In Baltimore, an RV painted in vibrant blues and greens and branded with the words “Healing In Community” serves as the mobile headquarters for a roving team of violence interrupters and crisis responders. 

For the past year and a half, Operation Respond has provided services to those at the highest risk of community gun violence. A team of resource navigators, social workers, case managers, and other front-line workers provides cognitive behavioral therapy, mentoring, and more — with the goal of reducing gun violence and, as the RV says, helping the community heal.

Operation Respond is one of a number of violence prevention programs that could stand to benefit from a new strategy in Maryland, one that would leverage state funding, public health strategies, data, coordination, and community input to reduce gun violence.

Enter the Center for Firearm Violence Prevention and Intervention, first proposed by Maryland Governor Wes Moore in January. Two months later, lawmakers approved legislation to establish the center. Maryland is the first to take up the Biden administration’s call to create statewide offices for gun violence prevention, though it’s not the first state to establish such a center.

“I’m hoping that this new office will be receptive to the voices on the ground so they can make investments into the real causes, the real issues, and the communities and people who have been exposed to gun violence,” said Dante Johnson, who runs Operation Respond as director of Community Safety Initiatives at the Living Classrooms Foundation, a nonprofit educational organization in Baltimore and Washington, D.C.

Johnson said he also hopes the new office will serve as a sustainable source of funding and resources for efforts like Operation Respond, which is currently running on a three-year grant through the U.S. Department of Justice. “We’re already looking now at how we are going to continue to fund it after three years,” he said.

From 2018 to 2022, the last five years for which data is available, Maryland had the eighth-highest rate of firearm homicide in the nation, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. With a rate of 8.7 homicides per 100,000 people, Marylanders were at least 40 percent more likely to be shot and killed than residents in neighboring Pennsylvania and Delaware. And Maryland’s rate is nearly three times that of Northeastern states like New York and New Jersey.

“Maryland has seen increasing rates of gun violence, unfortunately,” Celeste Iroha, the founder of Enough of Gun Violence, said. Her advocacy group is based in Maryland and she is a member of a coalition that pushed for the new center. “We need a center that does this work.”

Like most of the country, Maryland saw rates of gun violence surge in 2020 and 2021, and begin to decline in 2022. Provisional data suggests that the decline continued in 2023. Meanwhile, Baltimore, the state’s largest city, saw gun violence fall dramatically last year, with homicides declining nearly 22 percent.

Advocates hope the new center, which should become operational after October 1, when the bill establishing it goes into effect, will help get those numbers down further. The center will approach gun violence reduction primarily through a public health lens, facilitating collaboration between state and local government agencies, hospitals, and community-based violence intervention programs.

“Our public health approach to violence prevention and intervention requires centering health as the main goal by addressing factors that will decrease injuries and death,” Health Department Secretary Laura Herrera Scott said when the bill was being considered earlier this year.

At its most basic, a public health approach defines and monitors a problem, identifies risk and protective factors, develops and tests preventative strategies, and works toward widespread adoption of those strategies. Some community violence intervention programs in Maryland — like Operation Respond, Baltimore’s Safe Streets program, and Annapolis’s Cure Violence program — already use public health strategies, but they operate with limited state support and coordination.

I’m hoping that this new office will be receptive to the voices on the ground so they can make investments into the real causes, the real issues, and the communities and people who have been exposed to gun violence.

Dante Johnson, director of Community Safety Initiatives at the Living Classrooms Foundation

The new center’s focus on public health marks a shift away from the state’s tendency to rely largely on law enforcement solutions. While Maryland has for years had a Governor’s Office of Crime Prevention and Policy, it’s historically focused largely on grants for criminal and juvenile justice programs, victims services, and local public safety agencies.

“We really didn’t want this to be from the law enforcement perspective because we didn’t want this to be addressing only the end point, only when gun violence has already happened,” said Karen Herren, the executive director of Marylanders to Prevent Gun Violence, a lead member of a coalition that successfully pushed for and helped develop the plans for the new center.

One of the center’s core goals, according to the legislation that established it, is to make funding more accessible to local organizations, including smaller grassroots groups that may not be able to get larger grants that require jumping through complicated administrative loops. The center could, for example, gather state and federal funding and help distribute it to those smaller organizations, which are often closer to the problem.

The center emerged as a serious idea after advocates failed to convince lawmakers to provide $40 million for community violence intervention programs last year. It would have been a massive increase over the $3 million the state had previously appropriated for that work.

“Three million dollars was a great start,” said Tarria Stanley, the Maryland regional coordinator for Community Justice, a national community violence intervention advocacy group that co-led the coalition. “But as time kept going by and more work was being done, and we started to see the impact of the work being done, we needed more funding there.”

The proposal failed, at least partially over concerns about whether there was an office or agency with the infrastructure capable of managing a large grant program, Stanley said. The center, as it comes online, can now serve as the baseline infrastructure — a conduit and manager of funding and support for front-line organizations.

“We want to make sure that the individuals on the ground especially feel like they’re getting through,” Stanley said. “That they’re able to be sustained and that they are able to get out there and expand the work they’re already doing because that’s important. Without funding, the work can’t happen. These spaces can’t exist without sustainable funding.”

“If it’s housed under this infrastructure, it gives more individuals the opportunity to then be able to obtain that funding,” Stanley added.

It will take some time to get to that point, though. The legislation establishing the office doesn’t go into effect until the fall, and it could take years before the office is operating at full capacity. The state’s 2025 budget, which goes into effect this September, includes $2 million for the center’s first year, when it would start off with three staff members. But the Department of Health estimated that it will request $10 million to fully fund the center in 2026, with $6.7 million of that going toward data-driven, evidence-based firearm violence prevention programs.

Data and evidence will play a crucial role in the center’s strategy. By rigorously evaluating programs, the center aims to identify and replicate successful strategies.

“A critical piece is to be able to take a look at the whole landscape of what is happening, what is working, what is not working, and be able to provide that evaluation component to figure out how we could identify those programs that are working,” Herren told me.

True success, however, hinges on community involvement and the elevation of lived experiences, the advocates said. Iroha stressed the importance of including survivors of gun violence in the center’s leadership.

“The center should not just be about getting statistics; it should actually be going into communities, getting numbers, talking to people about what they do and how they can help them,” Iroha said. “That’s what I hope the center will actually be for.”

Johnson agreed.

“I’m hoping that the office will bring significant funding, and not just be the middleman between federal funding and the work on the ground,” he said. “I hope that the state will be able to support the investment in the frontline workers, the development of additional innovative ideas — to stand those ideas up, shift the culture, and build capacity.”