Every American should be able to live, work, and play in their community free from the threat of gun violence.
However, in many of the nation’s most disadvantaged, low-income neighborhoods, gun violence is a tragic fact of everyday life. This threat is particularly acute for Black and Brown Americans, who make up less than a third of the total population but account for nearly three-quarters of all gun homicide victims. Public policy as it relates to violence prevention has reliably failed these communities.
Limiting access to guns is an important component of any strategy to save lives, but it’s equally important to invest in the evidence-based—and remarkably effective—community-driven programs that disrupt cycles of violence and support people in crisis.
Why This Matters
Terrell Bosley was doing everything right. The 18-year-old was a passionate musician, an active member of his church, and a college freshman. But one day, while helping a friend carry his drums into a Chicago church, Terrell was shot and killed.
When many people think of gun violence in Chicago, they don’t think of victims like Terrell and the devastated family he left behind. They imagine hardened gang members shooting it out in the street over drugs and territory. But in reality, the people pulling the trigger usually make up less than 1% of a city’s population. The vast majority of people living in under-resourced communities in cities like Chicago are victims of and witnesses to violence, not perpetrators. Every year, thousands of families like the Bosleys lose a loved one to gun violence, and tens of thousands of lives are forever changed by shooting injuries. “The first year after Terrell’s murder,” wrote Pam Bosley, the mother Terrell left behind. “I tried to take my life twice because the pain was unbearable.”
No parent should have to endure this suffering. In the United States, the mother of a Black teen is as likely to lose her son to gun violence as nearly every other cause of death combined. We can and must do more to interrupt the cycles of community violence that lead to these senseless tragedies.
Over 13,000 people are murdered with a gun every year in the United States. The majority of these shootings take place in cities, where violence is further concentrated spatially, racially, and within groups, gangs, or cliques.
While the impact of community violence is felt broadly within cities, the vast majority of these shootings take place in small geographic areas. According to a 2015 analysis by The Guardian, 4.5 million Americans (only about 1% of the population) lived in urban census tracts that experienced at least two fatal shootings in a given year.
These neighborhoods are often economically disadvantaged and highly segregated, forged by past and present racial discrimination and fraught police-community relations. As such, victims of community violence are overwhelmingly young people of color, especially young Black men, for whom violence is by far the leading cause of death.
In cities like Oakland, violence is perpetrated by a small high-risk group that constitutes far less than 1% of the population even in neighborhoods with the highest rates of violence.
Cycles of community violence are also inexorably linked to levels of police-community trust. While our justice system arrests, convicts, and incarcerates people of color for minor offenses at an alarming rate, the killers of Black and Brown people are far less likely to be brought to justice. Across 52 of the nation’s largest cities, nearly three-quarters of all unsolved murders involved a victim who was Black.
This absence of justice leads a small percentage of at-risk young people to seek protection in groups and gangs that engage in street or vigilante justice, fueling cycles of retaliatory gun violence that drive shootings and killings in our cities.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Web-based Injury Statistics Query and Reporting System (WISQARS), “Fatal Injury Reports,” last accessed June 26, 2020, https://www.cdc.gov/injury/wisqars. Calculations include children ages 0–17 and were based on five years of the most recently available data: 2014 to 2018.
Over half of gun homicide victims are Black men
Black men make up 59% of all gun homicide victims, despite comprising less than 7% of the population.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Web-based Injury Statistics Query and Reporting System (WISQARS), “Fatal Injury Reports,” last accessed June 29, 2021, https://www.cdc.gov/injury/wisqars. Calculations were based on five years of the most recently available data: 2015 to 2019.
Anthony A. Braga, David M. Kennedy, Elin J. Waring, and Anne Morrison Piehl, “Problem-oriented Policing, Deterrence, and Yotuh Violence: An Evaluation of Boston’s Operation Ceasefire,” Journal of Research in Crime and Delinquency 38, no. 3 (2001): 195–225.
Cities and states across the country are proving that we can achieve rapid, sustained reductions in shootings by investing in evidence-based, community-driven strategies like group violence intervention, relationship-based street outreach, and hospital-based violence intervention programs. Each of these approaches focuses resources on the small fraction of the population at highest risk for engaging in deadly violence. These strategies have proven remarkably effective, contributing to major drops in gun violence in cities in as little as two years.
Group Violence Intervention
Group Violence Intervention (GVI) or “focused deterrence” is a form of partnership-based problem-solving pioneered under the name Operation Ceasefire in Boston in the mid-1990s. The strategy involves analyzing violent incidents and trends to identify individuals and groups at greatest risk for being shot or pulling the trigger. These individuals are then invited to “call-ins,” where law enforcement, social service providers, and community members convey the message that the community wants to see them alive, safe, and out of prison—but the shooting must stop. At the end of the call-in, service providers offer case management, access to mental health services, and other long-term support services. Independent evaluations of the GVI strategy have associated the program with between 30% and 60% reductions in overall homicides.
Relationship-Based Street Outreach
Relationship-based street outreach strategies use a public health model, treating gun violence as a communicable disease and working to interrupt its transmission among community members. One of the earliest models of relationship-based street outreach is Cure Violence, pioneered in 2000 in Chicago. The approach deploys “violence interrupters” and outreach staff who help identify and mediate potentially violent conflicts, respond to shootings, support victims and their families, and provide much-needed access to social services. An independent evaluation of a Cure Violence initiative in the South Bronx associated the program with a 37% decline in gun injuries and a 63% decline in shooting victimizations, such as armed robbery or murder.
Hospital-Based Violence Intervention
Hospital-based violence intervention programs (HVIPs) are built on the premise that the strongest risk factor for violent injury is a history of previous violent injury. The HVIP strategy focuses on reaching high-risk individuals who have recently been admitted to a hospital for treatment of a violent injury. This traumatic experience presents a unique “teachable moment” when an individual may be open to positive intervention. Research shows that patients who receive HVIP services are four times less likely to be convicted of a violent crime and four times less likely to be subsequently reinjured.
While we know what works to interrupt cycles of community violence in this country, too few states are investing in these proven solutions. Federal, state, and local governments must step up to fund and coordinate programs that prevent violence in the most impacted communities.
A CASE STUDY IN HOPE
Our report, A Case Study in Hope: Lessons from Oakland’s Remarkable Reduction in Gun Violence, traces Oakland’s inspiring—and successful—journey to cut its homicides and nonfatal shootings in half using community violence intervention strategies.Read More
What Giffords Is Doing
Community violence intervention strategies are incredibly effective, but to make a sustained dent in American gun violence, these programs need consistent, long-term funding. Giffords works with federal, state, and local governments to support and direct resources to community-driven violence reduction efforts across the country. Compared to the annual cost of gun violence—estimated at $229 billion—these programs are remarkably inexpensive, costing each city only a few million per year.
In states like California and New Jersey, we’ve partnered with community groups and legislators to draft and successfully advocate for legislation funding for community violence prevention and intervention programs. In 2019, Giffords worked closely with Senator Cory Booker and Representative Steven Horsford to introduce the Break the Cycle of Violence Act, which would invest $90 million in federal funding each year for 10 years in community violence reduction programs in the cities most impacted by gun violence.
Since 2016, Giffords has released three extensive reports exploring the issue of community violence and the policy solutions we need to address it. Healing Communities in Crisis: Lifesaving Solutions to the Urban Gun Violence Epidemic explores effective community-based strategies to reduce violence. Our second report, The Critical Role of State-level Support in Breaking the Cycle of Urban Gun Violence, looks at how states are supporting these efforts. And our third, A Case Study in Hope: Lessons from Oakland’s Remarkable Reduction in Gun VIolence, takes an in-depth look at how an effective violence reduction strategy is grown and operates at the city level.
Giffords has developed close partnerships with technical experts like the National Network for Safe Communities, Faith in Action, the Health Alliance for Violence Intervention, Cities United, and the California Partnership for Safe Communities and is committed to lifting up and adequately resourcing their critical violence reduction work.
We’re in this together. To build a safer America—one where children and parents in every neighborhood can learn, play, work, and worship without fear of gun violence—we need you standing beside us in this fight.