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
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 2334 GMT (0734 HKT)
The world's response to Ebola is its own sort of tragedy, writes John Sutter
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 2033 GMT (0433 HKT)
Hidden away in Russian orphanages are thousands of children with disabilities who aren't orphans, whose harmful treatment has long been hidden from public view, writes Andrea Mazzarino
October 18, 2014 -- Updated 1722 GMT (0122 HKT)
When you hear "trick or treat" this year, think "nudge," writes John Bare
October 18, 2014 -- Updated 0442 GMT (1242 HKT)
The more than 200 kidnapped Nigerian schoolgirls have become pawns in a larger drama, writes Richard Joseph.
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 1345 GMT (2145 HKT)
Peggy Drexler said Amal Alamuddin was accused of buying into the patriarchy when she changed her name to Clooney. But that was her choice.
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 2043 GMT (0443 HKT)
Ford Vox says the CDC's Thomas Frieden is a good man with a stellar resume who has shown he lacks the unique talents and vision needed to confront the Ebola crisis
October 18, 2014 -- Updated 0858 GMT (1658 HKT)
How can such a numerically small force as ISIS take control of vast swathes of Syria and Iraq?
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 1342 GMT (2142 HKT)
How big a threat do foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq pose to the West? It's a question that has been much on the mind of policymakers and commentators.
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 1221 GMT (2021 HKT)
More than a quarter-million American women served honorably in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Now they are home, we have an obligation to help them transition back to civilian life.
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 2027 GMT (0427 HKT)
Paul Begala says Rick Scott's deeply weird refusal to begin a debate because rival Charlie Crist had a fan under his podium spells disaster for the Florida governor--delighting Crist
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 0407 GMT (1207 HKT)
The longer we wait to engage on Ebola, the more limited our options will become, says Marco Rubio.
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 1153 GMT (1953 HKT)
Democratic candidates who run from President Obama in red states where he is unpopular are making a big mistake, says Donna Brazile
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 0429 GMT (1229 HKT)
At some 7 billion people, the world can sometimes seem like a crowded place. But if the latest estimates are to be believed, then in less than a century it is going to feel even more so -- about 50% more crowded, says Evan Fraser
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 1938 GMT (0338 HKT)
Paul Callan says the Ebola situation is pointing up the need for better leadership
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 2245 GMT (0645 HKT)
Nurses are the unsung heroes of the Ebola outbreak. Yet, there are troubling signs we're failing them, says John Sutter
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 1700 GMT (0100 HKT)
Dean Obeidallah says it's a mistake to give up a business name you've invested energy in, just because of a new terrorist group
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 2301 GMT (0701 HKT)
Fear of Ebola is contagious, writes Mel Robbins; but it's time to put the disease in perspective
October 14, 2014 -- Updated 1744 GMT (0144 HKT)
Oliver Kershaw says that if Big Tobacco is given monopoly of e-cigarette products, public health will suffer.
October 18, 2014 -- Updated 1335 GMT (2135 HKT)
Stop thinking your job will make you happy.
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 0208 GMT (1008 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says it's time to deal with another scandal involving the Secret Service — one that leads directly into the White House.
October 14, 2014 -- Updated 1125 GMT (1925 HKT)
Americans who choose to fight for militant groups or support them are young and likely to be active in jihadist social media, says Peter Bergen
October 13, 2014 -- Updated 1303 GMT (2103 HKT)
Stephanie Coontz says 11 years ago only one state allowed same sex marriage. Soon, some 60% of Americans will live where gays can marry. How did attitudes change so quickly?
October 14, 2014 -- Updated 2004 GMT (0404 HKT)
Legalizing assisted suicide seems acceptable when focusing on individuals. But such laws would put many at risk of immense harm, writes Marilyn Golden.
October 13, 2014 -- Updated 1307 GMT (2107 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says the issues are huge, but both parties are wrestling with problems that alienate voters
October 13, 2014 -- Updated 2250 GMT (0650 HKT)
Mel Robbins says the town's school chief was right to cancel the season, but that's just the beginning of what needs to be done
October 11, 2014 -- Updated 1543 GMT (2343 HKT)
He didn't discover that the world was round, David Perry writes. So what did he do?
ADVERTISEMENT