Reducing Gun Violence: Part 1 [72]

Dr. Keith WittCultural Commentary

BulletsWhat has worked in America to reduce gun violence? If we look beyond bombast–“Longer prison terms for gun violence! Bring back the death penalty!”–and self-righteous moralizing–“More bans on buying/using/carrying guns!”–we can find solutions that have been proven to work in the real world. A great example is the “High Point strategy” as outlined by David Kennedy in, Don’t Shoot: one man, a street fellowship, and the end of violence in inner-city America (check it out on Amazon here).

Kennedy, a Harvard scholar appalled at the murder rate for inner city blacks, wanted to make a difference. He gathered together wise and caring people from law enforcement, academia, criminal justice, social services, and community action to create programs that dramatically reduced gun violence using existing laws and resources. Rather than making assumptions, they actually talked to police, community figures, gang members, and criminal justice experts and looked for what was really going on and what had worked to reduce violence in the past. They found some amazing, sometimes counterintuitive, facts about gun violence.

First of all, a disproportionate amount of the thirty-one thousand gun deaths in the U.S. each year are young black, urban males. Most of these deaths are among a small percentage of young men, and have little or nothing directly to do with drug money, gang turf, or psychopathic evil. They mostly have to do with a few career criminals with interpersonal conflicts–“beefs”– in a culture of fear, where you carry a gun to protect yourself from other guys with guns.

They also found that the advent of crack cocaine and associated drug marketplaces actually did contribute to murder statistics, but just targeting dealers did nothing to stem the violence. What did? A multi agency approach that simultaneously coordinated the law-enforcement communities, the neighborhood communities, and the gang communities through influencing the gang cultures with judicious combinations of relationships, police crack downs, threats with teeth, and social services support.

In programs from Boston to Minneapolis, multi agency task forces were formed, and gangs and beefs were charted. Initially, the task force decimated the most violent gang in the city with massive local, state, and federal arrests for drugs, probation and parole violations–anything possible. Next, gang members and repeat offenders were invited to regular meetings where they were told, “The violence stops now! The first person that gets shot brings down the same wrath of Hell onto his gang that we just demonstrated with the gang on the other side of town. Another gang threatens you, tell us, and we will go after them.” These were simple, direct messages that gave gang members a chance to step back from a violent lifestyle that hardly any of them really wanted. The messages were clear and simple:

  • We’ll stop you from doing violence if you make us.
  • We’ll help you if you let us–we’ll provide concrete support to protect you from gangs that keep shooting, and we’ll do our best to keep you out of jail, get you work, and help you not get killed.
  • Somebody gets shot, we are all over whoever did it, and everyone affiliated with them.

Such periodic meetings combined with police/criminal justice/community follow up dramatically reduced gun violence on some of the bloodiest streets in America–50%, 60%, unheard of statistics before this program–as long as the programs were being implemented.

Kennedy and his associates called their approach the “High Point strategy,” and did not keep it secret. They told everybody–gang members, informants, community leaders, principals, middle-school students, gang members’ parents–what they were doing, and spread the word on the street through police, community organizers, and repeat offenders identified as potential change agents.

The beauty of these programs is that they seem to work for different worldviews. The global thinking, solution oriented, multi perspective people who develop, organize, and implement these strategies don’t have to sell their worldviews to all the stake-holders, just the fact that the program delivers to the idealistic, selfish, righteous, profit-driven, cynical, and burned out alike:

  • Idealistic: “We need more community support and get-tough-on-crime polices, and less guns.” People actually observe these things happening.
  • Selfish: “It’s all about me” people can be safer from their neighbors and the police.
  • Righteous,: “We need to live God-fearing lives” moralists can finally believe their Christian convictions are actually being embodied by some of the most feared members of the neighborhood as well as by police officers.
  • Cold-blooded businessmen: Profit driven drug dealer capitalists are told what will be tolerated and what will result in consistent hammers falling down on them and their operations.
  • Cynical police officers: Seeing murder rates go down 50% or more and stay down, can ignite hope that the damaged communities can be salvaged.
  • Burned out probation and parole officers can actually make a difference to their charges to help keep them alive and out of prison.

“Study the problem–find promising approaches–try them out–see how they work–apply effective ones across the country,” can be used with all kinds of violence. Next week in, Reducing gun violence: Part 2, we’ll discuss how to apply it to mass shootings.

Image Credit: controlarms