In June 2018, the Capital Gazette newspaper in Annapolis, Maryland, endured a horrific tragedy. A gunman opened fire at the paper’s offices, leaving five people dead and two others wounded. The shooting shook Anne Arundel County, propelling an initiative to treat gun violence as a public health issue and spurring the formation of a task force dedicated to gun violence prevention.

Fast forward five years, and the county’s Department of Health has fostered a robust partnership with a somewhat unexpected partner: the Anne Arundel County Public Library. In April, the system began offering free gun locks at some libraries, a program that expanded across all of its branches last month. The response has been promising, with over 2,300 gun locks distributed, including to parents seeking to secure their firearms from their kids, and one grandparent whose grandchild had gotten ahold of their gun and brought it to school. 

“We really tried to make this not a judgment about guns and gun violence and more of a public health solution to preventing suicides and accidental deaths,” Christine Feldmann, the library’s communications director, told me. “Certainly no one believes that this is going to stop people from committing crimes in large measure, but if you can prevent some impulse decisions, to us it’s worth it.”

The choice of libraries as distribution points was a thoughtful one. They are ubiquitous — in Anne Arundel, 16 branches cover several neighborhoods — and offer a free, accessible space where residents feel comfortable and welcome. Unlike police departments, a more common host for gun lock distribution programs, libraries aren’t sites of law enforcement or criminalization. 

“It’s a place where people feel that they’re not going to be viewed as troublemakers or problems. They trust the staff,” Feldmann added. “People come to us and sometimes they’re in the worst situations in life.” 

Anne Arundel’s gun lock initiative highlights a direct way public libraries can work to prevent gun violence. But as Feldmann succinctly puts it, “We’re just way bigger than that.” Libraries have always sought to build stronger, more resilient communities, going beyond their basic responsibility of loaning out books and other media — and they provide other services that may not look exactly like gun violence prevention but nevertheless indirectly address many of the root causes of violence. 

The public library in Anne Arundel, for example, offers an array of services that foster community well-being, from hosting GED classes and skill workshops to providing food and baby pantries, and offering free internet access and computers on loan. In today’s hyperconnected world, that could mean the difference between having a job and being unemployed. These initiatives aim to bridge gaps, potentially alleviating financial and food insecurity that is often correlated with gun violence.

“Our business is to help build community and build stronger communities,” Feldmann said. “And how are people going to do that unless they’ve got a job and internet and food and diapers, and all of those things that don’t sound like your normal ‘pick up a book at the library’?”

This shift in recognizing the role of public libraries is not isolated to Anne Arundel.

In nearby Baltimore, as The Trace reported in 2021, librarians have received trauma and grief training to respond to shootings. Other libraries, like the Central Library in St. Louis, serve as a meeting place for gun violence prevention events. 

Our business is to help build community and build stronger communities.

Christine Feldmann, of the Anne Arundel County Public Library

In Philadelphia, the temporary closure of a Free Library branch last summer stirred community advocates to highlight the library’s critical role in engaging otherwise underserved teenagers and young people, providing resources for job applications, printing important documents, and offering a respite from hot weather, which is also correlated with violence. The branch has since reopened. 

But the work becomes more difficult with mounting political attacks on libraries. In cities and counties across the country, local politicians, egged on by conservative activist groups, are threatening to pull funding, replace leadership, or shutter libraries altogether over opposition to books that discuss racism, sexual orientation, and gender identity. Some libraries have even faced threats of violence.

Even in places where book bans aren’t an immediate issue, some cities have cut library budgets. These pressures take a toll on librarians, and add to the already difficult job many do as underpaid public servants tasked with helping vulnerable people who come to libraries precisely because they are safe, free public spaces.

But libraries are still playing an important role in furthering public safety — and there’s research to back it up. 

Studies have shown that communities with greater resource accessibility tend to have lower rates of gun violence. Public libraries stand as a testament to this, contributing to improved economic conditions and health equity, and even helping to decrease crime rates, some studies have shown. Part of their effectiveness comes from their educational function, but also because they foster prosocial behaviors, which research has found to be protective against community and youth violence.

“There are a lot of roles that public libraries can play in terms of being a cohesive space of belonging for a community,” said Sonali Rajan, a gun violence researcher at Columbia University’s Teachers College and Department of Epidemiology. “It’s not the solution to gun violence, but it is an example of a relatively low-cost investment that has a lot of payoff in different ways, reducing rates of crime being one of them.”

Rajan and several colleagues from Columbia recently published a paper in the journal Preventive Medicine that proposed a comprehensive framework for reducing violence in K-12 schools. In it, Rajan and her co-authors identified investments in public libraries as an evidence-based intervention that could improve safety in surrounding communities, and ultimately in schools.

Like many solutions closest to gun violence on the ground, public libraries are run by local city and county governments. And when violence increases or tragedy strikes, they may not be at the top of the list to receive more money or resources. Rajan would like to see that change.

“When there’s a school shooting, no one wants to hear that green space and street lighting and public libraries make a difference,” Rajan said. “And the conversation in those moments and in the aftermath of those kinds of tragedies ends up really being centered in those conversations on very aggressive responses” like arming teachers or hiring more police officers.

But investments in public libraries are comparatively cheap “low-hanging fruit,” Rajan said: “That’s what the research is showing: There’s a lot of payoff and a lot of benefit for a relatively small investment. Why not do that?”

This post is an edition of The Trajectory, a newsletter dedicated to exploring the people, policies, and programs grappling with America’s gun violence crisis. Learn more and subscribe here.