This is the third article in a three-part series about solutions to community gun violence. To get the latest in our gun violence solutions coverage delivered straight to your inbox, subscribe to our newsletter.
Our country is not facing a gun violence crisis. Instead, it faces four separate but related gun crises. During the last year for which federal data is available, there were more than 14,000 gun homicides, caused mostly by urban violence. They were followed by fatal shootings among intimate partners and family members, and a much smaller number of murders due to mass shootings. Gun suicides caused the largest number of gun-related fatalities at almost 24,000.
Of those crises, urban gun violence is the most addressable based on the evidence and tools available today. Mass shootings are episodic, acute events that are difficult to study or predict; urban homicides are chronic, making them more amenable to research and analysis. And what that research points to is a set of strategies with consistent track records of reducing shootings when done the right way.
Urban violence is also the linchpin of concentrated urban poverty, holding all the other conditions of inequality — joblessness, homelessness, poor education, and health — in place. That’s why we must put urban violence first in terms of sequence, if not importance. Until we pull this pin, poverty in our cities will remain as persistent as ever. A neighborhood that is not safe will never prosper.
To reduce community gun violence, we don’t actually need new laws. Instead, we need policies that recognize three core truths about the problem.
- Shootings cluster among small numbers of people, places, and behaviors. More than a quarter of homicides in 2015 occurred in neighborhoods containing just 1.5 percent of the American population and collectively covering an area smaller than Green Bay, Wisconsin. And even in those communities, as few as 1 percent of a city’s population are responsible for the majority of fatal encounters.
- Violent crime responds to both positive and negative incentives. Deterrence works, but so does providing alternatives to people who too often are seen as beyond saving.
- Violence takes root where law enforcement is viewed as illegitimate. The episodes of excessive force and policies of discriminatory stops that have filled front pages and Justice Department reports leave people of color in resource-starved neighborhoods wary of cooperating with police. A rise in unsolved shootings leaves victims and their friends and family turning to revenge. The old slogan carries a deadly truth: Where there is no justice, there is no peace.
Having properly diagnosed violence, we can move on to treatment. And here should be cause for hopefulness. We don’t need to blanket entire neighborhoods with police patrols and civic resources — only certain hot spots. We need not waste resources on trying to bust up entire gangs or crack down on all drug use. Instead, we can focus on preventing or creating consequences for the most dangerous behaviors: gangbanging and violent drug dealing. All guns are not our concern — we should target guns in the hands of the few people at highest risk of violence.
Americans have become accustomed to shootings and killings. They happen daily, even hourly. We might muster some outrage when children are executed in their own classrooms or when parishioners are assassinated as they pray in church, but beyond that, little seems sacred. We largely overlook the thousands of black and brown young men who die violently each year, caught up in cycles they do not fully understand and cannot easily escape.
We don’t have to accept this deadly status quo. We can stop the bleeding in our cities, using strategies informed by the fundamental anti-violence principles of focus, balance, and fairness.
Here’s how to get started.
Former Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill famously said that all politics is local. That is definitely true for urban violence reduction. Whether they are small municipalities like Flint, Michigan, or large metropolises like Houston, cities form the front lines of the war on community crime and violence.
In our decentralized federalist system, criminal justice is largely a local matter. The same holds for other fields implicated in the prevention and control of violence, such as health, human services, housing, and education. Also, while urban violence looks similar from place to place, local differences matter, making homegrown knowledge and know-how essential. For these reasons, addressing urban violence is first and foremost a local endeavor.
How should a city go about launching an anti-violence effort? First, by reaching consensus on the clearest possible definition of urban violence, which boils down to this: unacceptably high rates of lethal and potentially lethal violence, committed in public spaces, as measured by the number of homicides and shootings that result in injury. Nothing else should be done until this key first step is complete. Moving too far away from a clean definition of the problem risks watering down the effort before it even begins.
Next, the leaders and stakeholders of the effort have to agree to devote themselves to an anti-violence initiative shaped by what empirical information shows will save the most lives. They must also offer impacted individuals and communities a meaningful say along the way. But it’s crucial that the process, while inclusive, should not be open. An open process inevitably becomes a political one, and politics is toxic to policy this early on.
Who should be at the table? It may seem obvious, but first and foremost, the mayor or city manager has to be onboard. Police and prosecutors will always view violence reduction as an essential element of their mission; without mayoral leadership, other city agencies may not. And if anti-violence efforts are enforcement-only, they will fail.
One crude but effective means of measuring a mayor’s commitment to violence prevention is to see whether a city has an office dedicated to that responsibility, and what its budget, staffing, and scope of authority are like. Los Angeles provides a benchmark: There, the deputy mayor for public safety oversees the Gang Reduction Youth Development office, which has an annual budget of over $26 million and dozens of employees.
The next most important leader is the police commissioner or chief. Along with the mayor, the police must endorse a balanced approach to violence reduction, including but not limited to law enforcement. If police leaders see themselves as the only answer to urban violence, this misperception must be corrected before going further.
Any sustainable violence reduction effort must be seen as legitimate, and legitimacy requires the meaningful participation of people from the communities where the majority of violence takes place. These faith, community, civic, and other neighborhood groups must authentically represent their constituents both in terms of their need for safety and their desire for social justice. They should be willing to look at the data and evidence in addition to their own knowledge and experience. They have to be problem-solvers, not just advocates or activists.
Once the coalition has been assembled, cities that wish to successfully reduce urban violence must take the time and effort to fully understand the violence in their particular jurisdiction. This analysis must answer three basic but specific questions: Who is committing the violence, where they are committing it, and why? Empirical data should be combined with human intelligence to understand the underlying dynamics of the violence, with an emphasis on proximate, not root, causes. An analysis that concludes that violence happens mostly to poor people, and mostly in poor neighborhoods, is next to useless.
With the diagnosis completed, preparations for treatment can begin. The plan should include a framework of focused, balanced, and fair strategies that specifically address the people, places, and behaviors driving violence in the city:
Pacifying shooters. Through an approach broadly known as focused deterrence and often practiced as the Group Violence Reduction Strategy, police and community members partner to steer would-be shooters away from violence and subject bona fide shooters to legal consequences. When the sociologist Christopher Winship and I examined academic reviews encompassing more than 1,400 individual studies of crime-reduction policies, we found that focused deterrence had the strongest and most consistent anti-violence effects. It does not work perfectly, it does not work every time, but it works better, on average, than anything else out there, decreasing homicides and assaults by as much as 30 to 50 percent.
An ideal plan for intervening with would-be shooters would integrate focused deterrence with two other strategies shown to reduce violence.
Some individuals at risk of shooting or being shot are too estranged from formal authority to be reached by law enforcement. That’s where street outreach workers – sometimes referred to as violence interrupters – can step in, mediating conflicts and connecting people in crisis with urgently needed services. In New York City, the best-known application of violence interruption, Cure Violence, has been associated with significant reductions in gun injuries.
What Gun Violence Prevention Looks Like When It Focuses on the Communities Hurt the Most
Would-be shooters have often also endured traumatic experiences that leave them hypervigilant and prone to aggressive responses to perceived threats. They aren’t crazy; they’re hurt. Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) can teach impulse control that helps keep participants from reaching for a gun. In one review, the most effective forms of CBT reduced recidivism by a whopping 52 percent.
Taming crime hot spots. Deadly violence clusters in discrete locations where potential shooters hang out or pass through and where the environment signals that violence will be tolerated. Police patrols targeting serious repeat offenders and very specific addresses can lead to double digit crime drops. Beautifying vacant buildings and lots and installing street lighting can be low-cost compliments — in Philadelphia, every $2,600 spent fixing up a derelict structure saved taxpayers nearly 10 times as much in reduced crime-driven costs.
Place-making strategies only have the chance to be effective if those investments flow narrowly to spots where crime occurs with chronic frequency. One promising practice has police engage residents, landlords, business owners, inspectors, and licensing authorities in a partnership that encourages the community to turn hot spots around.
Focusing on gun and gang violence, not guns and gangs. Guns legally owned and safely stored in the home should not be the focus. Gangs that are not stalking their rivals should be deprioritized. Drugs are an anti-violence priority only when they are the subject of violent disputes, either among rival dealers or because they are being abused by people with a predilection for violence. When drug abuse is the problem, treatment, not incarceration, works best.
Guns, gangs, and drugs get a lot of public attention, but the original cause for concern is often overlooked. Guns became an issue because of gun violence, gangs because of gang violence, and drugs because of drug abuse, overdoses, and homicides and assaults between rival dealers. We need to examine these things not just as static objects but also as dynamic behaviors. Instead of guns, think illegal gun carrying; instead of gangs, gangbanging; instead of drugs, violent drug dealing.
With a plan in place, a task force roughly balanced between law enforcement and non-law enforcement members should be established to put it into practice. The task force should be relatively small — too big and it will make close coordination difficult, if not impossible. Members should be authorized to work long hours, cut red tape, and circumvent bureaucratic barriers in order to get the job done. They must be willing and able to go to the most violent areas of the city in order to provide immediate and potentially lifesaving assistance.
None of this will be new for law enforcement: Police are accustomed to being available 24 hours a day and quickly intervening in dangerous situations. Indeed, one reason that so many violence reduction initiatives rely excessively on law enforcement is that no other city agency or community group or agency has the authority or capacity to respond in real time the way police do. But for task force members from social services, violence prevention will involve a major re-envisioning and restructuring. I cannot stress this enough. Like law enforcement, they must work in shifts in order to be available at all hours. They must have adequate communication and transportation. If, in order to head off a homicide, it becomes necessary to respond to the home of a would-be shooter at 3 a.m., drive that individual to a bus station, and then buy them a ticket to get them temporarily out of town, then that is what task force members must be able to do.
The task force must also have agreements in place allowing them to skip to the front of the line, getting at-risk individuals priority access to scarce resources. When a streetlight overlooking a hot spot goes out, it should not go through routine bureaucratic procedures — it must be prioritized and turned back on immediately.
The treatment plan should also specify what not to do. It should be said out loud that assistance will go to people and places truly at risk for violence, and not to those needing help more generally. Relatedly, there should be an explicit agreement that anti-violence resources will be devoted only to violence elimination, not general crime reduction. Everyone must be on the same page that they are involved in an anti-violence, not anti-poverty or anti-crime, effort.
This is a hard thing to write, because it sounds as if I am suggesting that we ignore the needs of the poor. I’m firmly in favor of all sorts of anti-poverty measures — but on their own merits, not as anti-violence measures.
We cannot do everything at once. So we should do what matters most, and do it first.
If curbing illegal gun carrying — hot people, carrying hot guns, in hot spots — is central to reducing urban homicides, why not reduce the number of guns that end up in the wrong hands in the first place? Emerging evidence does suggest that local efforts to disrupt illegal firearms trafficking can limit the flow of weapons into the black market. Unfortunately, there is little evidence that supply-side efforts actually reduce gun violence.
Most people who carry out community gun violence are already subject to one or more federal or state prohibitions barring them from legally possessing firearms, and instead get guns from a murky network of friends, family members, and fellow high-risk individuals. But supply-side strategies cannot easily identify and target possible offenders and crime weapons. So in a country with more guns than people, they become a daunting numbers game. The best-known supply-side strategy — gun buybacks — are famously ineffective for precisely this reason. Photo ops abound as community members happily hand over old, inoperable, obsolete firearms that are highly unlikely to be used to commit actual crimes.
One broader measure to control the supply of firearms has shown real promise. Permit-to-purchase laws do what their name suggests: They require you to have a permit before you can buy a gun. And to receive a permit, you have to not just pass the typical gun background check, but also get fingerprinted, pass a criminal background check, complete a firearms-safety course, or meet some other condition. One study showed that in large urban counties, permit-to-purchase laws were associated with an 11 percent reduction in firearm homicides. Licensing gun owners makes sense, just as it makes sense to require a license to drive a motor vehicle.
Plugging the holes of our leaky gun markets is critically important. But we can’t wait for new laws to get started on a serious effort to protect the young people of color being killed and hurt in our cities every day. And we don’t have to. The treatments outlined here operate within existing statues and can be implemented through existing agencies, institutions, and systems. What is required is money, along with small but vocal constituencies to demand that it be spent the right way.
When properly focused on the people, places, and behaviors driving the problem, effective violence reduction is cheap in absolute terms. In positions I have held at both the state and federal level, I have funded these strategies for years, and they are surprisingly cheap. Devoting an additional $30,000 per homicide per year to reducing violence would work wonders in cities suffering from serious violence, and it would be affordable by any reasonable budgetary standard.
For Chicago, based on its 2017 homicide figures, that would mean an extra $19.6 million per year. For Baltimore, it would translate to $10.3 million a year. For both cities, that’s less than 0.5 percent of their annual budgets.
“You have to find those funds somewhere,” Kim Odom, a Boston mother who became an anti-violence advocate after losing her 13-year-old son to a shooting, once told me. “Because if you don’t pay up front, you’re going to pay in the end. We keep going around in circles, we keep saying there’s no money — but there’s money.” If we truly value all our fellow citizens, we can find the modest sums necessary to keep them safe from harm.
Once funds are secured, they should be disbursed with some strings attached. They should be spent solely for the purpose of reducing violence, and only be used on strategies with a strong base of evidence. They should be allocated in consultation with impacted communities. They should be distributed roughly equally across enforcement and prevention strategies. Finally, those spending the money should have to provide progress reports showing that it’s going toward people, places, and behaviors identified as driving violence locally — and that their efforts are saving lives.
Properly funded and implemented, the violence prevention strategies already available to cities could be transformative. In cities with high rates of homicide, the data shows that these strategies could readily achieve a 10 percent reduction in homicide every year for the foreseeable future — causing a massive long-term reduction in crime along the lines of what New York City has experienced.
Separately, assume that for each homicide averted, each life saved, the city will save approximately $10 million in medical costs, criminal justice costs, lost wages and earnings, reduced quality of life, and other costs.
Now consider the impact of two national initiatives — one funding the 20 cities with the most homicides overall, and a partner program focusing on the 20 cities with the highest per capita homicide rates. The first year of such a twin effort would cost $158 million — a rounding error in a federal budget of almost $4 trillion annually. Each year, the cost would drop as homicides gradually decline. In all, the bill would add up to $899 million over eight years.
Over those same eight years — two presidential terms — the total number of lives saved would be a stunning 12,132.
By preventing those deaths, the country would avoid a total of $120 billion in costs. For every dollar spent, $135 would be saved.
These are just the estimates for homicide alone. They don’t capture the enormous benefits gained and costs avoided by reducing nonfatal violent crime at the same time.
For a very small sum, we could be a dramatically safer nation in a very short time.
Imagine the country’s most distressed urban neighborhoods — just under 7,000 of them, containing about 24 million citizens in total — being as safe as the rest of the country. Picture entire communities where poverty, crime, and drugs might still be present, but lethal violence is largely absent.
Then think about how much easier it would be to help such communities. Think of how much easier it would be for kids to concentrate on schoolwork if trauma was not taxing their minds. Think about the parks and playgrounds they might enjoy if there were no threats of gunfire. Think about the businesses that might thrive if the safety of customers and employees were assured. Think about the jobs, revenues, and other benefits these ventures would bring. Think of the growing tax base and the services and assistance to the poor that cities could now afford.
Investigating America’s gun violence crisis
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Think about a nation stained by slavery and seething with racial resentment. Think about that nation’s struggle to achieve “a more perfect union” and its painfully slow progress in the pursuit of social and economic justice. Then think about how much easier it would be to address these challenges if poor people of color were not demonized as dangerous and brutal. Finally, think about how much easier it would be for Americans to empathize with one another a bit more if they feared each other a little less.
A national violence reduction program would not, by itself, solve all the problems of America’s urban poor. But anti-violence strategies are the right place to start — the tip of the spear. Long-term efforts to address root causes and reform institutions can and should be paired with short-term investments in the people, places, and behaviors that matter most for violence reduction. Dramatically reducing urban homicide is the first thing we should do, and we can do it relatively easily. The fact that we don’t is, well, criminal.