By Lynne Hendricks
---- — Before he introduced his plan this week for strengthening the nation’s gun control laws, President Barack Obama gathered a panel of experts to help guide the administration’s new policy.
They made their way to the White House just after the new year, a group of about 15 participants called to lend their voice to a conversation that could possibly influence the president’s proposal and reshape the future.
Among them was Suzanne Dubus. The executive director of the Jeanne Geiger Crisis Center in Newburyport was summoned by the office of Vice President Joe Biden.
Dubus, who grew up in Haverhill and still has strong ties to the city, had been to the White House twice before to be recognized for her work with domestic violence victims. The call concerning gun control was one she immediately accepted.
“It was such an honor to be included,” said Dubus, who lives in Exeter, N.H. “I got the email a few days before the meeting asking if I would like to go. Fresh on the tragedy of Newtown, my initial reaction was, ‘How could you not go?’’’
Dubus and her team of trained employees at the crisis center have extensive experience dealing with many of the issues that drive gun violence. In recent years, they have begun playing a central role in sharing that training to communities across the country through the center’s Domestic Violence High-Risk Team.
Dubus believes the White House sought her perspective because of the organization’s front-line connection to families in crisis as a result of gun and other kinds of violence.
While neither the president nor vice president were at the meeting she attended, Dubus said top-level administrators and staff, including the White House adviser on domestic violence issues, were there.
Dubus said it was Biden’s intention to get participants talking about guns and gun violence and sharing their experiences. Dubus offered some of the specific lessons she has learned in developing the crisis center’s high-risk team.
“We’ve been so successful in homicide reduction here and really identifying violent offenders and working to keep victims safer,” Dubus said. “We make sure everybody has training. We make sure we are paying attention to the right risk factors and that we are the repository for that information.
“If one of the team members hears about a case or a case is brought to the organization, they bring it to the team,’’ she said. “Not only do we hold the information, but we are also empowered to provide services to the victim or contain the offender. Those three things are what is lacking in a lot of these mass shootings.”
Dubus said in the case of the Virginia Tech shooter, for example, several people disclosed after the tragedy that they were aware the gunman had weapons and were afraid of him, but they had no one to report that information to.
“There was no group taking responsibility to report that,” Dubus said. “Had they reported it, they didn’t have the tools to do anything about it.”
Citing an interview with crime expert James Allen Fox, Dubus said 100 percent of the mass shooters in the last 20 years were themselves victims of bullying or early childhood violence. Dubus was intent on keeping that fact front and center during the two-hour meeting in Washington.
“I wanted to make sure people in that room stayed focused on that,” Dubus said. “As domestic violence advocates, we have a role to help (victims) heal in a way so that they truly heal so they can move forward in society with healthy lives rather than the opposite.
“We have a responsibility to put systems in place to help screen in campuses and schools and communities to make sure the most violent offenders come to the attention of those who can do something about it,” she said.
In general, Dubus said she felt the overriding tone of the session was that there are good laws in place, but that they’re not enforced in a uniform way.
“In one state, they do a really good job of taking firearms away from people with violent restraining orders,’’ she said. “Other states don’t even touch them. If we could get some uniform enforcement of some really good gun laws, that could help.’’
The issue of gun violence is a personal one for Dubus. In participating in events like the conversation on gun control, she feels she’s carrying the flame for clients like Dorothy Guinta-Cotter, whose husband shot and killed her and then himself in their Amesbury home in 2002.
But she also thinks about all the individuals the crisis center has helped — and could help — if training could reach more people.
“When you can be quiet, and when you’re not thinking about policy issues and fundraising, you really reflect on the impact,” Dubus said. “You can never think about this work without thinking about the people you’ve lost and those you’ve saved. I always get teary when I’m there — it just feels so important.”
Dubus said she feels optimistic seeing the Obama administration making gun violence a priority.
“What a special honor to be able to have some kind of impact,’ she said, “some positive change moving forward so that 20 years from now, our culture changes so much that gun violence is part of our history.’’