Rush, Kelly decry gun violence as public health issue during hearing at Kennedy-King College

Reps. Danny Davis (Left to right), Bobby Rush and Jan Schakowsky speak to reporters after a House Energy Subcommittee on Health field hearing at Kennedy-King College. (Photo by Aaron Gettinger)

Staff writer

Both of Hyde Park-Kenwood’s congressional representatives labeled gun violence as a public health epidemic and argued for increased gun control legislation at a hearing held today at Kennedy-King College.

Rep. Bobby Rush (D-1st), who had pushed for the South Side field hearing since 2017, said, “Gun violence undermines the public health and the public safety of all our communities. This epidemic has had painful consequences for far too many families in Chicago, including my own family. Far too many families in my district and similarly situated districts all across the country have felt this painful consequence.”

“Important conversations are going on in Washington, D.C., but just as important. if not more so, is that we have a new conversation right here in the community that, for too long, has suffered pain of this epidemic,” he continued.

In addition to Rush and Rep. Robin Kelly (D-2nd), three other congressmen whose districts cover Chicago were present: Reps. Chuy Garcia (D-4th), Danny K. Davis (D-7th) and Jan Schakowsky (D-9th).

“Simply addressing easy access to guns will not solve all the challenges in these communities,” Kelly said. “Decades of systemic under-investments and disinvestments in schools, transportation, businesses and public spaces, coupled with residential segregation by race, has created a divided city … in which gun violence is largely concentrated in Black and Brown communities that are underserved, under-resourced and, for some, wary of law enforcement.”

“Nothing stops a bullet like an opportunity,” she argued, pointing to her proposed legislation that would subsidize summer and year-round employment to at-risk youth, which has not yet passed the House, much less the Republican-controlled Senate. She also promoted the Urban Progress Act, saying it would “help to fill this void in economic opportunities, strengthen police-community relations and promote gun violence-prevention policies.” It has been introduced over the past several congressional sessions but has not become law.

“In addressing the public health impacts of gun violence, we cannot be limited to the immediate impacts of bullets on the human body,” Kelly said. “We know that gun violence takes an emotional, psychological toll on communities.” In some parts of her district, Kelly said some young people experience gun violence-caused PTSD as much as returning veterans do.

Norman Kerr, Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s director of violence prevention, said the administration’s greatest responsibility “is ensuring peace and safety in all of Chicago’s neighborhoods.”

“While many organizations are tackling gun violence independently of city leadership through various privately funded frameworks, the experience of peer cities shows that violence-reduction efforts are far more successful through effective coordination of resources, policy and management decisions across all stakeholders,” he said, lauding Lightfoot’s appointment of a deputy mayor for public safety, who coordinates among municipal, county and state agencies, the Chicago Police and other emergency services.

“Together, we have to re-stitch our broken safety net. We have to work on providing wraparound services and job training into neighborhoods that have been under siege and economically distressed for decades,” he said. “We recognize the fact that this will not be solved overnight, but by investing in neighborhoods and addressing the root causes of gun violence, we will continue to make meaningful gains in public safety in communities across the city.”

Rep. Robin Kelly at the hearing on gun violence at Kennedy-King College. (Photo by Aaron Gettinger)

That was a theme that Selwyn O. Rogers, Jr., founding director of the University of Chicago Medical Center (UCMC) trauma center, picked up on in his opening statement.

“When we think of gun violence in the United States, we often think of tragic events such as mass shootings in Dayton, Ohio, and El Paso, Texas. However, in Chicago every day, we see small examples that are no less devastating,” he said, recalling the deaths-by-firearm of a carjacking victim named Alexis Andrade, a 36-year-old mother of three named Candice Dickerson and 11-year-old Kentavia Blackful, who died in her living room from a stray bullet.

Rogers said UCMC employees “work to the absolute limits of our abilities every day to save people like these” and have to tell bereaved family members that a victim did not make it.

“When we look at gun violence like a disease, that means it can be treated and it can be cured,” he said, calling for violence-prevention investments in education and economic opportunities, noting the UCMC’s coverage area has a five-times-higher unemployment rate than the national average and 43% of its children of color living in poverty.

“In this unhealthy environment, where day-to-day life is a constant struggle, where homelessness and hopelessness are all-too-common, is it any wonder that there’s such a high rate of gun violence?” he asked.

In response to questioning by Downstate Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-16th), Rogers said around 30 hospitals nationwide have invested in intervention and outreach to high-risk individuals.

“They basically take people who have been injured by violent injuries, be it gun violence, stabbings or assault, and use that moment to intervene in their lives,” he said. “Basically, think of violence as a chronic disease instead of an acute event. And in the context of that, people often come in with preexisting social issues that they need — educational disparities, economic opportunities that they have not taken advantage of.”

Rogers said such efforts have markedly reduced rates of recidivism, recurring injury and retaliatory violence: “There’s a common saying that hurt people hurt people, and when we think about the opportunity that hospitals’ health systems might have to intervene in people’s lives who have been hurt, to prevent retaliatory violence, it’s a very important possible intervention.”

During questioning by Rep. Yvette Clark (D-N.Y.), Rogers stressed the primacy of race in the issue of gun violence, noting that the impetus to address it would be different if it only affected White people. He went on to address suicide, calling it “a silent burden that families bear.”

When Rush asked what Congress could do to provide more federal resources to confront gun violence, Rogers said there is much that medical professionals still do not know.

“We haven’t really done much to figure out how to help people’s souls and minds,” he said, urging investments in mental health support for those physically injured by gun violence as well as secondary contacts close to them.

Davis, whose district covers downtown and much of the West Side, referenced his June-introduced RISE from Trauma Act with Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) and additional legislators of both parties, which would recruit more mental health clinicians, enhance Justice, Education, and Health and Human Services (HHS) department training programs for clinicians, educators and teachers and expand HHS grant programs.

Like Rush, Davis has also lost a close family member to gun violence; in his case, his grandson in 2016. “As we’ve heard, all of us one way or another, either collectively or individually, are having these experiences,” he said. “Yes, we need resources, but when I think of public health, my mother taught us that prevention was worth much more than a cure. We must find a way to reduce the presence of guns in our society.”