ST. LOUIS (AP) _ Researchers at Washington University in St. Louis are hoping that a unique approach to addressing gun violence will help put a dent in one of the country’s most vexing problems.

The university launched a program this week that will treat gun violence as a public health crisis and will seek to generate new ideas, policies and safety measures to reduce gun deaths, The St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported ( ).

More than 30,000 Americans die each year due to gun violence, and the researchers behind the program believe the problem is more than just a law enforcement issue.

William Powderly, director of the university’s Institute for Public Health, believes that gun violence can be reduced, just as traffic fatalities were reduced.

“When we looked at reducing deaths from traffic accidents, we looked at what was causing it,” Powderly said. “It was speeding and driving under the influence. What happened next? Car safety got better. We mandated seat belts and child seats. We weren’t telling people not to drive.”

An area of particular interest to researchers is the access to firearms by the mentally ill. The Centers for Disease Control reports that suicides by gun account for six in 10 gun deaths in the U.S.

“I think most people feel people with mental illness shouldn’t have access to guns,” Powderly said. “But how do we do that? Do we have the right tools to assess people? Who does the testing? Should the person selling the gun be responsible?”

The issue of gun deaths hit close to home for Washington University Chancellor Mark Wrighton when 16-year-old Chelsea Harris, a high school student his wife mentored for 10 years, was fatally shot in December. Wrighton said his family was devastated.

“This is an issue of such magnitude, we ought to learn more about it,” Wrighton said. “We have academic strength, but we have not yet brought this into focus.”

Wrighton has had conversations with the leaders of the University of Missouri-St. Louis, Saint Louis University, Harvard University and other national schools about collaborating.

He is quick to say the university isn’t attempting to challenge the Second Amendment.

“People have the right to own guns,” he said. “We’re not making an effort to change that. Our interest is in public safety.”