Social and public health data may help combat gun violence

Rita Landgraf
Rita Landgraf
Guest Columnist

The gun violence in Wilmington is an issue that affects all of us — the state, the counties, the cities, and our communities. As a public health official, I know that while the victims and their families bear the direct pain and loss, too many community members are affected by physical, mental and emotional trauma. That’s why the responsibility to stop the cycle of violence, find solutions and intervene early belongs to all of us.

Earlier this month, my Department of Health and Social Services (DHSS) presented the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) report on gun violence in Wilmington. This groundbreaking research was sought by Wilmington Councilwoman Hanifa Shabazz, with a formal request for CDC assistance made by Mayor Dennis P. Williams and the Division of Public Health. The report looks at gun violence from a public health and social services perspective — not from a law enforcement perspective or one that intends to designate individuals as potential criminals.

Using almost 15 years of arrest records as well as administrative medical, child welfare, criminal, employment and educational records, the CDC found that individuals most at risk for violence can be identified based on a history of adverse life events including sexual and physical abuse, family history of addiction, lack of education or employment, child welfare interventions and poverty.

If we apply a public health approach to the data, we may be able to identify individuals at the highest risk for gun violence and intervene early in their lives with comprehensive, integrated services and supports. Because this predictive analysis concept is so new, it will require a multi-faceted approach across government entities and other institutions; a comprehensive legal analysis of data-sharing issues; and a coordinated strategy going forward. The state will work with the University of Delaware to refine and improve the data-collection process, while we further explore developing a broad-based risk assessment tool.

While we look first to engage with residents of Wilmington, we believe this work could also be applied to Dover and other cities experiencing the traumatic toll of gun violence.

In the next several weeks, we will form a Community Advisory Board in Wilmington composed of representatives from neighborhood groups, nonprofits, business, faith-based institutions, health care, education and government. We will examine the recommendations of the CDC report; inventory and assess current practices among public, private and nonprofit agencies; and determine what  work could be done together to prevent future violence. The work of the Advisory Board, which will build on the strength and assets of Wilmington and its citizens, will be co-chaired by one representative from the state and one representative from the city.

The answer to preventing gun violence is not simple, and the CDC research demonstrates there are no quick solutions that will end the violence today. However, the comprehensive risk assessment and early intervention opportunities could build a better, safer future for Delaware.  

Rita Landgraf is the Cabinet Secretary for the Delaware Department of Health and Social Services.

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