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Handgun Violence Symposium: A Call for Change

Attempts to make guns less accessible, to change gun laws and to intervene in plans for mass shootings were among the presentations at The National Symposium on Handgun Violence at Duquesne University on April 9. The symposium addressed the impact of handgun violence in schools, in neighborhoods and on families and discussed legislative concerns.

Handgun violence, said moderator Cynthia A. Baldwin, retired justice of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court and partner at Duane Morris LLP, is "a public health issue, an educational issue, a criminal justice issue, a political issue--an issue for this time."

Presenters provided a broad view of the impact of handgun violence as a societal and public health issue. But it was a personal talk by Tom Mauser that brought the audience of more than 700 to its feet in a standing ovation. Mauser's son, Daniel, was 15 years old when he walked into Columbine High School on April 20, 1999; he was one of 15 inside the building who never walked back out.

Tom Mauser, who grew up in Finleyville, wore a button with his son's photo and a silver ribbon pin engraved with "Never forgotten." He told of how Daniel had brought up discussion about a Brady Bill loophole that didn't require background checks on certain purchases at gun shows. Two weeks later, Daniel was killed by a gun bought through that loophole.

Though a one-year attempt to convince Colorado legislature to adopt a law requiring background checks on firearms sold at gun failed, Mauser worked on a grassroots effort in a conservative, gun-loving Colorado produced Amendment 22, requiring background checks at gun shows.

"I'm not advocating we throw away the Second Amendment," Mauser said. "Most Americans recognize that with those rights come responsibility."

He said he seeks a new vision that would keep guns away from children, criminals and those with mental problems, and keep military weapons in the military.

"We have come to accept a shameful, shameful level of gun violence in this country," Mauser said.

Dr. Diane Strollo, whose daughter, Hilary, was shot three times but survived last year's Virginia Tech shootings, told of the support her family received.

"Gun violence spares no one," she said. "May none of us ever walk in the shoes of a victim of gun violence."

Ironically, during his presentation, Mauser held up the size 10 ½ Vans that he wears when he discussing gun issues--the very shoes Daniel wore to school the day of the Columbine shooting.

"I walk in Daniels' shoes, doing his work, and I wear them to honor him," he said.

Later in the program, Alan Korwin, author of Gun Laws of America and a national speaker on the Second Amendment right to bear arms, offered statistics showing that guns are used hundreds of thousands of times a year in self-defense, often without a shot being fired.

Other law-abiding people own guns and enjoy shooting sports without incident, he said. Additional laws that could infringe on their Second Amendment rights are not needed; laws on the books need to be enforced and criminality must be considered.

"We have a broken judiciary," he said. "How do we stop the criminals?"

Other remarks from speakers include:

  • David Hemenway, author of Private Guns, Public Health and director of the Harvard Injury Control Research Center and of the Harvard Youth Violence Prevention Center, on the need to prevent guns from getting into the hands of children. "The goal is to save lives and to make the place we live in safer for our children," he said.
  • Marisa Randazzo, former chief research psychologist for the Secret Service and president and founder of Threat Assessment Resources International LLC, on the need to intervene in the face of a serious school threat. "They're rarely impulsive," she said. "School shootings are planned attacks." Most shooters are suicidal before the attack, obtain weapons from their own homes or relatives' homes, and share their plans with others, she said. "These are not invisible kids; they were on somebody's radar screen." To prevent mass attacks, the pathway between the idea and the action required intervention, she said
  • Det. Jill Smallwood-Rustin, Firearms Tracking Unit, Pittsburgh Bureau of Police, on the issue of multiple gunshot wounds. "With 25 attempts at a target, if you don't hit the one you wanted, you'll hit something anyway," she said. "With multiple gunshot wounds, you don't have an opportunity to really hold on to life." She talked about "straw purchasing," when one person buys a gun planning to give or sell it to another to hide the user's identity. "Straw purchasing is on the rise to become Public Enemy No. 1."
  • State Representatives Dan Frankel of Pittsburgh and Dwight Evans of Philadelphia, via videotape, on proposed legislation to address handgun violence, followed by on-site remarks from Everett Gillison, deputy mayor for public safety in Philadelphia.
  • Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, daughter of the late Sen. Robert F. Kennedy and former Lt. Governor of Maryland, via videotape, calling for the gun show loophole in background checks to be closed nationwide. "We register people who use cars; what is going on that we don't do the same with guns?"

Former presidential press secretary Jim Brady, who was scheduled as a speaker, was unable to attend because his wife, Sarah, is seriously ill with pneumonia. Pittsburgh Mayor Luke Ravenstahl, a member of the Mayor's Against Illegal Guns Coalition, called upon Mauser and Strollo to accept, on behalf of the Bradys, an award for lifetime dedication to public service.

Brady was shot and paralyzed during an assassination attempt on President Ronald Reagan in 1981.

Duquesne University

Founded in 1878, Duquesne is consistently ranked among the nation's top Catholic universities for its award-winning faculty and tradition of academic excellence. Duquesne, a campus of nearly 9,500 graduate and undergraduate students, has been nationally recognized for its academic programs, community service and commitment to sustainability. Follow Duquesne University on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.