A research initiative to stem gun violence

by Darryll J. Pines and Gregory Washington

We see so many remarkable families whose loved ones have been silenced by bullets stand before crowds and cameras and, despite unfathomable grief, plead for their fellow Americans to act out against senseless, preventable gun violence.

And, often, advocates from varied walks of life join them: A big-time coach who went off script to punctuate what is more important than a basketball game. A Hollywood actor who held up a girl’s pair of green sneakers as a symbol of anguish and loss. A U.S. senator who fell to his knees on the floor of the Capitol, begging his colleagues to act.

Today, in the wake of another horrifying spate of gun violence across our country, we add university presidents to the call for change.

Why? Because guns are now the leading cause of death for young people, and we are charged with shaping young minds to tackle the grand challenges of our time. Because we lead communities that are deeply affected by the mass slaughter of citizens, and some weeks it feels like the flags at our public institutions fly ceaselessly at half-staff. Because universities are often the source of change and progress. And because we believe in science and data, and when we look at the facts, gun violence is a public health crisis — full stop.

So, as leaders of the two largest public research institutions in the Washington region, we looked at ourselves and asked: What can we do to end this scourge of senseless gun violence?

Of course, we have watched the negotiations just miles away on Capitol Hill. We know legislative actions can have significant impacts, and gun safety laws can save lives. But university presidents are not in the business of enforcement; we are invested in the power of education. The two of us, in fact, are engineers trained to test and craft solutions. So while we will keep our eyes on Congress, we put our hands to work on campus.

We are assembling our nonpartisan, data-driven, research-based faculty experts from disciplines across our campuses — from public health and business to psychology, engineering and conflict resolution — to educate our communities about the many facets of this complex issue. They are academics who spend years dedicated to inquiry and discovery, so that they can share knowledge that is based on facts. And we are being joined by other universities in the Washington, D.C., region through what’s been designated the 120 Initiative, named in honor of the more than 120 people who die on average each day from gun violence. The effort is being coordinated by the Consortium of Universities of the Washington Metropolitan Area and includes 15 other schools, each with their own experts to contribute to the cause, in addition to ours.

Our two institutions also will ask our artists and creators to help us tell the stories of the victims, because they are not statistics, they are not digits to be tallied up in a horrific math exercise. And, most importantly, we will search anew for ways to reduce gun violence not just by legislating, but by changing human behavior and conditions that may lead to violence. Together, we accept the responsibility of finding innovative solutions that cross all political parties, cultures, races and geographies.

We acknowledge this issue is polarizing. We, of course, have students, staff and faculty on our campuses who are proud and responsible gun owners. As places dedicated to the open marketplace of ideas, we welcome their voices to this discussion, honor their perspectives and appeal to everyone to rally around our common goals of gun safety and preventing loss of life. So far in 2022, we have lost more than 23,000 Americans to gun deaths — five every hour, around the clock. We must do better.

We are indebted to the coach, the actor, the senator and all the unlikely advocates who are not letting our friends and neighbors become numb to the mass shootings we have experienced far too often. We grieve with the families who have suffered a loss so great that we cannot imagine.

We offer up our faculty who are experts in their field and can provide trusted, nonpartisan analysis and data. We offer up our campuses, which are designed to be marketplaces of ideas and laboratories for democracy.

And we join the call for change.

Darryll J. Pines (Twitter: @President-Pines) is president of the University of Maryland. Gregory Washington (@GMUPres) is president of George Mason University.