Strengthening Our Communities: The Fight to End Gun Violence

According to representatives from Everytown for Gun Safety, there has been an exponential increase in gun violence in the U.S. since the pandemic. Compared to 2019, gun homicides increased 33% in 2020, and additional 8% in 2021 compared to 2020. To make matters worse, Black Americans are disproportionately impacted by gun violence experiencing 12 times the amount of homicides and 18 times more nonfatal gun injuries than whites.

“Gun violence is not going to be addressed by one policy,” said Everytown for Gun Safety’s Senior Vice President Monisha Henley, who opened the policy session on Wednesday, Nov. 29, 2023, at the National Black Caucus of State Legislators Conference. “To stop gun violence, we need to talk about and acknowledge it as a public health epidemic. We know that gun laws save lives and good policy is good politics, but nothing can happen if we don’t acknowledge the issue.”

Gun violence isn’t just homicides; it’s also suicide and domestic violence and how guns make their way into communities across the country. The gun industry is the only industry in the country that is not subject to being held accountable by civil litigation, which, asserts Henley, is the way change happens. Think seat belts and the pharmaceutical industry. The time is ripe to address the leading cause of deaths for America’s young people.

Michael Sean-Spence, managing director of community safety initiatives for Everytown for Gun Safety, described the five buckets of work the organization does: holding the gun industry accountable, blocking illegal gun access, reducing risk and redefining responsible gun ownership, disarm hate, and community-based interventions.

Their public health approach acknowledges the similarities between the impact and spread of gun violence and infectious diseases, then works to reduce gun violence for an entire population through large-scale intervention and prevention programs.

Everytown attributes their success to a strategic mix of unrestricted grants, capacity building led by subject-matter experts and collaborative advocacy. They support 116 community violence intervention (CVI) organizations across 67 cities that use evidence-based strategies to reduce violence through tailored community-centered initiatives to disrupt cycles of violence and retaliation. To end gun violence, these organizations use a mix of street outreach, hospital-based violence intervention, summer youth employment and place-based approaches.

The focus of CVIs resides in cities where gun violence is most acute. According to The Guardian, 127 cities account for half of all gun homicides in the U.S. with 92% of nonfatal shootings. Funding for violence intervention programs and offices currently exist in Alaska, Alabama, Arizona, Colorado, Connecticut, Florida, Idaho, Kentucky, Massachusetts, Maryland, Michigan, Minnesota, Mississippi, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Utah, Virginia, Washington and Wyoming.

But sometimes gun violence still makes its way to your back door. What can lawmakers do about it?

The recent crime at HBCUs, explained NBCSL panelist Yolanda Cash Jackson, Esq., should inspire lawmakers to be more creative on how to provide resources to these institutions. Jackson, who works for Becker on behalf of several private HBCUs in Florida, says legislators can’t be afraid to speak truth to power and as a result must address the holistic problem of gun violence, including mental health services.

Michigan Lieutenant Governor Garlin Gilchrist II shared how his state delivered gun violence legislation. First, he explained how they fixed a loophole to make sure everyone passed a background check regardless of the kind of firearm sale. The legislation requires that people secure firearms at home.

“Where I live in Detroit,” said Gilchrist, “40% of gun deaths of children can be traced back to unsecured firearms.

As one of the states implementing CVI programs, they’re seeing improvement, and that’s in collaboration with law enforcement professionals to launch Operation Safe Neighborhoods to get firearms off the streets and keep them out of the hands of those on probation.

“This success is the result of a movement in partnership with an entire coalition to deliver political victories in places we didn’t think were possible,” explained Gilchrist.

Ron Johnson, Community Safety Director for the City of Nashville, oversees the city’s safety pilot, The Village, which is prime example of how partnerships work to help end gun violence. As a former gang member and college football player who made bad choices, Johnson has helped turn around Nashville’s gun violence. After visiting African communities and seeing how they treated each other with respect, he wondered why not try it here in America.

To create The Village, Johnson pulled together 22 of Nashville’s promising nonprofit groups that were not qualified to receive government funding but wanted to take this on to improve their community. He gave them $5,000 seed money and they met weekly, and now that grassroots group is 900 strong touching more than 200,000 people and as a group receive about $2.1 million in funding to do this important work.

“This work is messy,” admits Johnson. “We can’t think this is a walk in the park. People die from things happening in the midst of work. That’s why we go and get people who have lived these experiences and are change agents.”

Can these successes be replicated in other cities and states? While some city plans from Everytown can be implemented in specific locations, state legislators need to secure funding and make sure CVIs are in their strategic plans. Sean-Spence explained states play a unique role in coordinating, convening, collaborating and holding agencies and governments accountable. That may come in the form of gathering all partners and creating an MOU and making sure data from all participants is reported to demonstrate real-time data.

But, how to find the right partners? Everytown is a resource, but so is Health Alliance for Violence Intervention (HAVI), to identify the organizations that can support the reduction of gun violence.

Many state legislators acknowledged the positive impact programs were having in their communities while some others indicated some organizations are getting funds but not doing the work. Cash insists legislators read and understand the budget and ask the tough questions and find out who is servicing certain zip codes. In her state of Florida, communities got together to do collective funding after years of having isolated nonrecurring funding. This coalition allows them to scale and receive collective assistance.

As the Supreme Court increasingly makes it easier for states to pass laws that allow for more gun violence, Gilchrist explains the importance of codifying laws at the state level before enforcement. He suggests working creatively with lawyers, such as through Everytown’s litigation team, to think about how to be preemptive. Another approach, mentioned Cash, is to hire Black lobbyists who are culturally competent to have a conversation about what’s happening in communities.