Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage from

Gun violence is a public health epidemic

By Dean Obeidallah, Special to CNN
November 8, 2013 -- Updated 1245 GMT (2045 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Shootings in Dean Obeidallah's hometown made the issue of gun violence personal
  • Obeidallah no longer thinks gun violence only happens to other people in other places
  • Obeidallah: Constant reports of murders at schools, shops, seem normal, everyday
  • He says if 30,000 died a year by disease instead of guns, we would end the epidemic

Editor's note: Dean Obeidallah, a former attorney, is a political comedian and frequent commentator on various TV networks including CNN. He is the co-director of the new comedy documentary "The Muslims Are Coming!" It was released recently. Follow him on Twitter @deanofcomedy.

(CNN) -- "Don't know if you heard reports of shots fired in Paramus Garden State Plaza -- suspect in body armor and carrying long rifle."

I received this text from a friend at 9:59 on Monday evening. This would be a disturbing message for anyone to read, but it was especially alarming to me because Paramus, New Jersey -- the place where the shooting was taking place -- is my hometown.

We have all watched media reports of heart-breaking gun violence at grammar schools, universities, barbershops, movie theaters, shopping malls, workplaces, airports. But it feels different when your hometown is on the national news as the location. You truly get the sense that no place is safe.

Dean Obeidallah
Dean Obeidallah

My first instinct after hearing about the shooting was to call my mother. The Garden State Plaza mall is near her home and she often shops there. Although she's usually home most nights by 9 p.m., as luck would have it, my mother was out that night.

She doesn't have a cell phone so I was frantically calling relatives in the Paramus area. But no one had heard from her. There was live coverage of heavily armed SWAT Teams preparing to enter the shopping center and a sea of police cars surrounding the mall. Witnesses said a man dressed in black, wearing a helmet and carrying a long gun was firing in the mall.

My thoughts moved quickly between assuring myself that she was not at the mall to fearing the worst -- it's impossible not to think of the horror your loved one might be enduring.

Thankfully, it turned out my mother was at a Paramus diner watching the news coverage with other patrons. After reaching her, I felt like an anxious parent, scolding her for not calling earlier to say she was OK and for making me worry. It's odd how the parent-child relationship can become reversed in certain situations.

While the gunman didn't shoot anyone but himself, it was a wake-up call. My belief that gun violence only happens to other people in other parts of the country changed on Monday night. If you believe that your hometown or your family are immune from gun violence, you are wrong. It will touch your life at some point, if it hasn't already.

New details on NJ mall shooter
High-profile shootings: the new normal?

Are we going to simply accept this fate or change public policy to save lives?

We live in a nation where schoolteachers are not only charged with educating children but with putting their lives on the line to save them. We saw that just a few weeks ago in a small Nevada town and of course with the horrific tragedy at Sandy Hook elementary school last year.

It used to be that most parents' greatest fear was that something bad would happen to their children as they walked to and from school. But with the rash of school shootings, it seems that the walk back and forth may be the safest part of the school day.

Look, if you're OK with about 30,000 people being killed in this country each year by guns: Stop reading this. But for the rest of us, it's time we change the conversation from the idea of "gun control" to one of public health -- a public health crisis. If a disease killed more than 30,000 Americans each year, including lots of children, we would be united in our resolve to find a cure. We need to have some effective approach to the epidemic.

Here are a few suggestions:

Congress should revisit imposing a universal background check for gun purchases so that criminals and mentally ill people can't buy guns. This law is supported by 90% of Americans, including 74% of NRA members.

Remedy the deficient reporting by certain states of mental health data to the FBI's National Instant Criminal Background Check System so that background checks will work.

Enact a national standard to require secure storage of weapons in homes to prevent children -- and criminals -- from getting access to them. This should also hold adults criminally liable if they fail to store guns safely. Fewer than 20 states have this law in place. This would also combat accidental shootings and lower the number of people committing suicide by gun, which is nearly 20,000 a year.

If you have other suggestions -- even outlandish ones -- please share them in the comments. We can no longer remain silent, hoping for the best, as gun violence kills our fellow Americans. Remember, you too could receive a text message about a gunman in your hometown, and the result may not be as fortunate as it was in my case.

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter.

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Dean Obeidallah.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1349 GMT (2149 HKT)
Patrick Cronin and Kelley Sayler say the world is seeing nonstate groups such as Ukraine's rebels wielding more power to do harm than ever before
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 2205 GMT (0605 HKT)
Ukraine ambassador Olexander Motsyk places blame for the MH17 tragedy squarely at the door of Russia
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1142 GMT (1942 HKT)
Mark Kramer says Russia and its proxies have a history of shooting down civilian aircraft, often with few repercussions
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1853 GMT (0253 HKT)
Les Abend says, with rockets flying over Tel Aviv and missiles shooting down MH17 over Ukraine, a commercial pilot's pre-flight checklist just got much more complicated
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1317 GMT (2117 HKT)
Mark Kramer says Russia and its proxies have a history of shooting down civilian aircraft, often with few repercussions
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1637 GMT (0037 HKT)
Gerard Jacobs says grieving families and nations need the comfort of traditional rituals to honor the remains of loved ones, particularly in a mass disaster
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1413 GMT (2213 HKT)
The idea is difficult to stomach, but John Sutter writes that eating dog is morally equivalent to eating pig, another intelligent animal. If Americans oppose it, they should question their own eating habits as well.
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 1630 GMT (0030 HKT)
Bill van Esveld says under the laws of war, civilians who do not join in the fight are always to be protected. An International Criminal Court could rule on whether Israeli airstrikes and Hamas rocketing are war crimes.
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 1205 GMT (2005 HKT)
LZ Granderson says Ronald Reagan went horseback riding and took a vacation after the Korean Air Crash of 1983. So why does the GOP keep airbrushing history to bash Obama?
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 1338 GMT (2138 HKT)
Aaron Miller says Kerry needs the cooperation of Hamas, Israel, Egypt and others if he is to succeed in his peacemaking efforts
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 1251 GMT (2051 HKT)
Errol Louis says the tragic death of Eric Garner at the hands of the NYPD has its roots in the "broken windows" police strategy from the crime-ridden '80s.
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 1408 GMT (2208 HKT)
Gordon Brown says the kidnapped Nigerian girls have been in captivity for 100 days, but the world has not forgotten them.
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 1127 GMT (1927 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says Texas Gov. Rick Perry is right to immediately send 1,000 National Guard troops to the U.S.-Mexico border in response to the border children crisis.
July 22, 2014 -- Updated 1356 GMT (2156 HKT)
Ukraine's president says the downing of MH17 was a terrorist act, but Richard Barrett says it would be considered terrorism only if it was intentional
July 22, 2014 -- Updated 2015 GMT (0415 HKT)
Robert McIntyre says the loophole that lets firms avoid taxes should be closed
July 22, 2014 -- Updated 1535 GMT (2335 HKT)
Jeronimo Saldana and Malik Burnett say Gov. Perry's plan to send National Guard to the border won't solve the escalating immigration problem.
July 22, 2014 -- Updated 1742 GMT (0142 HKT)
Sally Kohn: The world's fish and waters are polluted and under threat. Be very careful what fish you eat
July 22, 2014 -- Updated 1242 GMT (2042 HKT)
Les Abend says threat information that pilots respond to is only as good as the intelligence from air traffic controllers. And none of it is a match for a radar-guided missile
July 21, 2014 -- Updated 1235 GMT (2035 HKT)
Frida Ghitis: Anger over MH17 is growing against pro-Russia separatists. It's time for the Dutch government to lead, she writes
July 21, 2014 -- Updated 1227 GMT (2027 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says President Obama called inequality the "defining challenge" of our time but hasn't followed through.
July 21, 2014 -- Updated 1157 GMT (1957 HKT)
Gene Seymour says the 'Rockford Files' actor worked the persona of the principled coward, charming audiences on big and small screen for generations
July 21, 2014 -- Updated 1417 GMT (2217 HKT)
Daniel Treisman says that when the Russian leader tied his fate to the Ukraine separatists, he set the stage for his current risky predicament
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1642 GMT (0042 HKT)
Andrew Kuchins says urgent diplomacy -- not sanctions -- is needed to de-escalate the conflict in Ukraine that helped lead to the downing of an airliner there.
July 19, 2014 -- Updated 0150 GMT (0950 HKT)
Jim Hall and Peter Goelz say there should be an immediate and thorough investigation into what happened to MH17.
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1507 GMT (2307 HKT)
Pilot Bill Palmer says main defense commercial jets have against missiles is to avoid flying over conflict areas.
July 20, 2014 -- Updated 1755 GMT (0155 HKT)
Valerie Jarrett says that working women should not be discriminated against because they are pregnant.
July 21, 2014 -- Updated 1953 GMT (0353 HKT)
David Wheeler says the next time you get a difficult customer representative, think about recording the call.
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1933 GMT (0333 HKT)
Newt Gingrich says the more dangerous the world becomes the more Obama hides in a fantasy world.
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1011 GMT (1811 HKT)
Michael Desch: It's hard to see why anyone, including Russia and its local allies, would have intentionally targeted the Malaysian Airlines flight
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 1914 GMT (0314 HKT)
LZ Granderson says we must remember our visceral horror at the news of children killed in an airstrike on a Gaza beach next time our politicians talk of war
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 1206 GMT (2006 HKT)
Sally Kohn says now the House GOP wants to sue Obama for not implementing a law fast enough, a law they voted down 50 times, all reason has left the room.
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 1214 GMT (2014 HKT)
A street sign for Wall Street
Sens. Elizabeth Warren, John McCain and others want to scale back the "too big to fail" banks that put us at risk of another financial collapse.
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 2016 GMT (0416 HKT)
Newt Gingrich writes an open letter to Robert McDonald, the nominee to head the Veterans Administration.
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1601 GMT (0001 HKT)
Paul Begala says Dick Cheney has caused an inordinate amount of damage yet continues in a relentless effort to revise the history of his failures.
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1404 GMT (2204 HKT)
Kids who takes cell phones to bed are not sleeping, says Mel Robbins. Make them park their phones with the parents at night.
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1625 GMT (0025 HKT)
Buzz Aldrin looked at planet Earth as he stood on talcum-like lunar dust 45 years ago. He thinks the next frontier should be Mars.
July 16, 2014 -- Updated 1804 GMT (0204 HKT)
Mark Zeller never thought my Afghan translator would save his life by killing two Taliban fighters who were about to kill him. The Taliban retaliated by placing him on the top of its kill list.
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 1518 GMT (2318 HKT)
Jeff Yang says an all-white cast of Asian characters in cartoonish costumes is racially offensive.
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 0124 GMT (0924 HKT)
Gary Ginsberg says the late John F. Kennedy Jr.'s reaction to an event in 1995 summed up his character
July 16, 2014 -- Updated 1641 GMT (0041 HKT)
Meg Urry says most falling space debris lands on the planet harmlessly and with no witnesses.
ADVERTISEMENT