Posted By Ian Schwartz

Published:august 28, 2021

-Real Clear Politics

CNN: The director of the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — the nation’s top public health agency — is speaking out forcefully about gun violence in America, calling it a “serious public health threat.”

BERMAN: After decades of silence, the CDC is speaking up about America’s gun violence epidemic. The gun violence archive reports every weekend this summer more than 200 people have been killed on average and nearly 500 injured. In an exclusive interview with CNN’s Elizabeth Cohen, CDC Director Rochelle Walensky is announcing what she plans to do about it. And Elizabeth Cohen joins us now.

People need to know, this is unusual for a CDC director to speak like this.

ELIZABETH COHEN, CNN SENIOR MEDICAL CORRESPONDENT: It is. I mean you would think that they’ve been speaking up for years now, right? I mean gun violence kills tens of thousands of Americans a year. It’s clearly a public health threat. But, actually, for the past about 25 years, CDC directors have been pretty much silent on the topic of gun violence. The fear was that the more they talked, that the NRA, the powerful gun lobby, would pressure Congress to make even more cuts in CDC’s budget. But in my exclusive interview with Dr. Walensky, she says it’s time to speak up.


COHEN (voice over): Guns —

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Oh, he shot that guy in the stomach.

COHEN: They leave a toll of death and despair across America. Mass shootings —

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: The shots just kept coming. So we were going down. And when we got down, there was a man that was shot right there.

COHEN: Urban violence.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We have a victim over here. He’s got gunshots wounds to the left and right side of the chest.

COHEN: Road rage.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: He said, mommy, my — my tummy hurts. So she went and she picked him up and he was bleeding on her.

COHEN: Suicides.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: He walked into a gunshot at 11:02. Somewhere between 3:00 and 4:00 p.m. that afternoon he shot himself.

COHEN: While Americans have begged for an end to this violence —

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We’re not going away.

COHEN: The National Rifle Association is a powerful force in Washington.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Semiautomatic firearm technology has been around for 100 years. They’re the most popular guns for hunting, target shooting, self-defense.

COHEN: In the 1990s, the NRA convinced Congress to cut all of CDCs funding for gun research, a loss equivalent to millions of dollars a year. Fearing further cuts, CDC leaders publicly were all but silent for decades, even as tens of thousands of Americans died from gun violence year after year after year.

But now, in a stunning turn, the current director of the CDC is announcing a plan to reduce gun violence, sharing it exclusively with CNN.

COHEN (on camera): This is actually a stunning moment that a director of the CDC is even talking about this issue, is even using the word guns. It hasn’t happened in years and years.

DR. ROCHELLE WALENSKY, DIRECTOR, CDC: Every day we turn on the news and there are more young people dying. I swore to the president and to this country that I would protect your health.

This is clearly one of those moments, one of those issues that is harming America’s health.

COHEN: But there’s a reason why your predecessors didn’t address it.

WALENSKY: Perhaps.

I want to share my heartfelt gratitude for your —

COHEN (voice over): We’re used to hearing Dr. Rochelle Walensky talk about the COVID-19 pandemic.

WALENSKY: Vaccine safety is a top priority.

COHEN: This is her first interview on America’s epidemic of gun violence.

COHEN (on camera): One recent weekend in Chicago, we had 74 people shot. That same weekend, a party in Florida, five teenagers shot. That same weekend a man in New York City, in Times Square, shot in the back and the list goes on and on, week after week after week. Can anything be done about this?

WALENSKY: Something has to be done about that. So 40,000 firearm- related deaths a year, 120,000 serious firearm-related injuries per year.

The scope of the problem is just bigger than — than we’re even hearing about. And when your heart wrenches every day you turn on the news, you’re only hearing the tip of the iceberg.

COHEN: When you wake up on a Monday morning and you hear all the reports of the children who were shot the previous weekend, as CDC director, what does that feel like to you?

WALENSKY: That’s heavy. It hurts. It — it hurt before I was CDC director.

I think any American citizen that turns on the news just can’t fathom another one of these mass violence issues.

COHEN (voice over): Dr. Walensky’s strategy, restart the gun research.

WALENSKY: My job is to understand and evaluate the problem, to understand the scope of the problem, to understand why this happens and what are the things that can make it better. To research that, to scale that up, to evaluate it and to make sure that we can integrate it into communities. We have a lot of work to do in every single one of those areas because we haven’t done a lot of work as a nation in almost any of them.

COHEN: And this time she wants the CDC to find common ground with gun owners.

WALENSKY: Let’s agree we don’t want people to die. Let’s just agree there. What can we do to stop people from dying?

COHEN: She wants to allay gun owner’s fears.

WALENSKY: Generally the word “gun,” for those who are worried about research in this area, is followed by the word “control.” And that’s not what I want to do here. I’m not here about gun control. I’m here about preventing gun violence and gun death.

COHEN: And she wants to involve gun owners in the CDC research to save lives.

COHEN (on camera): If a gun owner said to you, Dr. Walensky, I’m afraid you want to take away my gun.

WALENSKY: And my answer to that is, come be part of the solution. Come to the table. Join us in the conversation. I don’t want you to feel that way, right? I want you to teach me what you have done to make your gun safe. And then I want you to teach everybody else.

COHEN (voice over): Dr. Walensky’s plan has brought her here to vermont to help solve this problem. According to a 2015 study, in the United States an estimated 4.6 million children lived with a loaded and unlocked gun. That number has likely increased dramatically since then.

KIDS: I pledge allegiance to the flag —

COHEN: These children in Vermont are learning how to shoot guns and how to store them safely. Dr. Chris Barsoti, a gun owner and an emergency room physician, teaches this 4-H community program.


COHEN: By funding this program and studying what they do, and repeating it across the country, Dr. Walensky hopes to prevent accidental gun deaths among children.

WALENSKY: CDC is here, we’re here because today you’re our teachers. We want to learn from you.

COHEN: The CDC is also funding this project at gun shops to help put a stop to gun suicides.

JACQUELYN CLARK, CO-OWNER, BRISTIECONE SHOOTING TRAINING AND RETAIL CENTER: It’s a poster that talks about how gun owners can help, different signs to look for.

COHEN: Dr. Barsoti knows that Dr. Walensky will get pushback.

COHEN (on camera): When gun owners hear that the federal government, the CDC, wants to reduce gun violence, what do they hear?

BARSOTI: I think, at the end of the day, they’re worried about gun confiscation.

COHEN: Confiscation.

BARSOTI: Confiscation. And barriers to access, to purchasing and owning firearms.

COHEN (voice over): CNN reached out to the NRA to ask if they were willing to work with Dr. Walensky, and they did not respond.

But Dr. Walensky stands firm.

COHEN (on camera): If you’re worried that even just saying the word “guns,” you’re even talking about firearms, that you’re going to get a whole sector of the United States just really angry?

WALENSKY: Of course. I also worry that if we don’t do anything about it, we have a whole sector of the United States that’s really angry.

COHEN: How high a priority is this for you?

WALENSKY: This is one of the leading killers of our young people in this country. [07:00:01]

It’s a high priority.