lives Matter movement.

The Minneapolis Star Tribune covered the resignation of Minneapolis Police Chief, Janeé Harteau, who stepped down on July 21 following the firestorm that erupted less than a week after the shooting of Justine Damond by a police officer at point-blank range.

Following Damond’s slaying, nearly 300 people attended Damond’s vigil. They included Cathy Jones, an African-American woman who had marched at protests with Black Lives Matter and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). She told The Guardian newspaper, “I think it’s important because these are things that affect our community every single day. It’s never been about race. It’s been about police accountability.”

Many of protesters on July 20 in Damond’s neighborhood connected Damond’s death with Castile’s. His mother, Valerie Castile, was shown hugging the widowed fiancé, Dom Damond.

On July 21, Minneapolis Police Chief Janeé Harteau resigned under pressure. The same day, protesters disrupted Minneapolis Mayor Betsy Hodges’ press conference.

The two female leaders, both white women, had long been at odds. Harteau had publicly battled city and state officials, and in October 2013, she rejected proposals for body cameras by Hodges and other city council members—a month before Hodges was elected mayor.

Why Damond Stands Out Beyond Her Race

Damond, 40, also fetched a striking image, in the photographs of her that splashed on the internet and airwaves soon after her death.

She was by all measures athletic and very attractive, with blonde hair and a winning smile. She had been a vet, who then became a yoga and meditation instructor. She was the type of middle-class woman you might spot in yoga tights, carrying a yoga pad in a gentrified neighborhood, like my own, where I daily see many women who match this demographic profile take classes at two local yoga studios.

Damond’s shooting generated intense interest from the Australian media and its leaders. The level of interest was larger than what Americans might see of shooting victims in their own country.

In Damond’s native country, news of the meditation teacher’s baffling death has dominated the airwaves, newspapers and websites for days, feeding into Australians’ long-held fears about America’s notorious culture of gun violence. Philip Alpers at the University of Sydney, who has studied U.S. gun issues, said, “The country is infested with possibly more guns than people. We see America as a very risky place in terms of gun violence—and so does the rest of the world.”

The Daily Telegraph of Australia ran a banner headline and photo of Australian shooting victim Justine Damond that captured how many view the prevalence of gun violence in the United States outside of the country.

A front-page headline in her hometown Sydney newspaper summarized Australia’s reaction in blunt terms: “American Nightmare.”

Days after the killing, Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnball told Australia’s Today Show what many Australians were also saying publicly about the case and violence in the United States: “How can a woman out in the street in her pajamas seeking assistance from police be shot like that? It is a shocking killing. We are demanding answers on behalf of her family. And our hearts go out to her family and all of her friends and loved ones. It’s a truly tragic, tragic killing there in Minneapolis.”

Shortly after the Minneapolis shooting, the Washington Post reported that more than 520 people had been shot and killed by police officers in the United States in the calendar year, well on pace to surpass 963 shooting deaths by police during 2016.

Deadly shootings by police are exceedingly rare in Australia, even though the police carry firearms. Only a handful are reported each year, according to the Australian Institute of Criminology. By comparison, the United States has by policy prevented the creation of national database of deadly police-involved shootings. The body count has come from independent media monitors.

An AP story from July 18 also noted Austalians’ bewilderment with U.S. gun laws. By comparison, Australia implemented vigorous tough gun ownership laws in 1996 following a deadly mass shooting on the island of Tasmania that killed 36 people.

At the time, then-Prime Minister John Howard—a conservative—warned Australians against following America’s lead on gun control, saying: “We have an opportunity in this country not to go down the American path.”

What my Reaction Tells me as Well:

Until this essay, I had not written any articles about the deaths of African-American and minority victims from encounters with the police. I have professional ties that now limit what I talk about on this blog. Also, I exhausted my energy writing and talking about gun violence in the United States, following the mass shootings in 2012 in Aurora, Colorado, which took 12 lives, and in Newtown, Connecticut, which claimed 26 victims.

My efforts to frame that story through a public health lens left me feeling powerless and that I could not make a difference. I ultimately stopped writing and talking about gun violence and focused this blog and my energies in more positive directions.

Yet again I am drawn into the discussion of an issue that I feel I cannot change. This time, however, many more affluent white Americans now know such random violence by gunfire can happen to any of them, even those who are most privileged by every measure, at the hands of police they call on for protection in supposedly safe, secure neighborhoods. Perhaps now there might be some momentum to reduce gun violence in the United States—something I longed for and then abandoned five years ago after the Newtown massacre.

How research on gun violence is muffled, and who refuses to shut up

On the first day in the new year, I read one of what will become thousands of similar stories that will be published this year in the United States about how firearms were involved in completely senseless and preventable violence.

To understand why we have so many shootings, one may wish to buy this book: Armed America: Portraits of Gun Owners in Their Homes by Kyle Cassidy. Go to http://www.armedamerica.org/. The cover photo provides a shockingly good insight into the national crisis over gun related violence.

To understand why the United States has so many shootings, one may wish to buy this book, Armed America: Portraits of Gun Owners in Their Homes, by Kyle Cassidy. Go to http://www.armedamerica.org/. This book cover photo offers one perspective on the national crisis over the nation’s gun-related violence.

In this particular instance, a 54-year-old woman reportedly shot a  24-year-old man in the thigh over a dispute that he was shooting fireworks at her property in rural Lake Stevens, Wash. No, I am not making this up.

While no one died in this New Year’s eve confrontation, the story barely received three paragraphs of news coverage, as it lacked the dramatic horror that the media exploit when mass homicides occur involving often-legally purchased weapons. There were no dead children or mentally deranged men in military gear loaded with weaponry. Were this story to occur in Canada, or say Japan, it would have received much different coverage.

While we may assume this seemingly “bland” shooting will be counted in national data, that is not guaranteed. It likely could be ignored.

In response to uncertainty over national data, Slate Magazine, on Jan. 1, 2013,  published a story called How Many People Have Been Killed by Guns Since Newtown?. The article alleges guns statistics are “surprisingly hard to come by.” Slate claims it will track the toll of gun related killings with an an anonymous publisher with the Twitter feed @GunsDeath to create an interactive tracking feature. The articles asks readers  who know about gun deaths in their community that are not counted on its interactive map  to tweet @GunDeaths with a citation, and it will be added to the feed.

brady center stat count

The Brady Center keeps a daily tab on gun violence–go to the right corner of the center’s home page for the shooting count, based on CDC data.

The Brady Center, the best known nonprofit that is working to pass legislative fixes to issues such as the sale of semi-automatic weapons and closing loopholes that allow for guns sales without background checks, uses data from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) (2008-09 estimates). It then makes an estimate of the number of killings a day that may not correspond to the most recent trends. The source data is captured by the CDC National Center for Injury Prevention and Control, reported and accessible through the web-based Injury Statistics Query and Reporting System.

A lesson in how to silence public health researchers, and yes it is about the money

Slate’s professed shock at the lack of poor tracking of gun-related fatalities should actually surprise no one who has monitored the muzzling of research on gun-related violence since the 1990s by the National Rifle Association (NRA), the gun industry’s lobby, and its allies in Congress.

According to a newly published article by Dr. Arthur L. Kellermann and Dr. Frederick P. Rivara (both of whom have MPH degrees), in the Dec. 21, 2012, edition of the Journal of the American Medical Association, gun research at research universities that is funded by the federal government has been systematically quieted by pro-gun forces since a ban was enacted on the CDC in 1996, mainly through budget language. Pulling funding, in effect, silenced the nation’s public health agency on a critical public health issue.

The budget language, which remains in effect today, stated “none of the funds made available for injury prevention and control at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention may be used to advocate or promote gun control.” While it is not clear why individual CDC officials or even highly paid medical and public health professionals have not more publicly risked their professional standing to challenge this language, the authors of the study note, “Extramural support for firearm injury prevention research quickly dried up. Even today, 17 years after this legislative action, the CDC’s website lacks specific links to information about preventing firearm-related violence.”

Rivara and Kellermann further state that the language restricting such research was expanded after a 2009 study that was federally funded, this time by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, if a gun increases or reduces the risk of firearm assault. Congress, in 2011, during the Obama administration and amid the Tea Party insurgency of 2010, “extended the restrictive language it had previously applied to the CDC to all Department of Health and Human Services agencies, including the National Institutes of Health.”

The two authors highlight other efforts taking place national to stifle medical professionals from speaking out, such as Florida’s law (HB 155), which put health care practitioners at risk of penalties, including the loss of their licenses, “‘if they discuss or record information about firearm safety that a medical board later determines was not ‘relevant’ or was ‘unnecessarily harassing.'”

How silencing plays out at research universities, quietly and likely without intent

This blog has reported that the silence within the research community can be found at major public health research programs, such as the University of Washington School of Public Health, which  I attended from 2010 to 2012. I was unable to find any faculty actively teaching future public health leaders–my classmates–about firearms safety research or gun violence in the school’s public health curricula.

It should be noted Dr. Rivara is an adjunct faculty member of the UW School of Public Health, and Dr. Kellermann and he are also graduates of the same school (for their MPH degrees). Dr. Kellerman was in fact my graduation commencement speaker, and proved to be a passionate scientist and advocate to all of us. However, my review of courses did not reveal any classes focussing on gun violence as a public health issue; this does not mean Dr. Rivara and other faculty did not cover this topic in their classes. (It should also be noted that a keyword search for “guns” on the UW SPH web site today, Jan. 2, 2013, yielded only three pages, one focussing on Dr. Rivara and another focussing on Dr. Kellerman.)

During my studies there, I repeatedly raised this anomaly to my professors and during seminars in front of as many faculty as possible–often to the point of becoming an annoyance to those who had heard me ask the same questions repeatedly. But short of actually sitting in on faculty strategy sessions or having any survey data, it is impossible for me to know the reasons why my former school choose not to include this topic in its curricula. There were and remain classes on issues that do receive federal funding: tobacco cessation, obesity and nutrition, maternal and child health, and much more. All are worthy topics, but these were the winners, guns was a loser.

My guess remains it was purely a matter of funding, or lack of funding, and the intense internal pressure on junior faculty to pursue research dollars highly coveted by all departments that were not tied to this pariah topic. Thus the silencing of research continued, without any alarm bells raised from a larger community of researchers, who should be the most active and who should have been leaders, locally and nationally. That is how it works.

Dr. Rivara’s primary role is as a faculty member at the UW School of Medicine, Department of Pediatrics. To his credit, he has shown continued national leadership on gun violence. He and Dr. Kellerman deserve great praise for their lifelong service and work on this topic. Hopefully their article also will shame and embarrass their distinguished academic peers–locally and nationally–into either creating endowed teaching positions or a campaign drive to fund research that can shed light on this national public health crisis that has seized the nation’s attention since the massacre of 20 children and six faculty in a public school in Newtown, Conn. in December. MPH students also can lobby for change too, despite the hazards of confronting faculty who grade and often employ them as assistants.

Given that many faculty at these institutions can earn salaries well above $200,000 annually, some may be reluctant to jeopardize their professional careers or positions in the name of public-minded research on a topic that is at the center of one of the nation’s greatest moral debates since the Civil Rights movement and perhaps since the violent ending of slavery during the Civil War.

Gun researchers who have not been silenced by budget threats

Researchers not blocked by the ban on the CDC and NIH have shown that a prized policy goal of the NRA and gun makers, expanding “standing your ground laws,” have lead to more homicides.Researchers have found that states with a stand your ground law record more homicides than states without such laws.

Data from the study by Hoestra and Cheng, as published on the NPR.org web site (Jan. 2, 2013).

Data from the study by Hoekstra and Cheng, as published on the NPR.org web site (Jan. 2, 2013).

Two economics researchers at Texas A&M University, Mark Hoekstra and Cheng Cheng, found that the laws “do not deter burglary, robbery, or aggravated assault. In contrast, they lead to a statistically significant 8 percent net increase in the number of reported murders and non-negligent manslaughters.” The findings run counter to the argument of the primary proponent of such legislation, the NRA.

On average, there are about 500-700 more homicides a year among the 23 states with stand your ground laws because of these laws: “One possibility for the increase in homicide is that perhaps [in cases where] there would have been a fistfight … now, because of stand your ground laws, it’s possible that those escalate into something much more violent and lethal,” says Hoekstra.

A massacre in Colorado and public health’s chilling silence to gun violence

Like many people in the United States and around the world, I was horrified by the news on July 20, of yet another mass murder in the United States involving firearms. We still do not know as I write this post the motives of the alleged suspect, a 24-year-old medical student named James Holmes. Nor do we know yet how he acquired the multiple firearms—a semi-automatic rifle, a shotgun, and a pistol, according to initial reports—used to kill 12 people and leave 59 wounded. Press reports quote police officials saying he bought his firearms legally along with 6,000 rounds of ammunition. We do know that neither President Barack Obama or GOP presumptive contender Gov. Mitt Romney uttered the word “gun” in their public comments the day after the mass murders.

Alleged mass murderer James Holmes in a photo published by many media sources.

For his part, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, a billionaire who does not have to worry about his political career even if he is voted out of office and who can afford to defy special interest groups because of his great personal wealth, was quick to criticize both presidential candidates for failing to put forward plans to address gun violence, which is a concern of many elected officials in any sized city. “Soothing words are nice,” said Bloomberg, “But maybe it’s time the two people who want to be president of the United States stand up and tell us what they’re going to do about it, because this is obviously a problem across the country.”

Boston Globe columnist Derrick Z. Jackson wrote on July 21: “Gun control has so completely disappeared from debate that John Rosenthal, founder of the Newton-based Stop Handgun Violence, told me this week before the Aurora shootings: ‘I’ve never seen more spineless cowardice and lack of national leadership. Can you imagine the outrage if instead, 83 Americans a day died from hamburgers?’ Instead the conservative Supreme Court struck down urban handgun bans. Last year saw record gun sales in America, based on FBI background checks, as the gun lobby whips up utterly false fears about Obama taking people’s guns away.”

Such mass killings like we saw in Aurora, Co., now occur with alarming frequency in the United State. Where I live, Seattle, we have experienced a wave of mass shootings during the last two months, the most lethal at a University District area restaurant called Café Racer and elsewhere in the city on May 30, that left six dead, including the alleged gunman.

From a purely statistical perspective, firearm violence is a national health issue, if not a crisis. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that the number of firearm homicides in 2010 in the United States was a whopping 11,493, or 3.7 deaths per 100,000. And the role of firearms in suicides was nearly twice that rate. The CDC for 2010 attributes firearms in the suicides of 18,735 persons in the country, or a rate of 6.1 per 100,000. All told firearms are linked to 30,228 deaths annually at last count. This is a truly staggering figure, and one that should have the entire medical and public health community demanding that moral and political leaders in this country develop a broad array of interventions to reduce these numbers, the way we mobilize yearly to dress in pink and run against breast cancer or embrace other campaigns designed to save lives and promote health. By contrast, Japan counted 11 homicides related to firearms in 2008, or a rate of 0.0 per 100,000 in epidemiological terms.

So why is the medical and public health community silent? Well, the answer is simple. It is about politics and money. Specifically, it is about the lack of federal money. And of course those who should be out front on this issue, including heads of hospitals and medical associations as well as faculty and heads of health sciences universities, are not demonstrating the needed moral courage to speak truth to the supporters of the NRA, business interests, and political groups, who exploit American fears about government and who seek to maintain the status quo politically through fear-mongering. That job is mainly falling to journalists and citizens groups mostly, as well as victims of crimes and their families.

The Nieman Foundation at Harvard University reported in February 2012 that the gun industry’s main lobbying arm, the National Rifle Association (NRA), has “systematically suppressed data about gun violence and the impact it has on Americans’ lives.” The  CDC in the early 1990s was releasing studies that found that guns in the home presented a greater danger to the occupants than potential home invaders. In response the NRA helped to prevent the funding of research on firearms’ death and injury. As a result, reports the foundation, the CDC appropriations bill the last 15 years has contained this language: “None of the funds made available for injury prevention and control at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention may be used to advocate or promote gun control.”  And this year, the NRA successfully added a similar amendment to the National Institutes of Health (NIH) appropriations language.

The most well-known advocacy group that promotes strict gun regulation, the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, was extremely critical of the CDC in 2011 for, in its words, requiring researchers financed by the CDC to give the CDC a “head’s up” when they prepare to publish firearms-related research. The CDC, in turns, shares that information with the NRA as a courtesy. “If the CDC is allowing the NRA to review its studies, it’s a deeply troubling practice,” said Brady Center President Paul Helmke. “To have a government agency open itself and its science to the influence of any interest group, particularly one whose policies undermine the safety of our families and communities, is improper, offensive, and unjustifiable. We need science that we can trust.”

One has to look no further than the Department of Health and Human Services’ (DHSS) exhaustive annual report called Health, United States, 2011. It lists the word firearms just nine times, and buries firearms data deep into the report, making that information effectively unimportant in the overall health assessment for the country. Meanwhile the introduction to that report profiles motor vehicle deaths (about 40,000 deaths annually) and does not profile death by firearms (suicide or homicide, which number more than 30,000 annually). One has to wonder how connected the funding ban is to this type of editorial decision by the DHSS and the CDC, which publish this document.

Of course many proponents of very limited gun control disagree firearms-related violence is a “health” issue. One pro gun blog, published by a group called AmmoLand.com, calls those who would choose to address firearms safety “elite gun banners.” (The those being criticized is the CDC.)

Which item does the CDC and many public health research universities consider more of a public health threat, and which receives more research dollars and scholarly attention?

What we are seeing, at least at public health departments through funding mechanisms, is a full-court press on chronic disease linked to unhealthy food like, oh fatty french fries. When it comes to clogged arteries but not loaded semi-automatic weapons, the CDC doles out millions dollars ($103 million at last count) through Community Transformation Grants. It continually baffles me how trained scientists who work in health care flat out follow the money to pursue research grants to get more people to eat fruits and vegetables and stop smoking while keeping mostly silent as people in their communities are gunning themselves down and others.

I never understood this during my studies at the University of Washington School of Public Health, where there is not one course where firearms issues are addressed as a public health priority, at least according to my understanding of the courses offered. I did a quick search on the UW SPH web site on July 21 and found just seven references to firearms, six to guns, and 233 references to obesity. (UW researchers were involved in a joint study published in 2012 about gun storage cabinets in Alaska, but one would expect more given the numbers.) But this is no different than at any publicly funded health research university that relies on large federal grants to sustain its faculty and facilities. Clearly this impacts what future public health leaders are taught. During my two years in my program at the UW SPH, which used problem-based learning and cases that touched on everything from obesity to smoking to HIV/AIDs to homelessness to influenza, our classes never discussed firearms violence as a public health concern. (Note, that changed this year for the class behind me thanks to comments raised by my cohort to faculty for suggesting new topics).

In my frustration today, I even wrote to my member in the U.S. House of Representatives, Dr. Jim McDermott, by clicking the on the topical area of “gun control” to submit my email to his staff. I know from past experience that federal lawmakers never read 99% of such emails, and their replies usually do not address the contents of constituent communications, instead relying on general policy statements that amount to little substance. Still, I felt compelled to express my continued disappointment at the failure of leadership that he and others are demonstrating on this health and policy issue:

“As a public health professional and as your constituent, I am writing today to ask if you can inform your constituents what you and your allies, including in the health community and law enforcement community, are planning to do in terms of a meaningful policy response to address the proliferation of firearms and in terms of providing funding to health professionals to begin to address this issue as a legitimate threat to the health of U.S. citizens? Can you provide any details about how you are working locally with groups seeking to have upstream and federal actions to begin to chip away at the powerful special interest groups that have hijacked the public debate on firearms? Are you seeking to challenge blue dog Democrats or Republicans who continue to communicate talking points that equate the Second Amendment of the Constitution with the sale of personal weapons that in no way correspond to the wording or intent of the Constitution or the intent of the framers of the Constitution? I await your leadership. If there is to be no action, than one wonders why there continues to be cynicism of citizenry about the leaders we elect to Washington to do the people’s business, not the business of special interests that are allowing weapons manufacturers to profit from the misery of innocent citizens wiped out by a completely controllable problem, were there true courage and leadership to face down the attack ads. People can lead, but well, so can the leaders we elect. I await to hear your strong voice.”