Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage from

Gun violence is a public health epidemic

By Dean Obeidallah, Special to CNN
updated 7:45 AM EST, Fri November 8, 2013
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
updated 5:01 PM EDT, Wed October 22, 2014
Paul Callan says the grand jury is the right process to use to decide if charges should be brought against the police officer
updated 12:19 PM EDT, Thu October 23, 2014
Theresa Brown says the Ebola crisis brought nurses into the national conversation on health care. They need to stay there.
updated 6:35 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Patrick Hornbeck says don't buy the hype: The arguments the Vatican used in its interim report would have virtually guaranteed that same-sex couples remained second class citizens
updated 9:36 AM EDT, Fri October 24, 2014
Paul Begala says Iowa's U.S. Senate candidate, Joni Ernst, told NRA she has right to use gun to defend herself--even from the government. But shooting at officials is not what the Founders had in mind
updated 6:08 PM EDT, Thu October 23, 2014
John Sutter: Why are we so surprised the head of a major international corporation learned another language?
updated 5:54 PM EDT, Thu October 23, 2014
Jason Johnson says Ferguson isn't a downtrodden community rising up against the white oppressor, but it is looking for justice
updated 12:21 PM EDT, Fri October 24, 2014
Sally Kohn says a video of little girls dressed as princesses using the F-word very loudly to condemn sexism is provocative. But is it exploitative?
updated 4:06 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Timothy Stanley says Lewinsky is shamelessly playing the victim in her affair with Bill Clinton, humiliating Hillary Clinton again and aiding her critics
updated 10:14 AM EDT, Thu October 23, 2014
Imagine being rescued from modern slavery, only to be charged with a crime, writes John Sutter
updated 12:00 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Tidal flooding used to be a relatively rare occurrence along the East Coast. Not anymore, write Melanie Fitzpatrick and Erika Spanger-Siegfried.
updated 7:35 AM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Carol Costello says activists, writers, politicians have begun discussing their abortions. But will that new approach make a difference on an old battleground?
updated 9:12 AM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Sigrid Fry-Revere says the National Organ Transplant Act has caused more Americans to die waiting for an organ than died in both World Wars, Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq
updated 2:51 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Crystal Wright says racist remarks like those made by black Republican actress Stacey Dash do nothing to get blacks to join the GOP
updated 6:07 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Mel Robbins says by telling her story, Monica Lewinsky offers a lesson in confronting humiliating mistakes while keeping her head held high
updated 9:29 AM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Cornell Belcher says the story of the "tea party wave" in 2010 was bogus; it was an election determined by ebbing Democratic turnout
updated 4:12 PM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Les Abend says pilots want protocols, preparation and checklists for all contingencies; at the moment, controlling a deadly disease is out of their comfort zone
updated 11:36 PM EDT, Sun October 19, 2014
David Weinberger says an online controversy that snowballed from a misogynist attack by gamers into a culture war is a preview of the way news is handled in a world of hashtag-fueled scandal
updated 8:23 AM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Julian Zelizer says Paul Krugman makes some good points in his defense of President Obama but is premature in calling him one of the most successful presidents.
updated 10:21 PM EDT, Sun October 19, 2014
Conservatives can't bash and slash government and then suddenly act surprised if government isn't there when we need it, writes Sally Kohn
updated 8:05 AM EDT, Wed October 22, 2014
ISIS is looking to take over a good chunk of the Middle East -- if not the entire Muslim world, write Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider.
updated 9:00 AM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
The world's response to Ebola is its own sort of tragedy, writes John Sutter
updated 4:33 PM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
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
updated 1:22 PM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
When you hear "trick or treat" this year, think "nudge," writes John Bare
updated 12:42 AM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
The more than 200 kidnapped Nigerian schoolgirls have become pawns in a larger drama, writes Richard Joseph.
updated 9:45 AM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
Peggy Drexler said Amal Alamuddin was accused of buying into the patriarchy when she changed her name to Clooney. But that was her choice.
updated 4:43 PM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
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
updated 4:58 AM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
How can such a numerically small force as ISIS take control of vast swathes of Syria and Iraq?
updated 9:42 AM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
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.
updated 8:21 AM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
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.
updated 4:27 PM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
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
updated 12:07 AM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
The longer we wait to engage on Ebola, the more limited our options will become, says Marco Rubio.
updated 7:53 AM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Democratic candidates who run from President Obama in red states where he is unpopular are making a big mistake, says Donna Brazile
updated 12:29 AM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
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
updated 12:53 PM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Paul Callan says the Ebola situation is pointing up the need for better leadership
updated 6:45 PM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Nurses are the unsung heroes of the Ebola outbreak. Yet, there are troubling signs we're failing them, says John Sutter
updated 1:00 PM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
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
updated 7:01 PM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Fear of Ebola is contagious, writes Mel Robbins; but it's time to put the disease in perspective
updated 1:44 PM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Oliver Kershaw says that if Big Tobacco is given monopoly of e-cigarette products, public health will suffer.
updated 9:35 AM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
Stop thinking your job will make you happy.
updated 10:08 PM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says it's time to deal with another scandal involving the Secret Service — one that leads directly into the White House.
updated 7:25 AM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
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
updated 9:03 AM EDT, Mon October 13, 2014
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?
updated 4:04 PM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Legalizing assisted suicide seems acceptable when focusing on individuals. But such laws would put many at risk of immense harm, writes Marilyn Golden.
updated 9:07 AM EDT, Mon October 13, 2014
Julian Zelizer says the issues are huge, but both parties are wrestling with problems that alienate voters
updated 6:50 PM EDT, Mon October 13, 2014
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
updated 11:43 AM EDT, Sat October 11, 2014
He didn't discover that the world was round, David Perry writes. So what did he do?
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT