With two parents as firefighters, Jen Pauliukonis grew up with a strong sense of the importance of serving her community. She decided make her own contributions to society by becoming a teacher. After 20 first graders and six teachers and staff in 2012 died in the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary in December 2012, Jen realized that she wanted to get involved to stop the next shooting.
“I wanted to protect my own children from the same fate and honor those who have died from gun violence by working to end it,” she says. “Gun violence is a disease that spreads from person to person and community to community. Looking at the problem through the lens of public health led me to find meaningful solutions to potential change.”
Toward that end, Jen began volunteering in the gun violence prevention movement, leading a small, grassroots advocacy organization known as Marylanders to Prevent Gun Violence since 2015. She is now the Director of State Affairs at the Educational Fund to Stop Gun Violence, where she develops legislative policy support for partner states across the country.
We spoke to Jen about her commitment to stop gun violence and save lives through policy change.
What drives you, and how did this bring you to your interest in public health?
I feel the need to get involved when I see injustice or hurt in our society. We all have a duty to contribute to our communities and try make them a little better.
What public health-related work have you done that you’re most proud of?
Through my role in state legislative affairs, I work to pass gun violence prevention policy. One of the laws I am most proud of passing is Maryland’s Extreme Risk Protective Order. This law allows law enforcement and families to petition a court to remove firearms from someone showing signs that they are a danger to themselves or others. The extreme risk law can affect all different types of gun violence, including gun suicide, domestic violence, and community shootings. While the policy gets a lot of attention after high-profile mass shootings, it is also a crucial suicide prevention tool. While gun suicides do not receive as much attention as other types of shootings, they make up two-thirds of all gun deaths.
The law Maryland passed is being used to disarm people who could otherwise have harmed themselves, a family member, or the community. While the law is not the final answer to gun violence, I truly believe it is saving lives.
What question or problem in your community keeps you up at night?
Developing and passing gun violence prevention policies is a long and arduous process. Working with researchers, advocates, and legislators to pass bills and ensure their implementation takes years. In the meantime, people are dying. About 100 people a day die from guns. Our country is facing an emergency public health crisis, and our leaders are reacting too slowly and ineffectively. I can’t work fast enough, and people still die.
How is the Bloomberg Fellows Program helping you to tackle that problem?
Through the Bloomberg Fellows Program and the classes at Johns Hopkins, I am learning how to better understand and translate research to learn the most effective policies that will reduce interpersonal gun violence, gun suicide, domestic gun violence, mass shootings, and unintentional shootings. In addition to the content, I am connecting and collaborating with gun violence prevention experts across the country to better understand the root causes of gun violence and how to address the problem from different lenses and strategies.
What impact do you hope you to make as a Bloomberg Fellow?
I have big expectations for the program and myself: I want to learn the most effective policies and programs to reduce gun violence and save lives in states all over the country.
Tell us something surprising or unexpected about yourself or your work.
If I am not working, studying, or taking care of my kids, I am reading or baking. I am obsessed with The Great British Bake-Off and will attempt the technical challenges for fun at home.