Speeches & Commentary

Addressing gun violence: We must raise a collective voice

“Children in St. Louis have been killed at 10 times the national rate.”

That was a heart-wrenching news headline that should cause us all to sit up and take notice. Reading these words makes it become abundantly clear that the impact of gun violence in this region we call home has reached crisis proportions.

Any life lost is tragic. But even more alarming is the staggering number of young lives lost. The collective loss just this year is equivalent to some of the worst mass shootings in our country’s history. This has unfortunately become our reality. And it is imperative that we take action now to shape a new future.

Individually, BJC HealthCare and Washington University represent two of the largest organizations in the St. Louis region. Together, we partner to provide the region’s largest safety net of basic and life-saving health care. Simultaneously, we have become convinced that we must do everything we can to stop this heartbreaking loss of life in our communities. We understand that violence is a complex issue that will require a diverse set of partners taking action on a number of fronts.

There have been some encouraging signs: Summit meetings attended by state and local government officials. A decision by the Missouri Senate president to convene an eight-member working group to consider creation of a special committee on gun violence. An announcement by Gov. Mike Parson that the state of Missouri will be providing supplemental law enforcement in the City of St. Louis. Funding for anti-violence initiatives. All good first steps, which we vigorously applaud. But this is just a start.

More has to be done. And it has to be done now.

Today, we are issuing a public appeal to our state legislators to make sensible changes to Missouri state law that will grant to local governments the ability to establish stricter gun safety requirements within their municipal and county boundaries. We believe that focusing directly on reducing access to guns in our urban areas will have an immediate and positive impact on curbing the violence that has led to the deaths of far too many innocent children.

And we hope others will join us. We must raise a collective voice — loud and clear — that the time has come for bolder action. We must demonstrate to our elected officials that there is strong public support for their leadership on this issue. We must come together to cross political divides and demonstrate unity around this cause.

At the same time, we recognize that, as employers, we have a role to play. Both of us are prepared to make a commitment to help address the endemic social issues that are at the foundation of the violence our communities are experiencing. We will immediately engage with local elected officials, law enforcement, non-profit agencies and others to work together to change this trajectory of violence.

We have also identified expanding employment opportunities, making wraparound social services and mental health care more accessible to the victims and perpetrators of violence, and opening doors of opportunity through comprehensive education, training and mentorship for those members of our community who do not believe the dream of a better life is within their reach. Two recent announcements are intended to demonstrate that commitment. BJC will join Washington University in raising our minimum starting hourly salary to $15 per hour over the next two years. And Washington University, as previously announced, will cover the costs of tuition, room and board, and fees for admitted students from Missouri and Southern Illinois whose families have incomes of $75,000 or less.

As organizations who feel privileged to call St. Louis and the state of Missouri home, we each commit to doing our part — including working with our local, state and federally elected officials — to ensure the stranglehold of violence in our cities and counties is eradicated. We believe all who live, work and visit here deserve nothing less.

Rich Liekweg is the president and chief executive of BJC HealthCare, and Andrew D. Martin is the chancellor of Washington University.

Published Oct. 23, 2019 by the St. Louis Post-Dispatch