How to apply COVID-19 lessons to outbreak of gun violence

How to apply COVID-19 lessons to outbreak of gun violence
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Outside the headlines of the COVID-19 pandemic, America’s long-running gun violence epidemic gained strength last year. Media coverage of mass shootings may have slowed, but the number of Americans fatally assaulted with firearms increased by 35 percent in U.S. cities. A surge of this magnitude has no modern precedent. It comprises thousands of deaths, each one a calamity for the family and community that suffer the loss. 

The likely causes are clear. In a country awash in more guns than ever, large swaths of Americans were plunged deeper into economic instability. Communities of color experienced unequal burdens from COVID-19 while witnessing high-profile acts of interpersonal and structural racism, including police violence. The predictable results are unequal mental and physical harms. Trauma from gun violence as a disease continues to ravage communities. Intimate partner violence is up, potentially increasing the disparities that Black and Latinx women face. Early data suggest that Black and Latinx youth suicide rates rose in 2020, even as overall suicides declined slightly.

Similarly, our analysis indicates that gun homicides spiked most severely in neighborhoods that are both racially and economically marginalized due to systemic oppression:

To bend the curve on this outbreak of firearm injuries, we can draw lessons from COVID-19. First, every community where the outbreak is found requires a focused prevention effort. Government inaction allows the problem to spread beyond the level that existing resources can handle. Research has long found similarities between community gun violence and infectious diseases, since gun violence is transmitted through social networks and across space. These dynamics demand rapid action informed by timely data.

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Second, solutions must center the perspectives and leadership of those closest to the pain of daily gun violence, primarily communities of color and especially gun violence survivors. During COVID-19, health officials have seen the limitations of delivering testing, care and vaccines through the health care institutions that have long failed communities of color. Similarly, institutions like law enforcement, which often serves white residents adequately while enacting harms against residents of color, will not solve the epidemic of community gun violence. Even the so-called “gang”-focused — law enforcement-led strategies once advertised as public health approaches — rely on an outdated understanding of youth social groups and wield harsh criminal penalties, although similar programs without a “deterrence” component appear equally effective.

The key ingredient is getting vital resources and social services to the individuals most likely to be impacted by gun violence. Delivering those services requires community violence intervention workers who are credible messengers and culturally competent. These outreach workers are keeping our communities safe by building the trust necessary to help high-risk individuals find housing, jobs, trauma care and other needs. They may also act as conflict mediators and risk their lives daily to stop violence. It costs money to train, deploy, compensate and support these personnel, but they are likely far more cost-effective than adding police. Evaluations of these programs have been broadly supportive, and the science behind these innovative approaches will continue to develop rapidly as they are employed more widely. The individuals on the violence epidemic should be treated and supported like the frontline, life-saving workers they are.

For lasting improvements, we must also change the social and physical environments that give rise to epidemic gun violence. Many high-violence neighborhoods have been isolated from resources through government actions such as redlining and highway construction. Though residents display cohesion, innovation and resilience, they rarely benefit from large-scale government investments focused on improving accessibility, livability and residential stability. Even small-scale experiments, such as converting vacant lots to small, simple parks, can reduce nearby gun violence and improve neighbors’ mental health. Expanding this approach, with the goal of delivering equitable access to healthy surroundings for all Americans, could make communities safer and more resilient.

Unlike past reforms aimed at curbing gun violence, the Biden administration’s American Jobs Plan proposes critical investments in community infrastructure that could actually reduce daily gun violence and save lives. Federal agencies are already directing funds to community violence intervention programs, and the American Jobs Plan adds another $5 billion. The plan’s large-scale investments in urban physical infrastructure, if they are allocated equitably and with community leadership, could also produce lasting improvement in public safety. While this plan will provide immediate help to many local communities, Congress, state legislatures and municipal policymakers must also champion local reforms that focus on infrastructure changes to reduce gun violence.

COVID-19 exposed vulnerabilities produced by years of disinvestment from local public health infrastructure. By contrast, adequate public safety infrastructure has simply never existed for marginalized neighborhoods of color. Instead, those communities bear the costs of tragedy after tragedy. Major investments in the infrastructure to save lives from gun violence are long overdue.

Jonathan Jay, DrPH, JD, is an assistant professor of community health sciences at Boston University School of Public Health. Follow him on Twitter: @jonjaytweets.

Amber Goodwin is the founding and executive director of the Community Justice Action Fund, a leading gun violence prevention organization working on policy, education, leadership development, and building resources centered on communities of color. Follow her on Twitter: @amberkgoodwin.