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Statistics and tears prompt Washington University to take aim at gun violence

Black semi-automatic pistol
(via Flickr/kcds)

Ask Washington University Chancellor Mark Wrighton why the school is embarking on a year-long effort to determine causes and solutions to gun violence, and he has a host of statistics and academic rationales to make his case:

  • The cost to the nation of $174 billion each year.
  • More than 11,000 U.S. homicides and nearly twice that number of suicides from firearms in 2013.
  • Missouri’s ranking of fourth in the nation for killings with guns.

But Wrighton's wife, Risa Zwerling Wrighton, has a far more emotional argument, one that moves her to tears.
In December, 16-old-year Chelsea Harris was gunned down on a south St. Louis street in mid-afternoon. Mrs. Wrighton had been involved with Chelsea since she was 9 years old through a mentoring program, and she helped guide Chelsea through the trials of adolescence and the dangers of a tough environment.

The killing prompted Mrs. Wrighton to want to do more to help prevent such deaths. She wrote about her reaction in the Post-Dispatch the week after the shooting, evoking Joni Mitchell’s song “Chelsea Morning”:

“My heart is broken not only because of Chelsea but because of all the Chelseas out there who won’t feel the sun on their faces anymore. There are many factors that contribute to violence in our communities and we have to work on them all — but we can’t get any traction until the guns are gone.”

The Washington University effort isn’t designed to devise a legislative solution or remove firearms from the street, the Wrightons said in a recent interview. But starting with a kickoff program next week, it will analyze the issue as a public health crisis and try to find the facts needed before any serious effort to solve the problem of gun violence can hope to succeed. It will address questions such as:

  • How many guns are out there?
  • Who has them?
  • What are the medical costs for thousands of shootings?
  • What do they cost the community?
  • How can the streets be made safer?

“The personal tragedy that came our way is one related to the use of guns in criminal activity,” Wrighton said. “But there are accidents. There are incidents that stem from mental health challenges that people face. And we feel there are areas where we can contribute to filling the knowledge gaps that will help us address this challenge.”
Adds Mrs. Wrighton:

“We get so immune to hearing about shootings. We read about it in the paper every day. But when one of these bullets pierces your -- what you think -- safe life, you need to stop and think about doing something.”

Ups and downs

When Mrs. Wrighton, whose training is in social work, became involved with Chelsea through the Discovering Options program, Chelsea's life began to turn around.

“She had to go through an after-school program to win her mentor,” she recalled. “And I was the prize. Chelsea was this 9-year-old little girl who came from a fairly difficult family circumstance. I saw her weekly, and we were very close for a number of years, and I continue to  stay close with the family.

“She was making great progress. I was able to help the family get her into the Lift for Life Academy, which was a wonderful environment for her. It gave her a stability that was lacking in a lot of other areas of her life. She was planning on going to college. She would have been the only person in her family to really even get to the point where she could consider that.”

Not that the relationship was always an easy one, she added. They didn’t exactly become best friends forever right off the bat.

“Chelsea got into trouble a lot,” Mrs. Wrighton said. “She had a lot of people in her family who came to her rescue. And there were a lot of agencies that worked very hard to give this young woman the opportunities that she started grabbing hold of. Chelsea was kind of sullen. She was hard to win over.”

But, she added, “she was beautiful. She had a lot of talent. She was intelligent. And that, I think, is part of the joy in staying in this relationship and going through the ups and downs. Because once she blossomed and started reaching and actually starting to enjoy her relationship with me and with other people and wasn’t so enmeshed in a lot of the sorrow that had surrounded her, she got to be happier.”

Risa Wrighton and Chelsea Harris
Credit Provided
Risa Wrighton and Chelsea Harris at Chelsea's sixth grade graduation from Herzog Elementary School in 2010

With that happiness, Mrs. Wrighton added, came trust, with a side order of seafood.

“I believe it was the Red Lobster,” she recalled tearfully. “And I think Mark met us for dinner. Over an enormous plate of food, she opened up. And then she started saying ‘Love you’ on the phone, even though we’d had these rather difficult phone conversations when there’s only one person talking. But if I’d say goodbye, she’d say, ‘Love you, Miss Risa.’ ”

Then came the shooting on a mid-December afternoon in the 4600 block of Dewey Avenue, when Chelsea was killed as she got out of a car with an 18-year-old friend who was shot and critically injured. The gunman fled; a few days later, a suspect was arrested and charged with murder and armed criminal action.

“Her grandmother called me one afternoon,” Mrs. Wrighton said. “I picked up the phone and she said, ‘Chelsea’s dead.’ That’s the tragic end to this lovely young woman.

“This is a personal tragedy for so many of us, but – not but, and – we can’t help but think of all of the other children who were shot down.”

Raising awareness

Wrighton recalls how the mourning he and his wife went through for Chelsea turned into an effort to prevent such deaths in the future.

“As we interacted and talked about it. It stimulated us to think about how could we engage people who could help us understand, gain the knowledge," he said. "And with the talented people we have here at Washington University, and the launch of our Institute for Public Health, we discussed that this would be an opportunity for us to raise awareness.”

He pointed to a 2013 report from the Institute of Medicine that focuses on what questions need to be asked and answered to get to the root causes of firearm violence. One of the report’s authors, Alan Leshner, will be the keynote speaker at the university’s conference on Tuesday.

Wrighton noted that Saint Louis University and the University of Missouri-St. Louis, the area’s other research universities, are also involved in the effort.

“In our community, we believe we can mobilize talented people, raise consciousness among many and hopefully develop a research agenda that we will execute to fill the knowledge gap," he said.

Washington U. Chancellor Mark Wrighton
Credit Washington University
Washington University Chancellor Mark Wrighton

“I’m confident from what we’ve seen in overcoming other public health challenges — like the adverse consequences from the use of tobacco, or the challenge we face in our country with traffic accidents — that complex problems can be solved when you bring talented people from different fields together to address them.”

Wrighton said the effort has no legislative agenda, and he has not reached out to groups that have traditionally worked against restrictions on the use of firearms.

“We do know that there is a legal right for people to have guns, and we do not anticipate changing the Constitution," he said. "I’m a very strong supporter of the opportunity that people have for recreation and sports in connection with guns.

“However, I think as we see the accidents, that we can lessen the incidence of death and injury from those kinds of accidents that involve guns.”

A representative of the National Rifle Association did not respond to a request for comment on the Washington University's effort.

Wrighton said the university did not have a specific budget for the program and said it was investing what he called “modest resources” at this point.

What will success for the effort look like?

“The action agenda is not going to be one where you say, ‘I’m undertaking a project, and in five years the problem will be solved,’” Wrighton said. “The nature of this challenge is one of great complexity, and it’s one where we’re going to have to develop lifelong procedures for proper use and handling of guns.”

And from her social work perspective, Mrs. Wrighton added:

“There’s a lot that this school can contribute in terms of understanding violence and criminal activity, and how that spawns from hopelessness and poverty. So we can intervene, hopefully, early in people’s lives so that they can make healthier choices and don’t feel hopeless, and there are ways to say not to guns and yes to other opportunities.”

On a personal level, would Mrs. Wrighton try again to steer an individual toward that kind of  safer lifestyle?

“It was a wonderful experience,” she said of her mentoring Chelsea. “And I would do it again in a heartbeat. I really can’t resist. It’s the social worker in me. It’s just part of my nature.”

Dale Singer began his career in professional journalism in 1969 by talking his way into a summer vacation replacement job at the now-defunct United Press International bureau in St. Louis; he later joined UPI full-time in 1972. Eight years later, he moved to the Post-Dispatch, where for the next 28-plus years he was a business reporter and editor, a Metro reporter specializing in education, assistant editor of the Editorial Page for 10 years and finally news editor of the newspaper's website. In September of 2008, he joined the staff of the Beacon, where he reported primarily on education. In addition to practicing journalism, Dale has been an adjunct professor at University College at Washington U. He and his wife live in west St. Louis County with their spoiled Bichon, Teddy. They have two adult daughters, who have followed them into the word business as a communications manager and a website editor, and three grandchildren. Dale reported for St. Louis Public Radio from 2013 to 2016.