Researchers at Johns Hopkins University are hoping to capitalize on the student-led gun safety movement by offering a free online course, which begins Monday, to teach the academic research and strategies they say are the best weapon to curb gun violence.
Gun violence experts put the course together after hundreds of thousands of people — many of them students — participated in March For Our Lives last year, calling for tighter gun laws.
"Following the shooting in Parkland and the youth advocacy that we saw, we noticed there was a gap in knowledge," said Cassandra Crifasi, the deputy director of the Center for Gun Policy and Research and one of the core lecturers for the online course. It's called Reducing Gun Violence in America: Evidence For Change.
"There are different information sources," she said, "but sometimes they conflict and we wanted to create one resource that would be freely available to anyone."
The course is aimed at high school and college-aged people, but it's open to anyone. Coursera, the online platform hosting the course, says this is the first class related to gun violence that the company has offered.
The hope is to get participants up to speed on "relevant legal issues and effectively use data" central to the nation's policy debate on guns. Researchers want young activists to lean on decades of public health research when working with policymakers and candidates seeking elective office.
"And sort of push back against some of the claims you hear like, 'Oh, you know the only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun,' " Crifasi said, a nod to the mantra embraced by many gun rights groups, in particular the National Rifle Association.
Crifasi says information in the course addresses "that myth."
She expects blowback from gun rights groups about the course. One writer for the website Bearing Arms warned the course may "push the anti-gun position" onto students. "That means they'll be facing indoctrination in anti-gun pseudoscience masquerading as unbiased research. That's a problem," they wrote.
Crifasi hopes being a gun owner herself can help diffuse some of those knee-jerk reactions.
"I'm a responsible gun owner and I don't want people to take my guns away. ... Let's work together to come up with strategies that reduce gun violence but also are also respectful of the culture of gun ownership and the Second Amendment," Crifasi said.
When asked if anyone from gun rights organizations was invited to participate as faculty in the course, the response was blunt.
"No, we did not. For a variety of reasons," Crifasi said.
She points to a stark statistic from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that showed nearly 40,000 people were fatally shot in 2017.
"We didn't want to have to have this be a debate of whether there's an issue or not, right?" Crifasi said. "We have a substantial burden in this country."
Ashley Courneya, a college freshman living in Rochester, Minn., began learning to shoot guns at age 7. She participated in competitive sports shooting in high school and was featured in NPR's documentary Teens On Guns In America released earlier this year.
She's in the demographic Hopkins researchers is hoping to attract.
But Courneya, who said politically she's an independent, admits she's less eager to sign up for the course because more conservative viewpoints on guns won't be heard.
"I think I'd still be interested in taking the course just to see what it's about, even though it doesn't have conservative aspects," she said. "But I think when you're doing something that's meant to inform people, you need to account for both sides."
Hope to attract 20,000 registrants per year
The free online course space is crowded, but the Hopkins course has the potential for "different measures of success," said Gayle Christensen, associate vice provost for global affairs at the University of Washington. She's not involved in the course but has researched massive open online courses.
If students complete the more than 540 minutes of lectures and related course work, they receive a certificate. But even if they don't finish the course, she says there's a benefit to students sharing what they've learned in the course on social media.
Christensen said so if you get a lot of posts saying: " 'You have to get on this! You have to watch, it'll matter for you' and that will then perhaps have other students or young people will engage with the material that wouldn't have thought about engaging with it otherwise."
Previous massive open online courses offered by Hopkins have attracted millions of registrants, according the university. For this one, university officials hope to enroll 20,000 students per year.
AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
Johns Hopkins University has launched a free online course on preventing gun violence. It's meant for young activists as a way to teach them about the latest research and strategies for advocacy. Critics see it as an effort to spread anti-gun propaganda. NPR's Brakkton Booker reports.
BRAKKTON BOOKER, BYLINE: Cassandra Crifasi is deputy director of the Center for Gun Policy and Research at Johns Hopkins University.
CASSANDRA CRIFASI: We teach courses in universities and in centers across the U.S. on gun violence, but there is not yet something that is online and freely accessible to folks.
BOOKER: It's called Reducing Gun Violence in America: Evidence for Change. Topics range from community and clinical interventions on preventing gun violence to this lesson on ensuring firearm safety.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
CRIFASI: And so always keeping a gun pointed in a safe direction, ejecting the magazine, opening and locking it back to make sure there's nothing in the chamber - and now I know that this gun is safe to handle.
BOOKER: As the name suggests, researchers want to equip students with the best available data on the dangers of guns. Crifasi expects blowback from groups supportive of gun rights. But being a gun owner herself, she hopes to defuse some knee-jerk reactions.
CRIFASI: I am a responsible gun owner, and I don't want people to take my guns away. So like, let's work together to come up with strategies that reduce gun violence but also are respectful of the culture of gun ownership and the Second Amendment.
BOOKER: Crifasi says there should be no argument on whether the U.S. has a gun problem. She points to a statistic from the CDC to justify why no pro-gun groups, like the NRA, were invited to guest lecture.
CRIFASI: We didn't want to have this be a debate of whether there is an issue or not. Right? There is an issue of gun violence. Almost 40,000 people died of a gun related death in 2017. Like, we have a substantial burden in this country.
BOOKER: Eighteen-year-old Ashley Courneya is a college freshman living in Rochester, Minn. She was introduced to guns by her dad at age 7. And Courneya tells me over Skype, it took a few years before sport shooting grew on her.
ASHLEY COURNEYA: Twelve years old, that's when I kind of started to fall in love with the shotgun stuff and started hunting.
BOOKER: Courneya is in the target demo Hopkins researchers want for the course, young and relates to the gun safety movement kicked off after last year's deadly shooting in Parkland, Fla. But, she adds, knowing more conservative gun views won't be heard makes her less eager to sign up.
COURNEYA: I think I would still be interested in taking the course to just see what it was about even though it doesn't have the conservative aspect. But I think when you're doing something that is meant to inform people, like, you need to account for both sides.
BOOKER: Not to mention carving out time for another class - one she may not even get credit for - is a bit of a tough sell.
GAYLE CHRISTENSEN: That's a challenge we're all facing if we're trying to teach in regular classrooms or - and even more of a challenge online.
BOOKER: That's Gayle Christensen of the University of Washington. She's done research on massive open online courses, or MOOCs, like the one Hopkins is launching. Christensen says the MOOC space is crowded, but this course has potential to break through.
CHRISTENSEN: So there could be, you know, sort of different measures of success for this.
BOOKER: One, if students make it through the more than 600 minutes of lectures and related coursework to earn a certificate or, two, even if they don't finish, students share what they've learned on social media.
CHRISTENSEN: And that will then perhaps have other students or young people engaged with the material that wouldn't have thought about engaging with it otherwise.
BOOKER: The gun violence prevention course went live today, and Hopkins officials hope 20,000 students a year sign up.
Brakkton Booker, NPR News.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILOUS' "DUSK") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.