TOMPKINS COUNTY, N.Y.—Approaching gun violence as a public health issue isn’t a wholly new tactic, but it has gained momentum over the last several years as municipalities nationwide grapple with homicides and harm perpetrated by people with guns.

Gun crime isn’t a massive issue in Ithaca or Tompkins County relative to basically anywhere else in New York State, but the county’s Health and Human Services Committee, at the behest of Chair Shawna Black, had requested a presentation from the county health department about potential public health strategies to use to combat gun violence. Watch the presentation here.

The most visible and persistent gun issue in Ithaca, the frequent but still unexplained “shots fired” reports on Spencer Road, actually hasn’t produced any direct victims—at least that have been publicized. There are still examples of gun violence with victims, though: the most recent gun-related homicide in Tompkins County was in October on West State Street in Ithaca, when John Ray Lawton was killed.

Public Health Director Frank Kruppa, acknowledging that he’s not a gun violence expert, laid out the public health model to addressing gun violence, starting with the mindset that gun violence is indeed preventable. He used the American Public Health Association’s bullet points as guidelines for a five-step process:

  • Conduct surveillance to track gun related death and injuries
  • Identify risk factors associated with gun violence (e.g. poverty, depression)
  • Identify resilience or protective factors that guard against gun violence
  • Develop, implement and evaluate interventions to reduce risk factors and build resilience
  • Institutionalize successful prevention strategies

Kruppa said that data monitoring will be key, as even though Tompkins County gun crimes aren’t rampant, they still deserve addressing from a variety of angles.

“Our numbers are often small enough, while still enough to need attention, but they’re small enough that it’s hard to make any strong determinations about what is going to have the biggest impact,” Kruppa said, emphasizing the need for federal and state data as well.

Tompkins County’s data, presented alone, doesn’t seem to be very revelatory, though it’s only shown until 2018, data that may not be complete, Kruppa said.

Further on firearm-related crimes that are known to police, Kruppa presented other information from 2012-2018, showing that gun crime in New York State overall was much higher than in Tompkins County per 10,000 people. Cortland County, used for comparison, had less gun crime than Tompkins County during that period, though Tompkins’ reduced substantially in 2018 (a trend matched in the state numbers as well, though Kruppa theorized that complete data might not be available for that year yet).

Included in the presentation were figures on gun-related suicides, which actually outpace deaths from gun-related homicides—the extent to which Legislator Mike Sigler said was surprising. Sixty percent of firearm deaths are from suicide, Kruppa said. In Tompkins County, there were three homicides using firearms from 2016-2019—in that same span of time, there were 11 suicides using a gun, according to information gleaned from the Tompkins County Medical Examiner.

“As we talk about gun violence, we very much need to be talking about depression, mental illness, anxiety, as a key area for this,” Kruppa said.

Matt Butler

Matt Butler is the Education & Public Health Reporter at the Ithaca Voice. He can be reached by email at mbutler@ithacavoice.com