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Rice University event on gun violence showcases local efforts to address public health crisis

Houston Chronicle logo Houston Chronicle 6/22/2022 By Julian Gill, Staff writer

Evolving efforts to curb gun violence in Houston were on full display Tuesday at Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy, where doctors, researchers and community leaders discussed their role in addressing the worsening public health crisis of firearm injuries and deaths.

The gathering signaled a solidifying county-wide response to what has become the leading cause of traumatic injury and death among children. The all-day event was especially timely, coming on the heels of the worst school shooting in Texas history that killed 19 students and 2 teachers.

But while the tragedy in Uvalde - and the apparent failure by police to confront the gunman - continues to capture the public’s attention, speakers at Rice focused on everyday gun violence that goes by mostly unnoticed, from aggravated assaults to suicides to unintentional shootings.

Harris County Public Health is among the organizations trying to address those complexities with five new programs, which implement broader social services to proactively prevent firearm injuries. Lupe Washington, the department’s director of community health and violence prevention services, said her division is in the process of hiring “outreach specialists,” or people from neighborhoods most affected by gun violence, to be part of those efforts.

Those specialists will help connect people to counseling, drug treatment and employment. Many of the programs will be concentrated in Cypress Station and an area that covers Sunnyside, South Park and the Greater OST/South Union neighborhood.

“You really have to have people from the community with lived experience,” Washington said. “Those are the people who can connect with residents best.”

One program — Holistic Assistance Response Teams (HART), which divert 911 calls to an unarmed two-person team trained in behavioral health and on‐scene medical assistance — has already alleviated some of the pressure on law enforcement, Washington said. Since it started in late March, the single HART team currently working for the county has responded to 275 calls for service. Washington said she hopes to add more teams in the coming months.

Multiple community leaders at the event highlighted similar programs at the city level. Karlton Harris, executive director of The Forgotten Third, a nonprofit that helps prevent young people from re-entering the criminal justice system, addresses gun violence by mentoring youth in Houston.

Many of the young people he works with are disconnected from support systems, resistant to change, "gang involved" and “believed to be beyond the reach of traditional social services,” he said. He builds relationships by drawing from his own experience as someone who was formerly incarcerated.

Video: Gun violence should be treated like a public health issue, U.S. advocates urge (


“We want to stop gun violence on the front end,” he said. "We have to do the primary prevention, and that may include us intervening while our youth are involved in the justice system, because re-entry begins on day 1 of incarceration.”

The social factors that contribute to gun violence have been well studied, but early research is beginning to define the scope of the problem.

As part of her ongoing work, Dr. Bindi Naik-Mathuria, a fellow in firearm injury prevention and safety at the Rice University’s Center for Health and Biosciences, has found that Houston bucks the national trend when it comes to the percentage of gun deaths attributed to suicides. While national data shows about 60 percent of gun deaths were attributed to suicide from 2018 to 2020, that number is about 40 percent in Houston.

She also found that unintentional shootings account for about 20 percent of childhood firearm injuries and deaths in Houston, and that guns left in homes and cars account for the vast majority of those incidents.

Another study at UTHealth Houston’s McGovern Medical School shows some Houston-area neighborhoods that believe firearms to be of comparatively low risk tend to experience the most gun-related injuries among children, said Dr. Zoabe Hafeez, assistant professor of pediatric hospital medicine at McGovern. Offering more temporary storage in those communities could be a major solution, he said.

Much of the data presented at Tuesday's event was preliminary, with more robust results and conclusions to be released later.

Although the speakers avoided making overtly political statements about gun laws, the event did open the door to political conversation among some of Houston's elected leaders.

An end-of-the-day panel included Harris County Sheriff Ed Gonzalez, District Attorney Kim Ogg, State Rep. Ann Johnson, D-Houston; and State Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston. The organizers noted they invited other Republican lawmakers, but that they declined due to scheduling conflicts.

Johnson voiced frustration over Gov. Greg Abbott’s apparent hesitance in calling a special session to address gun laws. Whitmire petitioned for red-flag laws, which allow police, family members or a doctor to petition a court to remove a gun from a firearm owner who is deemed a threat to himself or others.

Gonzalez, meanwhile, voiced what many researchers in the audience have been saying for years.

“We have to look at this from beyond just law enforcement, from a variety of different disciplines,” he said.


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