At times, addressing the scourge of gun violence in the United States can feel impossible, especially when we seem to hear of a new violent incident every day. Mass shootings in our churches, schools, supermarkets, nightclubs, concerts, newsrooms, movie theaters, and elsewhere – again and again, after each tragedy, we find ourselves bracing for the next one.
The number of high-profile mass shootings in the U.S. in 2023 already exceeded 500 by September 19, and they haven’t stopped yet. But as horrific as these events are, they represent just a fraction of the toll that gun violence extracts in our country. Community-level shootings, acts of intimate partner violence, and suicides comprise most of the gun violence incidents in the U.S. These occurrences rarely receive much publicity, both because of their frequency and because of the communities they impact the most.
Violence in urban communities – particularly Black and Brown communities – is rooted in racism and white supremacy. From food insecurity to underinvestment in education, housing, economic opportunity, community development, and infrastructure, the seeds of violence are abundant.
Many individuals in these neighborhoods lack access to healthcare services, like addiction treatment and mental health support, which have been shown to help stem the tide of violence. Homelessness, mass criminalization, and incarceration also disproportionately affect Black and Brown people in urban settings, as they have for generations.
It should be no surprise that the financial, emotional, and mental tolls of racism often lead to violence. Faced with insufficient options to provide for themselves and their families, people adapt and find a way, even if it requires the use of a gun.
For years, the Friends Committee on National Legislation (FCNL) and its network of advocates have lobbied Congress to reduce gun violence by limiting gun ownership, possession, and use. The bipartisan gun reform bill passed in June 2022 – the Safer Communities Act (P.L. 117-159) – was a significant step forward. Still, Congress has far more work to do to address gun violence, particularly at the neighborhood level.
When it comes to community-level violence, cities have traditionally responded by increasing the presence of a militarized police force. More spending on police is supposed to make our communities safer, but there is little evidence that this approach meaningfully reduces crime or violence. This solution has failed repeatedly, sometimes with fatal consequences.
Peace and justice advocates know – whether they are working in the U.S. or abroad – the investments that are most effective in quelling community-level violence are those that center humanity, address root causes of community distress, and minimize additional harm. An alternative solution, which has emerged from within the very communities that are most impacted by violence, offers a new way forward: violence interrupters.
These programs rely on the efforts of people who understand the challenges unique to their own communities and who are able to identify the individuals most likely to commit violence. Violence interrupters are able to intercede, mentor, teach nonviolence, and shift group norms away from ones that perpetuate conflict.
Violence interrupters are not law enforcement personnel, but their work often reduces – sometimes even eliminates – the need for police intervention. This is key to their success.
Considered “credible messengers,” these individuals always come from the communities they serve. Not only have many violence interrupters been involved with the criminal legal system, but they also hold deep understandings of the gang dynamics within their neighborhoods.
During last year’s Spring Lobby Weekend, FCNL’s Justice Reform Director José Santos Moreno told young adult participants, “It’s powerful that you’re taking something that’s a stigma in our society – a criminal record – and making it an asset.” Violence interrupters’ firsthand experiences authenticate their efforts to save lives. These programs offer new opportunities to individuals at high risk of violence.
Beyond mediating potential violence when they sense it or receive word, violence interrupters also track youth activity, respond to incidents of violence, and even remain at homicide scenes or hospitals after the police have left – to reduce the likelihood of retaliatory violence.
However, reductions in violent crime rates alone do not paint a complete picture of the impact of violence interrupters, as they often support their communities in ways that go beyond crisis situations. Their neighbors feel the deep, on-going commitment of violence interrupters to address the seeds of gun violence in their communities.
In neighborhoods across the country, violence interrupters spread messages of nonviolence by facilitating youth programming and organizing local events such as cookouts, peace walks, and summer activities to celebrate and build trust within their communities. Often, they work to connect community members with educational resources, job training opportunities, and mental health services. They also assist individuals with certain “basics” that many of us may take for granted, such as obtaining critical documents like state IDs, birth certificates, and social security cards, which are necessary for accessing employment and housing.
Violence interrupter programs are typically funded by state, local, and private sources, many of which receive federal money through the Community Violence Intervention and Prevention Initiative (CVI). CVI is administered by the Office of Justice Programs within the Department of Justice. However, funds for violence interrupters are not specifically earmarked in the CVI budget, making the longevity of many of these programs insecure.
One pushback against violence interrupter programs is that their efficacy can be difficult to quantify, which makes it challenging to secure funding for these programs. As several speakers echoed at this year’s Spring Lobby Weekend, it is far easier to count instances of violence that have occurred than to count those that were thwarted.
Fortunately, research is becoming more robust in this field. A 2017 study led by New York University, in partnership with local law enforcement agencies, found that New York City neighborhoods with gun-violence-interrupter programs averaged an 18 percent drop in their homicide rates over a three-year period.
Similarly, a 2023 report by the Center for Gun Violence Solutions of Johns Hopkins University revealed outcomes of a fifteen-year study on the impact of Safe Streets Baltimore, a violence interrupter program operating in ten Baltimore neighborhoods that have long endured high rates of gun violence. The study showed that violence interrupter programs reduced homicides and nonfatal shootings between 2007 and 2022 by as much as 32 percent in some sites. This research confirms what has at times seemed nebulous. In 2021, Baltimore’s Cherry Hill neighborhood saw 365 days without a single shooting, demonstrating the impact of such programs in an area previously infamous for violent activity.
You cannot put a price on a life. However, researchers have devised ways to analyze the positive impact of violence interrupter programs on local economies, which could help bolster arguments for more funding. The costs of gun violence include the law enforcement deployed to crime scenes, medical treatments, and social service interventions for community trauma, especially for children who have lost parents. These costs of gun violence are extremely high.
Every dollar invested in violence interrupter programs has been shown to return between $7.20 and $19.20 in economic benefits to local communities.
Even so, despite the demonstrable benefits of gun violence prevention programs, “Second Amendment rights” frequently emerges as another area of pushback. These arguments are beside the point. Violence interruption programs have absolutely no impact on Second Amendment rights. Violence interruption programs affect quality-of-life issues that shape the context in which people choose to own guns. They do not address policies about gun ownership.
Violence interruption gets to the seeds of gun violence – systemic and societal factors – and addresses them directly. Providing economic opportunities and safe conflict resolution processes are ways to reduce the impulse for gun violence by members of a community, which leads to lower rates of illegal gun use in that community.
One thing is certain: Everyone deserves to feel safe in their own neighborhood. Our current levels of gun violence are neither acceptable nor inevitable. Community violence interrupter programs are breaking cycles of grief and loss in cities across the country, and we need more of them.
As a Black woman, addressing community-level gun violence is personal. It deeply hurts to know that Black and Brown communities have faced soaring rates of gun violence for decades, yet their plight fails to receive the attention it demands.
The seeds of gun violence did not plant themselves. Therefore, our communities deserve investments in non-carceral solutions that sustainably reduce and prevent violence. Congress must take every available step to reduce harm and loss of life and make our neighborhoods safer. Violence interrupter programs are a proven way to do that in locales that lawmakers too often forget.
I encourage readers to join me in bringing more awareness to this issue and urging Congress to fund these evidence-based, life-saving solutions. ~~~
Michya Cooper is a proud Maryland native with a passion for the advancement of justice and democracy reform. A graduate of Temple University and 2022-2023 FCNL program assistant, Michya now works at a law and public policy institute as a program associate for Voting Rights and Representation.