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Politics

Community Gun Violence Is Suddenly Getting a Lot of National Attention

Activists have long fought to make the most common form of firearm homicides an urgent, shared priority. Is their message finally breaking through?

On the national level, when the political spotlight has fallen on gun violence, it has usually been in response to a mass shooting. So it was this July and August, when a spasm of gun rampages pushed familiar remedies — expanded background checks, red flag laws, an assault weapons ban — to the front of the Congressional agenda as lawmakers returned from their summer recesses.

Prospects for actual new federal laws passing have since considerably dimmed. Over the past week, though, a remarkable shift has occurred: On the campaign trail, on cable news shows, and on social media, a sustained, serious conversation about community gun violence may finally be stirring.

The need for such a conversation has long been plain. Homicide is the second-leading cause of death for young Latino men. Shootings kill more young African-American men than the nine other top causes of death combined. But effective efforts to reverse those trends have often been overlooked by those in power, to the frustration of activists

The first indication that a change may be underway came last week on Capitol Hill. On September 26, members of the House Judiciary held a subcommittee hearing to survey community responses to gun violence, during which they interviewed representatives of three prominent community gun violence prevention organizations about their evidence-based programs. Representative Ted Deutch of Florida called for subsequent hearings to maintain congressional focus on the issue, and Representative Karen Bass of California, who chaired the hearing, proposed to her committee members that they could visit affected communities to see interventions up close.

A separate House panel already has plans to do just that. The Health Subcommittee of the Congressional House Energy and Commerce Committee announced on Monday that it would hold its own special session on October 3, not in Washington D.C., but on Chicago’s South Side. The session will include appearances from Dr. Niva Lubin-Johnson, the former president of the National Medical Association; Dr. Selwyn O. Rogers, Jr., the founder of the University of Chicago’s Trauma Center; Norman Kerr, Chicago’s mayoral director of violence prevention; and Pastor Brenda K. Mitchell, a local minister whose son was shot and killed outside a Chicago bar, among others.

Illinois representatives Robyn Kelly and Bobby Rush spearheaded the plans to hold the hearing outside of D.C. As Kelly put it to Crain’s Chicago Business: “Since Chicago has been talked about so much, we wanted to hold a hearing at a place where Chicagoans can come [and participate]. What gets the attention is the mass shootings. But we have to look at shootings that are far more routine.”

Another sign of increased attention to community gun violence came on Wednesday, via the gun safety plan released by former Vice President Joe Biden. Several other Democratic presidential candidates have included community gun violence in their policy proposals, but Biden’s may be the most comprehensive plan yet for addressing the problem. He’s pledging $900 million to fund community-based interventions that have been proven to reduce gun death, mirroring a policy blueprint laid out in Harvard researcher Thomas Abt’s new book, Bleeding Out. The plan proposes targeting 40 cities, “the 20 cities with the highest number of homicides, and the 20 with the highest number of homicides per capita.” Biden, citing Abt, estimates it will save more than 12,000 lives over  eight years.

Other candidates followed Biden’s lead in a candidate forum on Wednesday afternoon. MSNBC moderator Craig Melvin and a series of audience participants consistently focused the conversation on urban gun violence, and on whether or not the Democratic hopefuls would increase funding for evidence-based community interventions if they win the White House. The candidates unanimously agreed that they would.  

“We need to value these lives,” said Senator Kamala Harris of California. 

Michael McBride, an Oakland minister who runs the gun violence prevention organization LIVE FREE, appeared on MSNBC the day before the forum. McBride was energized by the momentum, but recognized there was still work to be done.

His question to the candidates: “How do you plan to ensure that our whole country sees the problems of black America, brown America, urban America as a problem for the whole country to solve, and not just our communities on our own?”