Last week’s Democratic presidential primary debate featured a lengthy and emotional discussion about gun violence. Candidates pledged to fight the gun lobby and urged Congress to enact a handful of familiar gun reforms, including universal background checks. In one particularly charged moment, former Texas Congressman Beto O’Rourke pledged as president to take away certain assault-style weapons from gun owners.
But the gun debate was also notable for what it lacked. The debate moderators asked no questions about the deadly scourge of community gun violence, and only two candidates, Senators Cory Booker and Elizabeth Warren, addressed it at all. In this sense, the debate mirrored the one playing out on Capitol Hill, which has focused on expanding gun background checks to cover private sales and incentivizing state laws for temporarily disarming gun owners at risk of mass violence or self harm. While voters of both parties call for action in the wake of this summer’s mass shootings, the measures are attracting some bipartisan support, opening a window for a potential political breakthrough. But neither directly or immediately addresses the community violence that represents the largest share of gun homicides and assaults.
“We’re always the secondary or tertiary part of any national conversation around gun violence,” said the Reverend Jeffrey Brown, who runs RECAP (Rebuilding Every Community Around Peace), a Boston-based organization that focuses on reducing gang violence nationwide. “For those of us who struggle with this problem and work every day to overcome it, it’s completely frustrating.”
Activists have long fought to make urban violence a priority for the movement. Now they are slowly securing more dollars for programs proven capable of saving lives.
A survey released earlier this month from the left-leaning political research firm Lake Research Partners found that 70 percent of Latinx adults and 63 percent of African-American adults agreed that, while effective solutions to community gun violence exist, “elected leaders just don’t care enough to help [implement them].”
Instead, legislative priorities frequently focus on how to prevent mass shootings. But those account for only 2 to 3 percent of overall gun homicides, which disproportionately affect communities of color. Black men, for example, make up just 6 percent of the American population, but account for roughly 50 percent of all gun homicide victims.
To Brown and his colleagues in the community gun violence prevention movement, gun reform efforts on Capitol Hill fail to reflect these realities, largely ignoring proven measures to reduce gun deaths.
“I think the Democrats in Congress continue to be tone deaf and myopic in their approach to addressing the gun violence epidemic in our country,” said Michael McBride, an Oakland minister who runs the gun violence prevention organization LIVE FREE. “I totally understand the policy proposals put forth, but to continue to lead in ways that erase the strategies we know address the lion’s share of gun deaths in this country, particularly in black and brown neighborhoods, is a failure of leadership.”
The strategies which McBride refers to have a successful track record. In Oakland, LIVE FREE has worked with local clergy, community activists, and law enforcement officials to implement an intervention known as focused deterrence, whereby police and community partners collaborate to convince high-risk individuals to eschew violence. Since 2012, that approach has helped yield a 50 percent reduction in shootings in the city. In Philadelphia, police reduced violent crime reports by 23 percent in just three months in 2009 by concentrating on violence “hot spots,” where violent crime most frequently occurs. And in Chicago, counselors at Roberto Clemente High School saw a 50 percent reduction in violent crime arrests among students after implementing an innovative cognitive behavioral therapy program.
Many effective strategies like these exist, but federal lawmakers have done little to support their wider adoption. Patterns in media coverage contribute to the omission. As The Trace has previously reported, national news outlets have a tendency to dedicate more reporting to gun violence — particularly mass shootings — outside of black and brown communities than to gun violence within them.
Thomas Abt, a Harvard researcher who recently published a book about violence intervention programs, attributes the discrepancy to poverty and race. “Since urban gun violence disproportionately impacts the poorest and most disenfranchised among us, it doesn’t get the attention it deserves,” he said.
Abt added that policies like focused deterrence, which require sometimes sticky partnerships between law enforcement and social services organizations, are less conducive to pithy political rhetoric.
Another more tangible obstacle that impedes the work of black- and brown-run gun violence prevention organizations is a disparity in resources. More mainstream organizations like Giffords, Everytown for Gun Safety, or the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence dwarf their black- and brown-led counterparts. (Everytown’s nonprofit arm provides grants to The Trace.) They receive more substantial donations, wield a heftier lobbying force, and leverage better name recognition.
Erica Ford, who runs the New York City branch of the community gun violence prevention group Life Camp, said this resource gulf is one reason that so little community gun violence legislation passes through Congress. “It’s a neglect on our part, too, to not lobby these folks effectively enough,” she acknowledged. “But a lot of us are just too busy doing the work, stopping gun violence in our communities.”
Every activist interviewed for this story agreed that in recent years, these largely white-led organizations — particularly Giffords — have increased their efforts to elevate the work of smaller, community-focused outfits, and to include community gun violence in their own lobbying agendas. McBride said that LIVE FREE and Giffords have a nascent collaboration to produce a piece of legislation to address urban gun deaths. He said he hopes that they can unveil something concrete in the next 18 months.
Even so, McBride said they’re a long way from seeing their goals reflected in the Congressional legislative agenda. In meetings with legislators and other gun violence prevention organizations on Capitol Hill, he said he’s frequently the first person to raise the issue of urban gun violence.
For this reason, he said he believes that any effort to address community gun violence needs to start and end with the black and brown communities affected. “White gun violence prevention organizations should not unilaterally create legislation that specifically affects black people,” he said. “They’re important partners, but it’s just not the priority of these groups to address this problem. It is for us.”