In early January 2023, the nation looked on in horror as the media reported the unimaginable: a 6-year-old had purposely shot his teacher as she taught her first-grade class at a Virginia elementary school. As people everywhere tried to make sense of the seemingly senseless, reporters turned to a trusted source: Dan Semenza, associate professor of criminal justice in the Rutgers University–Camden College of Arts and Sciences and director of interpersonal violence research for the Rutgers University-based New Jersey Gun Violence Research Center (GVRC).
Not wanting to “pull any punches,” Semenza told The New York Times that eliminating firearms from the home entirely was the safest way to prevent children from using guns. He also noted measures that could be taken to limit gun access, such as storing firearms separately from ammunition or using biometric locks. He also recommended using pediatricians’ offices to educate families on safety measures. It is precisely this no-nonsense, research-based response that has quickly made the Rutgers–Camden researcher a highly sought-after voice of reason in the ever-raging conversation on gun violence.
Both in his role as a researcher and GVRC director, Semenza sees public communication as paramount to moving the discussion forward. Part of the reason the issue of gun violence can be so divisive, he says, is that people don’t understand the basic facts. “My hope is to educate wherever I can so that people understand the full scope of the problem,” Semenza said. “We can then collectively figure out the best solutions moving forward.”
Beyond facts and figures, Semenza understands the issue on a personal level. Born and raised in the small town of Monroe, Conn., he was just preparing to enter graduate school when the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting took place in Newtown, the next town over. “I watched that shooting devastate an entire community,” he said. “That affected me deeply.”
Semenza didn’t stop there. As he pursued his graduate studies, he started to recognize how gun violence was destroying families and communities, especially in disadvantaged neighborhoods, every single day throughout the country. He soon dedicated his lifelong scholarship to finding both the causes and consequences of gun violence. “My goal is to create greater knowledge and awareness about these issues in order to provide insight into policy-driven, practical interventions that can reduce gun violence and related health disparities,” he said.
According to Semenza, behind the countless incidences of gun violence every day, one time-tested truth remains the same: More guns equals more gun violence. It’s a fact, he says, that’s been confirmed from the neighborhood to the global levels over decades of academic research, despite “bad science” attempts to discredit it. If there is a gun in the home, Semenza explains, it increases the risk of suicide, homicide, domestic partner incidences, and accidental shootings.
“Anything that distracts from this basic equation is moving away from something that we need to really be focusing on, which is how do you reduce access to guns for people who are going to harm themselves or others,” Semenza told host Tracey Matisak on WHYY’s “Radio Times.”
Semenza’s research backs up the numbers. In one eye-opening study, he and Richard Stansfield, assistant professor of criminal justice at Rutgers–Camden, found a significant link between the concentration of federally licensed firearms dealers in urban counties and intimate partner homicide in the home. The study, published in the September 2019 issue of the journal Preventive Medicine, was one of only a handful of studies ever to examine how access to legal guns through federally licensed firearm dealers in the community is linked to gun violence.
When it comes to solutions, Semenza posits, there are many different approaches to thinking about harm reduction. It’s not a question of an “either/or” solution, but rather a question of which solutions can be combined most effectively. In his view, gun violence should be treated as a solvable public health problem no different than issues related to tobacco, alcohol, and motor vehicle crashes. “As a country, we’ve had enormous success in reducing the harms of these issues, so we can do the same for guns,” Semenza said. “This doesn’t mean getting rid of firearms but it does mean better regulating them so that they cannot get into the hands of individuals at risk of hurting themselves or others.”
On that front, Semenza is helping to lead a GVRC project, supported by a $1.5 million grant from the U.S. Department of Justice, that teams the research center with Acenda Integrated Health, Life Worth Living, and CureViolence Global to implement a community violence intervention in three rural South Jersey counties. While the program is still in its infancy, Semenza ultimately hopes that its implementation and the accompanying research provides national insight into creating programs that work for gun violence reduction beyond America’s largest cities, where these interventions are typically deployed.
Whenever he sees news of shootings, such as the 6-year-old who shot his teacher, Semenza’s gut reaction is always the same: “It doesn’t have to be this way.” He acknowledges that there is much work to do and none of it will be easy. Nonetheless, gun violence can be controlled.
“None of our peer countries live this way,” Semenza said. “The epidemic of gun violence in the United States exists because of a long series of choices we have and haven’t made over the course of decades. It’s daunting, but there’s no reason to believe we cannot reverse course as long as we have the collective will to do so.”
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