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Address Gun Violence by Going After the Root Causes

Gun violence has an outsized impact on Black communities. Solutions must prioritize economic and social justice, not inequitable retribution.

April 14, 2021

After two weeks marred by numer­ous mass shoot­ings, the air rings again with calls for gun reform in the United States. These calls, though, differ from past calls for reform: we have today a pres­id­ent and Congress inclined to act.

On April 8, Pres­id­ent Biden issued a series of exec­ut­ive orders tight­en­ing restric­tions on untrace­able “ghost guns,” publish­ing a model for state red flag legis­la­tion, direct­ing the Justice Depart­ment to study and report on gun traf­fick­ing, and order­ing 26 programs to lever­age exist­ing grants to combat community viol­ence.

Biden’s responses to these recent mass shoot­ings are, to be sure, laud­able. But they do not go far enough. While restrict­ing access to guns will save lives, the pres­id­ent and Congress must home in on the circum­stances that breed crime and viol­ence — insuf­fi­cient economic oppor­tun­ity and lack­ing social mobil­ity — to truly tackle the epidemic of gun viol­ence ravaging this coun­try. It has gotten even worse during the pandemic, trig­ger­ing an increased police response.

The United States reports the 28th highest rate of gun deaths in the world, with an aver­age of 39 people shot and killed by another person daily. Most of these homicides are instances of daily gun viol­ence, not mass shoot­ings which make up less than 1 percent of all U.S. gun deaths. Black Amer­ic­ans make up the largest share of those killed by guns, suffer­ing nearly 10 times more gun homicides and 15 times more gun assaults than white Amer­ic­ans. This dispro­por­tion­ate impact cannot be divorced from insti­tu­tional racism: stud­ies have found that segreg­a­tion, gender hier­archy, disin­vest­ment, and poverty all increase the risk of homicide victim­iz­a­tion for Black people.

How to confront daily gun viol­ence differs from how to confront mass shoot­ings. Many mass shoot­ings could have been preven­ted by common­sense gun reforms, such as back­ground checks, mandat­ory wait­ing peri­ods, assault weapons bans, age limits, and red flag laws. In Char­le­ston, South Caro­lina, for instance, the shooter received his gun without complet­ing a back­ground check due to the “Char­le­ston Loop­hole.” In Atlanta, to take another example, the shooter purchased his gun on the same day he commit­ted the shoot­ings. And in Park­land, Flor­ida, the shooter bought an AR-15 at 18-years-old despite multiple police reports about his troub­ling beha­vior.

Such straight­for­ward policies, however, are power­less to stem the tide of daily gun viol­ence. When a person obtains a fire­arm illeg­ally, wait­ing peri­ods cannot prevent shoot­ings, nor can back­ground checks guar­an­tee the legal­ity of future beha­vior. And assault weapons bans cannot prevent the thou­sands of homicides by hand­gun.

Previ­ous federal attempts to confront daily gun viol­ence have relied heav­ily on the crim­inal legal system, and all have failed to signi­fic­antly decrease gun homicides. In 2020, Pres­id­ent Trump launched Oper­a­tion Legend, a nine-city law enforce­ment initi­at­ive to address viol­ent crime, result­ing in over 2,000 arrests within its first two months. In 2016, Pres­id­ent Obama issued exec­ut­ive orders call­ing on state attor­neys general to focus on prosec­ut­ing gun traf­fick­ing and viol­ent offend­ers of gun crimes.

These attempts to address daily gun viol­ence erred by depend­ing on a racist and other­wise biased crim­inal legal system to address a prob­lem that is perpetu­ated by inequal­ity. Gun viol­ence and mass incar­cer­a­tion are both propag­ated and rein­forced by policies that punish lower income communit­ies of color. In other words, the solu­tion to one prob­lem cannot be achieved by exacer­bat­ing the other.

Instead, reforms should prior­it­ize address­ing the root causes of gun viol­ence in addi­tion to limit­ing access to fire­arms through common sense reforms. The World Health Organ­iz­a­tion and the John Jay College of Crim­inal Justice both released similar recom­mend­a­tions to reduce viol­ence without reli­ance on incar­cer­a­tion. Among the notable propos­als are chan­ging cultural and social norms around viol­ence and promot­ing proso­cial bonds. They also include identi­fy­ing and support­ing victims with the aim of prevent­ing reoc­cur­ring viol­ence, mitig­at­ing finan­cial stress, and enga­ging youth.

Biden’s recent exec­ut­ive orders take steps to address some of these recom­mend­a­tions by direct­ing federal agen­cies to lever­age exist­ing grants for community viol­ence inter­ven­tion programs. This fund­ing will support restor­at­ive, community-oriented programs like group viol­ence inter­ven­tion and hospital-based inter­ven­tion — strategies that develop anti-viol­ence norms among peers by identi­fy­ing indi­vidu­als at high risk for commit­ting gun crimes and connect­ing poten­tial offend­ers with social services.

However, the fund­ing from Biden’s exec­ut­ive orders is just a drop in the bucket compared to what is needed to signi­fic­antly reduce daily gun viol­ence. To adequately support community viol­ence inter­ven­tion, Congress must pass the Amer­ican Jobs Plan which alloc­ates $5 billion over eight years to community viol­ence preven­tion programs and billions more to improv­ing schools, expand­ing access to higher educa­tion, making homeown­er­ship more afford­able, provid­ing job train­ing to young people, and promot­ing equit­able infra­struc­ture devel­op­ment.

If Congress wants to reduce gun homicides, it must address economic inequal­ity and pass the Amer­ican Jobs Plan with full fund­ing. Further­more, Congress should consider invest­ing in neigh­bor­hood green­ing and clean­ing initi­at­ives, substance use treat­ment, co-respon­der models to minim­ize police inter­ac­tions, and targeted welfare programs to reduce poverty.

Incor­por­at­ing economic justice into viol­ence preven­tion policy is a neces­sary step, and legis­lat­ors should be cogniz­ant of the prevent­at­ive poten­tial of policies like the Amer­ican Jobs Plan. Gun viol­ence is a distinct­ively Amer­ican crisis, and the costs of pursu­ing incre­mental, limited-scope reforms are simply too great.