Seven months ago, I published the first issue of The Trajectory. Fifteen editions later, we’ve covered a lot of ground, from local efforts to prevent suicide and community violence, to the federal government’s efforts to implement the 2022 Bipartisan Safer Communities Act.
It can be easy to move from issue to issue or tragic shooting to tragic shooting without stopping to check what progress has been made. The end of the year is always a good time to pause and reflect. With 2023 coming to a close, I thought I’d use this issue of The Trajectory to look back on the trajectory (pun intended) of gun policy, solutions, and violence this year.
Several states strengthened their gun laws
For the past few decades, most progress on gun reform has been at the state level, and 2023 was no exception. This year saw some major movement on gun laws in states across the country.
Michigan and Minnesota were perhaps the most notable. The two states — off the heels of elections last year — became the 20th and 21st states to pass Extreme Risk Protection Order, or ERPO, laws (aka red flag laws), and the 19th and 20th states to expand background checks to cover private gun sales. Those were two of the core provisions in broader gun reform packages in each state. I covered Minnesota’s gun reforms in more depth, if you missed them.
But those aren’t the only states that passed gun safety laws this year. Three other states strengthened existing background checks laws, and four others strengthened their ERPO laws. Illinois banned assault weapons, and Washington banned the sale of assault weapons.
Notably, four states passed new or extended existing waiting period laws, putting time between when a person attempts to purchase a gun and when they can actually take it home. Research has shown that waiting periods of even a few days may significantly reduce firearm homicide rates.
Even some traditionally gun-friendly states took steps this year: Vermont passed a child access prevention law, enacted a three-day waiting period, and strengthened its ERPO law. Montana and Utah took steps to prevent suicides, and Alabama, Indiana, and Vermont improved records reporting to federal and state databases used for gun background checks.
For a full accounting of all the gun reform laws passed on the state level this year, I recommend this year in review from the Giffords Law Center.
There was action in Washington…
Just because most progress this year happened at the state and local levels doesn’t mean nothing happened in D.C. While Congress was mostly quiet on gun reform and violence prevention issues, President Joe Biden was not. In March, he signed a new executive order on guns following a mass shooting in Monterey Park, California. The order directed federal agencies to step up enforcement, clarify existing gun laws, and take new steps to implement the 2022 Bipartisan Safer Communities Act.
And in September, Biden created a White House Office of Gun Violence Prevention, fulfilling a long-standing demand from gun reform advocates. Establishing an office to tackle gun violence could mean that the federal government’s disparate agencies working on the issue could be brought together to collaborate, instead of tackling facets of it in isolation. The nascent office saw one of its first challenges in October when it helped helm the federal government’s response to the mass shooting in Lewiston, Maine. And just last week, the White House announced a plan to provide states with tools to implement policies aimed at reducing violence.
Elsewhere in Washington, the effects of the Safer Communities Act are still coming into focus. For example, a provision of the law enhanced background checks for gun buyers younger than 21. FBI data shows the law has stopped hundreds of illegal gun purchases.
… and large investments in violence prevention
One of the biggest outcomes of the Safer Communities Act was its investment in community-based violence prevention programs. In February, the Justice Department convened the recipients of the first round of $100 million in federal grants, marking a shift in how the federal government supports local programs aimed at reducing violence through alternatives to traditional law enforcement. And in September, the department announced the recipients of a second round of $90 million in grants. In all, it brings the DOJ’s investment to nearly $200 million.
States are also funding community violence intervention at record levels. California, for example, passed a historic tax on firearms and ammunition that could generate nearly $160 million annually to fund violence intervention and prevention. More than a dozen other states also passed new funding for community violence intervention or expanded their support for the programs.
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Violence is plummeting in several cities…
It’s no secret that the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic was followed by a spike in gun violence across the country. The spikes lasted through 2021 and much of 2022, but this year, cities across the country are getting safer. From New York and Philadelphia to New Orleans and St. Louis, gun violence, particularly fatal shootings, appears to be falling at a record pace.
I covered one such instance in New Orleans, where homicides are down 25 percent year over year. And my colleague Mensah M. Dean has covered a promising decline in shootings in Philadelphia — where the city’s homicides have fallen nearly 24 percent as of December 17 — in even more detail. Other strong improvements include Buffalo, New York, where homicides are down more than 40 percent, and St. Louis, where they’re down nearly 26 percent.
… and appears to be falling nationwide
Not everywhere is experiencing the same decline: Homicides are up in some cities, like Memphis, Tennessee; Dallas; Washington, D.C.; and Columbus, Ohio. But those cities are in the minority. Among more than 175 major cities, homicides have declined by nearly 13 percent on average so far this year, likely one of the fastest rates of decline ever recorded, according to preliminary data gathered by crime data analyst Jeff Asher. Asher’s data is limited to cities, but very preliminary data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show a similar trend nationwide. Either way, the data suggests that the deadly spike in gun violence prompted by the pandemic is beginning to subside.
Before you go
Here are some of my favorite Trajectories of 2023:
- Can Veteran-Led Training Make Suicide Prevention More Effective? Firearm suicide is among the leading causes of death for veterans. A new program aims to teach mental health practitioners how veterans think about their guns.
- Why Are Shootings Plummeting in New Orleans? Gun violence is falling nationwide, but the decline in New Orleans is even more pronounced. Community leaders and public health officials want to get the numbers down further.
- In Brooklyn, Teens Learn to Treat Gunshot Wounds Before Ambulances Arrive: Young participants in a violence prevention program learned how to administer potentially lifesaving care if they encounter a shooting victim. “Knowledge is power,” their trainer told me.
And some of my favorite solutions stories from colleagues at The Trace:
- An Unlikely Peace: Survivors of Gun Violence Find Solace in Glassblowing: N’Kosi Barber lost a friend in a shooting. Now, he’s helping Chicagoans who have endured similar losses move on through the craft of glassblowing.
- Inside a State Legislator’s Fight Against the Gun Industry’s Legal Immunity: Illinois is the eighth state to pass a law requiring gun companies to impose “reasonable controls” on their marketing and distribution practices. All of them took inspiration from the same New York bill.
- In This Maximum Security Facility, Prisoners Learn to Heal From One of Their Own: Darnell Lane was convicted of shooting and killing another man. Now, he’s helping his peers break generational cycles of violence.
- Evaluation Finds Philly’s Violence Prevention Grant Program Works — But Needs More Support: The pilot program paid $13.5 million to 31 community groups who served more than 4,800 people, mostly men and teenage boys.