Gun violence is a public health epidemic

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Los Angeles Gun Buyback (CNN Photo/Greg Cannes)

by Dean Obeidallah

(CNN) — “Don’t know if you heard reports of shots fired in Paramus Garden State Plaza — suspect in body armor and carrying long rifle.”

I received this text from a friend at 9:59 on Monday evening. This would be a disturbing message for anyone to read, but it was especially alarming to me because Paramus, New Jersey — the place where the shooting was taking place — is my hometown.

We have all watched media reports of heart-breaking gun violence at grammar schools, universities, barbershops, movie theaters, shopping malls, workplaces, airports. But it feels different when your hometown is on the national news as the location. You truly get the sense that no place is safe.

My first instinct after hearing about the shooting was to call my mother. The Garden State Plaza mall is near her home and she often shops there. Although she’s usually home most nights by 9 p.m., as luck would have it, my mother was out that night.

She doesn’t have a cell phone so I was frantically calling relatives in the Paramus area. But no one had heard from her. There was live coverage of heavily armed SWAT Teams preparing to enter the shopping center and a sea of police cars surrounding the mall. Witnesses said a man dressed in black, wearing a helmet and carrying a long gun was firing in the mall.

My thoughts moved quickly between assuring myself that she was not at the mall to fearing the worst — it’s impossible not to think of the horror your loved one might be enduring.

Thankfully, it turned out my mother was at a Paramus diner watching the news coverage with other patrons. After reaching her, I felt like an anxious parent, scolding her for not calling earlier to say she was OK and for making me worry. It’s odd how the parent-child relationship can become reversed in certain situations.

While the gunman didn’t shoot anyone but himself, it was a wake-up call. My belief that gun violence only happens to other people in other parts of the country changed on Monday night. If you believe that your hometown or your family are immune from gun violence, you are wrong. It will touch your life at some point, if it hasn’t already.

Are we going to simply accept this fate or change public policy to save lives?

We live in a nation where schoolteachers are not only charged with educating children but with putting their lives on the line to save them. We saw that just a few weeks ago in a small Nevada town and of course with the horrific tragedy at Sandy Hook elementary school last year.

It used to be that most parents’ greatest fear was that something bad would happen to their children as they walked to and from school. But with the rash of school shootings, it seems that the walk back and forth may be the safest part of the school day.

Look, if you’re OK with about 30,000 people being killed in this country each year by guns: Stop reading this. But for the rest of us, it’s time we change the conversation from the idea of “gun control” to one of public health — a public health crisis. If a disease killed more than 30,000 Americans each year, including lots of children, we would be united in our resolve to find a cure. We need to have some effective approach to the epidemic.

Here are a few suggestions:

Congress should revisit imposing a universal background check for gun purchases so that criminals and mentally ill people can’t buy guns. This law is supported by 90% of Americans, including 74% of NRA members.

Remedy the deficient reporting by certain states of mental health data to the FBI’s National Instant Criminal Background Check System so that background checks will work.

Enact a national standard to require secure storage of weapons in homes to prevent children — and criminals — from getting access to them. This should also hold adults criminally liable if they fail to store guns safely. Fewer than 20 states have this law in place. This would also combat accidental shootings and lower the number of people committing suicide by gun, which is nearly 20,000 a year.

If you have other suggestions — even outlandish ones — please share them in the comments. We can no longer remain silent, hoping for the best, as gun violence kills our fellow Americans. Remember, you too could receive a text message about a gunman in your hometown, and the result may not be as fortunate as it was in my case.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Dean Obeidallah.

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