The House Judiciary Committee held a hearing on Thursday about responses to community gun violence in American cities. It included testimony from Representatives from St. Louis and Chicago, and a panel of activists from gun violence prevention organizations, who said this hearing was the first of its kind. 

The hearing comes at a pivotal moment in the country’s ongoing debate over gun violence. A string of high profile mass shootings this summer galvanized momentum for several gun measures, including universal background checks and an assault weapons ban. Several 2020 Democratic presidential candidates have made gun reform central to their campaigns. 

But the sudden burst of enthusiasm for gun reform measures rankled some community activists. Several told The Trace that persistent gun violence, which disproportionately impacts communities of color, had been given short shrift. Thursday’s hearing represented an effort by congress to address that attention gap. 

The panel of activists included Amber Goodwin, the co-founder of the Community Justice Action Fund, which works to secure resources for gun violence activists; Eduardo Bocanegra, the executive director of READI Chicago, a nonprofit that identifies those most at risk for violence and provides them with a suite of community services; Reggie Moore, the director of Milwaukee’s Office of Violence Prevention, which implements programs to identify the root causes of violence; and Maj Toure, the founder of Black Guns Matter, a Second Amendment education organization that provides firearms and conflict resolution trainings in cities across the country. 

Bocanegra, Moore, and Goodwin each advocated for policies that treat gun violence as a public health crisis, rather than a public safety one. 

“There are no disputes on facts — the proven strategies to reduce gun violence are in front of Congress and now it’s their time to act,” said Goodwin after the hearing concluded, referring to policy outlines submitted for the record by the panelists. Those strategies include cognitive behavioral therapy, violence interruption, and focused deterrence, among other interventions. 

When the hearing’s chairwoman, Representative Karen Bass of California, asked what the groups would need from Congress in order to expand their work, each panelist responded that an influx of federal funds would allow them to scale up. 

“We need federal dollars,” said Bocanegra. As The Trace has previously reported, READI Chicago relies almost exclusively on private funding, a stream Bocanegra maintains is unsustainable. Moore agreed. He said Milwaukee is one of several cities that receives a ReCAST grant, a federal stipend from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration that supports the development of violence prevention and community youth engagement programs in traumatized communities. “It’s a five-year grant and we are entering the fourth year, so I would ask that it be prioritized that those funds continue,” he said.

Though the proceeding was less politically charged than recent hearings on assault weapons and gun violence in the aftermath of mass shootings, questions during the panel still split along party lines. 

Democrats directed nearly all of their questions to the three gun violence prevention activists, Bocanegra, Moore, and Goodwin. Republicans asked no questions of these panelists, instead directing their inquiries to Toure, the panel’s sole libertarian member. Toure spoke at length about the role of the nuclear family and argued, counter to the consensus among researchers, that high rates of gun ownership would reduce violence. 

Toward the hearing’s close, Representative Theodore Deutch of Florida, who represents the district home of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, said he felt it was Congress’s duty to replicate for community gun violence what Parkland activists had generated for school shootings: sustained national attention.

“I hope that we can do many more hearings like this to keep this issue front and center as a major part of what we do,” he said.