Maryland’s new approach to gun violence is all about the data

Gun Rights

It was April 2019. It was nine months after a man with a shotgun murdered five of my friends in the Capital Gazette newsroom.

Anne Arundel County Executive Steuart Pittman had just declared gun violence a public health crisis — a first in Maryland.

Nilesh Kalyanaraman, the county health officer, tried to explain to me what treating gun violence as a threat to public health meant.

Were we talking about something like the corny anti-drug campaign from the late ’80s featuring a fried egg and the slogan, “This is your brain on drugs”? I asked.

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No, he explained. It’s about the data.

Five years later, the rest of Maryland is about to learn how data on gun violence can be used to reduce it.

The General Assembly approved legislation creating the Center for Firearm Violence Prevention, sending it to the desk of Gov. Wes Moore. Its purpose will be to collect and use data to design strategies — the same technique used to fight disease — that reduce the number of people killed and injured by guns every year in Maryland.

“The public health approach to dealing with gun violence is making sure that we first understand the scope of the problem, that we’re looking at data — we’re looking at research — to understand how gun violence is impacting communities in Maryland,” said Jen Pauliukonis, director of policy and programming at the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Violence Solutions.

“And then we need to understand why … and from that developing not only programming to help reduce gun violence, but also laws.”

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Once the governor signs it — a sure thing because his administration came up with the idea — state Health Secretary Laura Herrera Scott will appoint an executive director, who will help develop a plan and bring it to Moore and state lawmakers by May 2025.

She’s unlikely to ask my opinion, but I can think of no one better suited for this job than Nilesh. He’s currently the deputy secretary of health for public health services. During his tenure in Anne Arundel, the county became the first jurisdiction outside the city of Baltimore to use public health tools to deal with gun violence.

And while Baltimore primarily focuses on violence interruption — working in high-crime neighborhoods to build trust with people and try to prevent the next shooting — Anne Arundel’s approach is more nuanced.

Sure, it used data on who pulls the trigger, who gets shot, and where shootings happen most frequently to launch an interruption program in Annapolis and support an independent one in Severn. These aren’t police initiatives — People hired from the communities work to find peaceful solutions to gunfire.

But it also used data on suicides by firearm — the leading cause of gun deaths in most Maryland counties — to support a law that requires gun and ammunition stores to display pamphlets on suicide prevention. Then it collaborated with police and libraries to distribute free gun locks, initially in areas where residents asked for help and then at libraries countywide.

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Now, health specialists who make home visits carry gun locks to give away in any home where they learn a firearm is present.

Anne Arundel County’s efforts have drawn interest around the state, but they haven’t been replicated. “Some of them are interested in our collaborative gun violence approach,” said Donna Perkins, director of assessment and planning for the agency. “Some are interested in specific projects.”

The new statewide center will change that. It will collect data on shootings, suicides and accidents, as well as gun ownership, to figure out what is happening.

It will serve as a hub for data, grants and action.

“They want to serve as a hub so that they can coordinate better and [so] that we can understand the issue better and then strengthen the solutions,” said Pauliukonis, who testified in favor of the Maryland legislation to create the center.

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I know what you’re thinking. This is a Baltimore problem, focused on a city that has been plagued by gun violence for years. Or maybe it’s just big urban counties, like Montgomery and Prince George’s, that will benefit.

Wrong.

Yes, the roughly 743 people killed by guns each year in Maryland mostly lived in the highly populated, densest parts of the state. Of the 1,300 deaths and injuries reported across Maryland in 2023, a little more than half took place at Baltimore addresses. Many more were in the big counties, but they also were spread out — from Williamsport to Crisfield, Aberdeen to Leonardtown, Annapolis to Elkton.

No one has been tracking all of this, looking for patterns that will inform solutions.

Police track crime and various agencies follow causes of death, but that’s not the same thing as looking at what drives gun violence.

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I downloaded a detailed list of all those incidents from the Gun Violence Archive, a nonprofit that collects reports of gun violence from a variety of sources. The average number of deaths comes from Everytown for Gun Safety, an advocacy group. Both numbers are probably an undercount.

“We’re cobbling together data sources to create the most robust picture we can,” Perkins said. “There’s often not a perfect data system in existence to answer all of our questions.”

A photo of Dorothy Paugh’s son Peter, who committed suicide with a gun, sits next to gun safety locks at a press conference hosted by County Executive Steuart Pittman, Ann Arundel department of Health and the Ann Arundel County Public library on April 13, 2023.
Dorothy Paugh’s son Peter, died by suicide with a gun. Anne Arundel County now hands out free gun safety locks at county libraries to help prevent suicides and accidents. (Kaitlin Newman/The Baltimore Banner)

Some people want to keep this information out of reach.

Congress discouraged federal research starting in 1997, an obstacle supported by gun rights groups and removed just two years ago. The Baltimore Banner had to sue the state Office of the Chief Medical Examiner to make autopsy data public.

Predictable opponents showed up in Annapolis to testify against creating the new center, making tired arguments about law enforcement and Second Amendment rights.

“The real solution of Maryland’s crime issues lies not in creating more bureaucratic entities, but rather in strengthening policies and practices that target and punish criminal activity,” said Taylor McKee, regional director for the NRA, the gun rights advocacy group.

The NRA and other powerful interests fear what an evidence-based approach to reducing gun violence casualties will do. It might find that laws on gun purchases or extreme risk protection orders are working, and suggest the need for more.

“I think [opponents are] worried that, as we start to better understand crime gun tracing, this could lead to stronger gun laws to impact gun trafficking, which of course could lead to regulation on the gun industry,” Pauliukonis said. “And data shows that gun laws do work.”

Anne Arundel County isn’t waiting for the center to be launched. Its Gun Violence Intervention Team is sifting through data on crime, student arrests and demographics to develop a youth program.

“You can’t make an action plan unless you know what’s happening on the ground,” Perkins said.

It is using data to evaluate its initiatives and will feed the results back into its evolving picture of what is happening — and how to address it.

I don’t know if Nilesh Kalyanaraman will head up the new gun violence center. Nevertheless, he was on my mind the other day when I pulled up to the scene of a shooting in Pasadena.

It was a gray March afternoon. The ambulances and the TV crews were gone. Detectives were consulting near evidence markers, comparing notes and just talking.

I chatted with a corporal at the perimeter cordon and asked about a public figure who lives down the street.

Someone had called police about a 61-year-old woman, saying she’d shot her cat. Police said the woman stepped out of her townhouse doorway holding the gun as officers arrived at the cul-de-sac full of parked cars, then back inside. She stepped out again. After what police described as a few warnings, she pointed her gun at them.

Officers shot her. She survived. Detectives found the dead cat inside.

How will public health experts look at this — whatever it was — and add it to a picture that might help someone else?

What, I wondered, will the data say?

Rick Hutzell is the Annapolis columnist for The Baltimore Banner. He writes about what’s happening today, how we got here and where we’re going next. The former editor of Capital Gazette, he led the newspaper to a Pulitzer Prize for coverage of the 2018 mass shooting in its newsroom.

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