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Leaders of DC-area colleges on how they're teaming up to combat gun violence

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

So far this year, there have been more than 28,000 gun-related deaths in the United States. There have been at least 422 mass shooting events, meaning at least four people were shot in one event. That's according to the Gun Violence Archive, an online database that tracks gun violence. And all this comes on the heels of two years that have seen the sharpest rise in gun violence in decades. Many Americans feel a sense of despair about this, feeling that nothing can or will be done to address this public health disaster, but a group of university leaders in the Washington, D.C., metro area is trying to challenge that thinking with a powerful experiment - pooling their resources in a new consortium to address gun violence.

More than a dozen local universities agreed to participate in the hope that pooling their combined resources, such as research capability and faculty expertise across disciplines, will allow them to find practical, fact-based approaches to address this problem. It's called the 120 Initiative, in honor of the 120 people who die, on average, from gun violence every day in the United States. Joining us to tell us more are two of the members, Gregory Washington, the president of George Mason University. That's in Northern Virginia, just outside of Washington, D.C. Welcome, President Washington.

GREGORY WASHINGTON: Great to be here.

MARTIN: Also with me is Patricia McGuire, president of Trinity Washington University, located in Washington, D.C. Welcome back to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED to you, as well, President McGuire.

PATRICIA MCGUIRE: Thanks so much. Great to be with you.

MARTIN: So, President Washington, I'm going to start with you because, as I understand the genesis of this, this came up with you and the president of the University of Maryland, Darryll Pines. How did this come about? Was there a particular eureka moment or something that inspired you?

WASHINGTON: Yes. More than a hundred and twenty people every day have been dying from gun violence. What you may also know, and what we don't talk about as much - and we had had on our campus a few students this past year, you know, commit death by gunshot on themselves. And that was a problem for us. Unbeknownst to me, other institutions in the region were going through some of the same issues. And so I reached out to Darryll Pines - he and I are close personal friends - and we began to talk about it. And we said, we wonder if this is an issue that our peer institutions in the greater Washington area are dealing with, too. And we took the issue to them, and everyone was concerned about this issue or had some connection to it, and it was the genesis of the initiative.

MARTIN: President McGuire, what about you? What made you want to get involved? Did you have a eureka moment where you just said, this is absolutely what we need to be doing?

MCGUIRE: Well, yes, we serve at Trinity - most of our students are from the District of Columbia and close in Prince George's County, and our students live almost daily with gun violence in their neighborhoods and their home communities. Thank God we have not had it on campus, but we worry about the effects of gun violence all the time on our students. And last spring, one of our very recent graduates, a mother of two young children, was shot to death in her car in front of her children by a boyfriend. And that just really hurt our community so much, as we realized that even our young graduates are victims of gun violence. We worry about mass shootings. We worry about random crime. But we also know that many, many of the families we serve in our community are victims of domestic violence at the end of a gun. So that is the motivating force for us, to be sure. But we have to help people get a grip, if you will, in the right way.

MARTIN: Have you all - I mean, obviously, it's summer. People are just now getting back from summer travel and, you know, sabbaticals and research trips and so forth. But have you all had a chance to convene yet and set some rules of engagement? Are your researchers assured that any and all viable solutions can be discussed? Because, as I think everyone knows by now, or most people do know by now, at one point, there were even sort of implied, if not actual, restrictions on the kinds of research that people in the gun violence space could do. There were restrictions on federal funding. And even if they weren't intended to be as far-reaching as they were, it clearly had a chilling effect. I mean, all the researchers in the field will acknowledge this. Those limits have now been lifted, but now there is, of course, the question of whether private donors have an interest in specific outcomes that they wish to advance. So the question is, can you assure all the people working here that they can evaluate freely any and all solutions that seem viable?

WASHINGTON: We know we can focus on solutions that are nonpolitical and not have any real challenges to that. And I know you get into - well, what's really political and what's not?

MARTIN: Yeah, exactly. What does that mean?

WASHINGTON: That's a - that is a set of concerns that we would get to when we get to them. But what I will tell you is there are so many areas that have not been touched or that have not been delved into significantly that we think will have an impact on this general area.

MARTIN: President McGuire, what do you have to say about that?

MCGUIRE: One of the things that doing this as a consortium effort helps - our faculty, in particular, they worry all the time. The amount of emotional stress on campus around the fear of gun violence is pretty high, quite a lot. And every time there's a mass shooting incident, that meter goes up again. So being able to get the faculty and students involved in research, in educational projects, in looking at the mental health issues, you know, and so forth, and studying the political issues - not necessarily doing political action, but at least learning about it - it helps them to come up with their own sense of security rather than just doing active shooter drills.

To some extent, some of the worst things we can do is traumatize the community by reminding them that they - that this could happen on any given day. That paralyzes them. They need to get deeply into the issues and say, well, whether we can stop the flow of guns or not, are there ways to help people behaviorally deal with the root causes of why somebody feels they need a gun or that somebody reaches for a gun instead of figuring out a different way to solve their problems? And I think that's what we're looking for.

MARTIN: That's fascinating.

WASHINGTON: And, you know - and that's a mental health piece. But there are also education and technology areas that can be delved into significantly as well, right? The reality of the situation is that we're not just dealing with guns that can be purchased from gun shows and from various markets and stores across the U.S. now. You're also dealing with a growing trend of individuals creating guns, literally, out of - from 3D printers in their homes, right? And there are a host of solutions that have been untapped that we can bring to bear on this topic. And the goal is is that we got to position people to feel open and comfortable and motivated to start thinking about them. And that's what this effort fundamentally does.

MARTIN: That was Gregory Washington, president of George Mason University. Also with us was Patricia McGuire, president of Trinity Washington University. They're both members of a consortium of universities in the Washington, D.C., and metropolitan area, broadly defined, who are working together to come up with solutions to the crisis of gun violence. President Washington, President McGuire, I do hope we'll talk again and you'll keep us abreast of the progress you're making. Thank you both so much for talking with us.

MCGUIRE: Thank you for having us.

WASHINGTON: Thank you.

MARTIN: We'd like to remind you that if you are considering hurting yourself or someone you know is, please contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 988. Again, it's 988. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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