"Gun Violence: A public health crisis" panelists included (l to r): David Jacobs, medical director of trauma services at Atrium Health; Larry Hyatt, owner of Hyatt Guns; Moms Demand Action founder Shannon Watts; Mecklenburg County Sheriff Garry McFadden; U.S. Rep. Alma Adams; and Malcolm Graham, president of the Cynthia Graham Hurd Foundation. Photo: Qcitymetro

Former North Carolina senator Malcolm Graham recounted the night of June 17, 2015. He and his wife, Kim, were getting ready to retire for the evening as he watched a last bit of news. Little did he realize that in seconds, he would read a headline that would forever impact him. Scrolling across the CNN news ticker read, “Shooting in Charleston at Emanuel AME Church; nine feared dead.”

Malcolm’s sister, Cynthia Graham Hurd, was one of nine people killed when Dylan Roof, an avowed white supremacist, opened fire targeting Black parishioners at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina. In the aftermath, Graham made two promises to his sister: he’d fight racism and bigotry whenever he saw it and that he’d advocate for common-sense gun laws.

On Thursday evening at Johnson C. Smith University, Graham shared his story as part of a forum addressing gun violence as a public health crisis. It kicked off the Charlotte Amateur Tennis Championship weekend, a series of events benefiting the Cynthia Graham Hurd Foundation.

RELATED: Charlotte Amateur Tennis Championship honors Charleston shooting victim

Panelists also included U.S. Rep. Alma Adams; Mecklenburg County Sheriff Garry McFadden; Moms Demand Action founder Shannon Watts; Larry Hyatt, owner of Hyatt Guns; and David Jacobs, medical director of trauma services at Atrium Health.

The conversation comes on the heels of recent mass shootings in El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio, and as Charlotte-Mecklenburg police investigate the city’s 71st homicide of the year.

“If lawmakers do the right things, we will have their backs. If they do not, we will have their jobs,” said Watts, who leads the grassroots movement of red-shirt-wearing activists addressing gun violence and advocating for common-sense gun laws.

She continued, “If more guns and fewer gun laws made us safer, we’d be the safest country in the world.”

RELATED: Alma Adams: Mass killings must not become our ‘new normal’

Hyatt, who owns one of the nation’s largest gun shops, said he worries with every sell what the person might do when they leave. When the store opened in 1959, Hyatt said hunting was the biggest reason for his gun sales; a majority of his current customers are arming themselves in self-defense.

“641,000 North Carolinians took an eight-hour course, paid $100 for a class, paid another $90 to get a permit for concealed carry. Why did they go through so much trouble and expense? Because they’re scared and want to protect themselves,” he stated.

Is gun violence a public health crisis?

In 2016, the American Medical Association (AMA) adopted policy calling gun violence in the United States “a public health crisis” requiring a comprehensive public health response and solution.

It drew backlash from the National Rifle Association who took to Twitter, tweeting that “Someone should tell self-important anti-gun doctors to stay in their lane.”

Jacobs, who agrees that gun violence is a disease, responded that “this is our lane.” He compared gun violence to an infection that gets passed around from community to community.

“We know many of the causes of gun violence, and we know many of the solutions to gun violence,” Jacobs said. “When you think about it from a public health lens, then you can begin to think about treatments.”

He cited statistics noting that most gun deaths are the result of suicide although gun homicides get far more attention. In 2016, the Center for Disease Control showed that 22,938 people committed suicide by firearm, while 14,415 people died in gun homicides.

Jacobs is encouraged that viewing gun violence as a disease will spark similar community support that led to safety regulations for motor vehicles like seat belts and airbags.

In response to the question, “Are we dragging our feet because gun violence is affecting the African American community?” Sheriff McFadden simply responded, “Yes.”

“We have to be honest about that. We have a crisis called opioids, we want to solve that,” he said. “When I was in school, there was another thing called crack. It didn’t affect everybody. Opioids affect who? (audience answered “white people.”) Sometimes you have to check yourself. Are you being honest about this crisis?”

Before he was elected sheriff last year, McFadden spent 22 years as a CMPD homicide detective.

His solution: See something, say something.

“We have to be dedicated. Malcolm has to be. I have to be, but you have to be, too. Don’t wait until it happens to you. You need to get involved now.”

Katrina Louis is managing editor of who can always find something to do in Charlotte. She’s an offline hustler (and has the shirt to prove it) but when online, find her on Instagram and Twitter.

Katrina covers Charlotte's Black business scene for QCity Metro. She's a Miami transplant, pescatarian and lover of the arts. She earned a public relations degree from the University of Florida. Got a...