A month ago, well before the violence at the U.S. Capitol, our staff was discussing the multiple intersecting tragedies of 2020 when staff writer Ann Givens made a point that resonated: Tough periods usually have lessons embedded in them. This past year was a whirlwind for most Americans; that was doubly true for people working on the ground to prevent gun violence. But they’d learned things, too — about how shootings multiply, about our country’s frayed social services, about what we need to do better, and differently.
With that in mind, our reporters reached out to some thoughtful sources in the waning days of 2020 to ask what they learned amid the violence, death, and tumult. Their ideas weren’t cheery, but they weren’t defeatist either. They shared concrete observations, new ways of looking at persistent challenges, and even — in some cases — reasons to be hopeful.
Darryl Scott, Jr.
Program Manager, SNUG Neighborhood Violence Prevention Program
Buffalo, New York
Darryl Scott, Jr., is the program manager for the SNUG Neighborhood Violence Prevention Program in Buffalo. With the start of the pandemic in March, the program’s eight outreach workers were forced to take their jobs online — checking in by text and video chat with the residents most likely to shoot people or be shot — instead of meeting them on the street and at community events. The program also redirected many of its workers to distribute food, feeding more than 1,000 families over about five months. Hunger and poverty can lead to gun violence, and feeding people can prevent it, Scott said.
Shootings in Buffalo rose dramatically in 2020, with fatal incidents increasing by 81 percent. “This year has taught us that poverty and gun violence go hand in hand,” Scott said.
If there was one positive development in the bleak year, it was that, as outreach workers were forced to scale back, government officials could see more clearly the value they provide in more ordinary times. Once the virus recedes, Scott feels confident that his program will begin running normally, and workers will be able to prevent some of the shootings.
“I can see [state officials] wanting to invest more in those programs in the future,” he said. “This year has shown what an impact they have.”
— Ann Givens
Executive Director, New Jersey Gun Violence Research Center at Rutgers University
West Piscataway, New Jersey
Michael Anestis, who wrote the book Guns and Suicide: An American Epidemic, says it’s too soon to know if gun suicides increased in 2020, as many experts had feared. Local data from crisis centers and hospitals has been inconsistent, and broader national data won’t be released for at least 18 months.
But Anestis worries that this year’s huge spike in gun sales will have a lasting impact. In December, he published a study showing that people who bought guns during the pandemic were more likely to have experienced suicidal thoughts in the last month, year, or in their lifetimes than an average person. That doesn’t necessarily mean they bought a gun with the intention of using it to end their lives, he said. But should they become suicidal again in the future, they will now have lethal means close at hand.
One positive thing that Anestis is seeing that he hopes will continue in the new year is an effort by suicide prevention advocates to find credible messengers to spread important suicide prevention messages. Too often, he says, those messages have come from doctors and academics, when the people more likely to be listened to are faith leaders, barbers, or teachers. “Right now, firearm owners don’t buy into what we’re selling in suicide prevention,” he said.
But there are signs that that’s changing. This year, Anestis worked on a clinical trial funded by the Department of Defense on gun safety, gun locks, and suicide prevention among members of the Mississippi National Guard. When research and information starts coming from sources that gun owners find credible, like law enforcement leaders and gun groups, the message will start getting through. Anestis compares this to the understanding of drunk driving that took hold in the early 1980s only after the message was embraced broadly, by Superbowl ads and middle school health teachers.
“I hope we are starting to think about who are the persuasive and credible messengers on things like safe storage,” he said. “This is not a problem that’s going to be solved by doctors.”
— Ann Givens
Eroica Del Real
Trauma Response Specialist, Acclivus
Eroica Del Real doesn’t know the exact number of hospital bedsides she stood at last year, but estimates it was at least 600. The patients were all victims of violent crime, including stabbings and assaults, but mostly gun violence.
“I think the common denominator on all my patients in some way, shape, or form, would be their brokenness,” she said, “either they want to stay that way or they want to help.”
Del Real, 37, is a trauma response specialist with Acclivus, a community health organization.
When she goes to see patients at the hospital, she has an arsenal of resources to offer, starting with brochures for health insurance, vocational work, and crime victims compensation. Since people rarely accept her help right away, she spends weeks, months, or even years building their trust through rides to the grocery store, listening to them vent on the phone, and supporting them through big life achievements, like getting their GED. “I’m so happy this year is about to end,” said Del Real late last month. “We were hit with something that no one obviously expected.”
She assumed the state’s stay-at-home order in March would deter crime. Instead, violent crime ticked up across the country. In Chicago, more than 700 people were murdered in 2020, police data shows. This surge brought gun violence in the city to a level not seen since the early ’90s.
Del Real said she’s hopeful about gun violence decreasing this year after seeing how many services, including virtual community events and neighborhood cleanups, were expanded during the pandemic. “We hosted a lot of food giveaways, food pantries, and pop-ups, so my hope for this new year would be that all of our efforts are extended,” Del Real said. “Once the world opens back up and we’re able to host events, it’d be an awesome, kind of a 180 to what we experienced [pre-pandemic].”
Researchers and prevention workers have realized that this assistance, often referred to as “wraparound services,” is crucial in addressing the inequities that make gun violence more likely. Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot increased funding for street outreach and victim services amid the pandemic — and her administration has committed to sustaining that funding in the future.
Del Real said, “At the end it’s a circle, it’s a big whole puzzle, and we all have our piece.”
— Lakeidra Chavis
Executive Director, Baltimore Ceasefire 365
Erricka Bridgeford, the founder of Baltimore Ceasefire 365, lost crucial tools in her work to help neighborhoods in her city heal after a killing. The pandemic took away the hugs, covered the smiles in masks, and kept caring hands from landing on the shoulders of grieving family members. Baltimore Ceasefire 365 also serves on the front lines of interrupting violence before it occurs. The pandemic meant her group couldn’t take to the streets to hang posters, couldn’t host in-person gatherings for routine Ceasefire weekends, and had to migrate to video conferencing for much of its work.
But as the spring rise of COVID-19 folded into a summer of racial reckoning, the challenges gave way to opportunities Bridgeford didn’t imagine in 2019. Inspired by the broad push to rectify racial injustice, donations to her group swelled. And people who she never imagined considered giving to Baltimore Ceasefire 365 made contributions. “We are on so many people’s radar now,” Bridgeford said. The group has been able to grow from four training locations to eight.
Those locations will expand the work on conflict mediation in a year when Baltimore eclipsed 300 homicides for the sixth straight year. Still, the enthusiasm Bridgeford saw from people who contributed to Baltimore Ceasefire 365 gives her hope that progress in reducing violence in the city is around the corner. She noted that, “Grassroots work and supporting grassroots efforts has become the cool thing to do.”
— J. Brian Charles
Executive Director, Urban Peace Institute
Los Angeles, California
For the last decade, Los Angeles has recorded fewer than 300 homicides a year. But in 2020, at least 349 people were murdered, a 38 percent increase over 2019. Last year also brought myriad other challenges: Violence interrupters trained to diffuse conflict found themselves doubling as public health ambassadors — and risking their lives as wave after wave of infection crested in the region. Pandemic-related lockdowns dried up job opportunities. And the mental health stressors of isolation may have contributed to a spike in suicides in Black and Brown communities.
Nonetheless Fernando Rejón, who runs an initiative in Los Angeles that trains violence intervention workers, sees progress. “I think we’ve seen some big gains in public safety, police brutality, criminal justice reform, and the movement to fund peacemakers,” he said. That includes the passage in November of a ballot initiative that redirects 10 percent of the county’s budget toward community investment, including youth and business development, job training, and alternatives to incarceration. The L.A. County Board of Supervisors unanimously voted to put $75 million toward the creation of a youth development department to preside over the youth justice system, instead of the county Probation Department. “So there’s the potential for ending juvenile probation in L.A. county,” he said. And in July, the state attorney general revoked law enforcement agencies’ access to a controversial database of alleged gang members maintained by the Los Angeles Police Department.
None of this would have been possible if 2020 hadn’t seen several crises converge at once, Rejón said: the pandemic, spiking gun violence, and police violence.
— Jennifer Mascia
Executive Director, Women’s Advocates, Inc.
Minneapolis–Saint Paul, Minnesota
Estelle Brouwer still remembers how she felt when she heard about the intruder at the domestic violence shelter this October. A few months earlier, she and her staff at the Women’s Advocates shelter in Saint Paul had moved about 40 women and children into hotel rooms. The shared living spaces in the shelter had seemed increasingly unsafe in the spring as COVID-19 spread through the city. But one day, the abusive partner of one of the shelter residents came to the hotel with another man. He rifled through the sign-in sheets, looking for the woman who had come there to escape him.
Someone called police, and the man left without getting violent. But Brouwer hasn’t stopped thinking about how devastating it could have been if the man was armed with a gun. Soon after that, she began the long process of moving everyone back to the shelter. What Brouwer learned from this incident, and from this year full of hardship, is that the problems vulnerable people face are overlapping. You can’t just solve one without the others falling like dominos.
Thinking about domestic violence, she said: “The patriarchy is in there, the violence in our society, intergenerational trauma, systemic racism. No one wants to hear that because it’s too complex.” People ask Brouwer, “Can you just boil it down?”
But 2020 taught us that you can’t boil it down, Brouwer argues — and that’s a good thing. For example, as she struggled to house domestic violence survivors during a pandemic, she started working more closely than she ever had before with people who serve homeless populations, and they were able to share resources and problem solve together. “This year has helped people start to see that our problems are interlocking and complex,” she said. “Maybe now we can start embracing solutions that embrace complexity.”
— Ann Givens
Illustrations by Nayon Cho for The Trace.