About this Report
First, the report summarizes much of what is known about urban gun violence: its causes, the ways it differs from violence in other settings, and the ways it undercuts many other aspects of city life. It is not the intent of this report to explain all the variation in gun violence across cities; instead, it is a primer for cities that want to act today, in spite of uncertainty. Far from presenting novel ideas, it brings together the knowledge of academic researchers, community activists, nonprofit leaders, and civil servants who have been addressing gun violence in cities for decades.
Second, the report describes seven strategies that dozens of cities have taken to reduce gun violence in their communities, drawing on specific case studies. The identified interventions address factors known to contribute to urban gun violence, are supported by a growing body of evidence, and can each be a part of any city’s larger strategy for reducing gun violence. This is not a comprehensive account of the hard work taking place in communities across the country, the volume of which is impossible to capture, but these case studies demonstrate that cities can learn from one another, building on successes, and informed by a growing body of evidence.
Everytown for Gun Safety is the largest gun violence prevention organization in the country with more than three million supporters and more than 100,000 donors, including moms, mayors, survivors, and everyday Americans, who are fighting for public safety measures that respect the Second Amendment and help save lives. At the core of Everytown are Mayors Against Illegal Guns, Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America and the Everytown Survivor Network.
Mayors Against Illegal Guns is a bipartisan coalition of more than 1,000 current and former mayors united around the common goals of protecting communities by holding gun offenders accountable; demanding access to crime gun trace data that is critical to law enforcement efforts to combat gun trafficking; and working with legislators to fix weaknesses and loopholes in the background check system that make it far too easy for criminals and other dangerous people to get guns.
The National Urban League is a historic civil rights organization dedicated to economic empowerment in order to elevate the standard of living in historically underserved urban communities. Founded in 1910 and headquartered in New York City, the National Urban League spearheads the efforts of its local affiliates through the development of programs, public policy research and advocacy. Today, the National Urban League has 95 affiliates serving 300 communities, in 35 states and the District of Columbia, providing direct services that impact and improve the lives of more than two million people nationwide.
Residents and leaders of America’s cities face few challenges more urgent than gun violence. It takes thousands of lives, depresses the quality of life of whole neighborhoods, drives people to move away, and reduces cities’ attractiveness for newcomers. It makes it harder for schools, businesses, and community institutions to thrive.
Urban gun violence also reflects and worsens America’s existing racial and economic disparities. In a recent year in Milwaukee, for example, young black men were killed with guns at a rate 20 times the national average, and were 100 times more likely to be shot than white Milwaukee residents of the same age.
But for mayors and community members looking to take concrete, evidence-based steps to address gun violence, cities are also a source of innovative solutions. Across the country, whether in focused initiatives or broad programs, cities are developing gun violence reduction strategies that other municipalities can adopt and build into their own approaches.
This report proceeds in two sections, first by describing what is known about urban gun violence, and then providing examples of what cities have done about it. It begins by assessing the scale of urban gun violence, reviewing factors known to influence it, and identifying questions researchers are still grappling with:
- In America, which has one of the highest rates of gun homicide in the world, cities experience gun violence at further elevated rates. Americans are 25 times more likely to be shot to death than residents of other comparably wealthy nations, but the odds are even worse for Americans who reside in cities. The country’s 25 largest cities contain barely one-tenth of the U.S. population but account for more than one in five Americans murdered with guns.
- In American cities, when a crime turns deadly, it is almost exclusively because of a gun. An assault committed with a gun is at least five times more likely to result in death than an assault with a knife. As a result, most fatal violence in cities is committed with guns—nine out of ten homicides in some cities — and the difference between America’s safest cities and its most dangerous ones is almost entirely a matter of gun violence.
- Strong gun laws matter, within and beyond city borders. Strong state laws that prohibit dangerous people from having guns make it harder for them to arm themselves, blocking their access to legal sources and increasing costs and risks in the black market. But guns know no borders; nationwide, nearly 30 percent of guns recovered from crime scenes were first sold in a different state. That means cities also depend on strong laws in neighboring states, which make it harder for criminals to obtain guns there and traffic them back into the city.
- Unable to get guns legally, criminals may still obtain them in black markets supplied by unlicensed sales, negligent dealers, and theft. In the 32 states where unlicensed sellers can offer handguns in so-called ”private sales” without background checks, criminals exploit those sales to obtain guns despite being prohibited from owning guns. A few licensed gun dealers selling guns carelessly or deliberately trafficking guns to criminals can also feed the underground gun market. And gun owners who store their guns negligently leave them vulnerable to theft, which puts them directly into criminal hands.
- Within cities, a small share of places and people are vastly more likely to be affected by gun violence than others. The majority of gun homicides in cities occur within a limited geographic area and among a small group of high-risk people. This is partially explained by gangs, which exacerbate rates of gun violence by obtaining guns for their members, promoting the carrying of weapons, and initiating disputes that turn violent and spur retaliation. But whole neighborhoods suffer the consequences, as bystanders get caught in the gunfire and young people exposed to violence face a higher risk of later participating in it themselves. Even vacant lots and other aspects of a city’s physical environment may contribute, by providing hiding place to keep illegal guns easily accessible. And all of this has a disproportionate impact on communities of color, who are more likely to live in areas best by these issues. Situations of domestic violence also become far more dangerous when a firearm is present, a problem that is not unique to cities but accounts for a significant share of urban gun violence.
- Some changes in gun violence are still beyond easy explanation. Over the last decade, nearly 80 percent of America’s 25 largest cities experienced significant declines in gun violence. Strong laws and enforcement, interventions to reduce the supply of illegal guns, and efforts to disrupt gangs and turn their members away from violence all played a part, though none fully explains the change. Policing, in particular, has been the subject of considerable scrutiny and debate and has had an indisputable influence on gun violence in cities, though an assessment of specific tactics is beyond the scope of this report. The variation in gun violence between and within cities poses new questions for researchers, but it demonstrates one thing definitively: gun violence does not need to be a fact of life for American cities.
- Even without all of the answers, city leaders can act today to help reduce gun violence. This report does not resolve every open question about gun violence; instead, it highlights what cities can do in spite of uncertainty. And whether in cities that have experienced remarkable declines in gun violence over the last decade or in those where shootings remain stubbornly frequent, this reports identifies and elevates individual programs that are having an impact within particular neighborhoods and among specific groups.
The second half of this report walks through seven strategies cities have adopted to reduce gun violence. Some narrowly target particular aspects of urban gun violence while others seek broader citywide impacts. A few have been implemented numerous times and across many cities, while others are new but promising.
- Cities can harness their own data to better understand the specific factors that drive gun violence. From Milwaukee, WI, where public health and criminal justice officials review every homicide and shooting in the city, to Chicago, IL, where an analysis of crime gun trace data exposed all the sources of the city’s underground gun market, data can help policy makers address gun crime with solutions tailored to local circumstances.
- Cities can reduce the supply of illegal guns by cutting off the sources of their local underground markets. In Lafayette Parish, LA, after public safety officials recognized that criminals in the area were stealing guns stored in cars, they initiated a public education campaign to promote responsible gun storage in vehicles and reduce this opportunity for theft. In Tucson, AZ, local legislators passed an ordinance requiring gun shows on city property to require background checks for all sellers.
- Cities can improve public spaces to make it harder for criminals to stash or use firearms. Vacant lots in Philadelphia, PA, provided a hiding place for guns, so city partnerships transformed the lots into green spaces. And New York City is confronting gun violence outside public housing units by lighting areas that were otherwise hazardous after dark.
- Cities can adopt measures to improve investigations of gun crimes and leave fewer gun crimes unsolved. A discarded firearm or a few spent casings is physical evidence that can link a crime scene to a perpetrator, and officers are making better use of that evidence in cities around the country — from thorough forensic inspection of recovered crime guns in Denver, CO, to protocols for evidence collection in Palm Beach County, FL, that ensure weapons arrests stand up in court.
- Cities can help break the cycle of violence and retaliation by running programs that focus on the places and people most likely to be affected. These programs aim to change group and individual behavior and to defuse conflicts before they escalate. From Cincinnati, OH, to Richmond, CA, cities are working with law enforcement, street outreach workers, and hospitals to engage with high-risk individuals and give them alternatives to violence.
- Cities can offer positive alternatives to at-risk individuals before they fall into patterns of violence, using interventions shown to have long-term impacts on violent behavior. Chicago, IL, has been piloting new programs, including cognitive behavioral therapy and short-term summer employment, which have reduced arrests and increased graduation rates.
- Because fatal domestic violence accounts for as many as one in six homicides in some cities, city leaders can also ensure that dangerous domestic abusers do not have illegal access to guns. In Dallas County, TX, judges developed a courtroom process to ensure that convicted domestic abusers who are prohibited from having firearms relinquish them as mandated by law, and partnered with a local firing range to hold the guns for safekeeping.
None of these tactics alone is enough to eliminate gun violence in American cities. Nor is any one of them right for all cities at all times. But together, this set of strategies represents a promising approach: adopting evidence-based measures that are tailored to how gun violence in any given city actually works. By tackling gun violence in this way, cities can build strong and vibrant communities, and save thousands of lives.
Learn more about specific actions cities can take to reduce gun violence here.
Understanding Gun Violence in American Cities
The Cost of Gun Violence to American Cities
The majority of Americans who experience gun violence in everyday life have something else in common: they live in cities.
America’s gun homicide rate is extraordinarily high — 25 times the rates of comparable nationsGrinshteyn E, Hemenway D. Violent Death Rates: The US Compared with Other High-income OECD Countries, 2010. Am J Med. 2016; 129(3): 266-273 — but gun violence does not touch all American communities in the same way, or with the same intensity. The gun homicide rate in American cities is more than double the national rate, and the 25 largest cities account for barely a tenth of the national population but account for more than a fifth of U.S. gun homicides.See Appendix 1 Gun violence is a problem across America, but cities bear the heaviest burden.Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Violence-related firearm deaths among residents of metropolitan areas and cities – United States, 2006 – 2007. MMWR Surveill Summ. 2011; 60 (18): 573-578.
There are disparities within cities as well. In the safest police district in Philadelphia, no one was injured by gunfire in 2014, while the most violent district had 130 shooting victims.Philadelphia Police Department. Murder/Shooting Analysis 2014. Crime Maps & Stats. 2015. Over the last fifteen years, the safest police precinct in New York City (Precinct 15, Manhattan’s East Side) experienced nine homicides; its most dangerous (Precinct 75, the Brooklyn neighborhood of East New York) experienced 413.Historical New York City crime data. The City of New York. http://on.nyc. gov/1rXet27. Accessed May 19, 2016. The Precinct that covers Central Park had fewer homicides but was excluded.
“Safe streets are a necessary platform for neighborhood growth and prosperity.” – Philip Cook, Professor of Economics, Duke University, NCAnder R, Cook PJ, Ludwig J, Pollack H. Gun Violence among School-Age Youth in Chicago. Crime Lab, The University of Chicago; 2009. http://bit. ly/1TJDzrq. Accessed May 19, 2016.
Gun violence also disproportionately impacts communities of color. Nationwide, a black man is fourteen times more likely than a white non-Hispanic man to be shot to death.Everytown for Gun Safety. Gun violence by the numbers. EverytownResearch.org. http://every.tw/1SB6gKk. Published November 30, 2015. Accessed May 19, 2016. The disparity is starker in some cities, particularly among the young: in Milwaukee, WI, in 2015, for example, black men ages 15 to 24 were 100 times more likely to be shot than white non-Hispanic males of the same age.Totoraitis M. Milwaukee Homicide Review Commission 2014 Annual Report. Milwaukee Homicide Review Commission; 2015. http://bit.ly/27ELmkz. Accessed May 20, 2016. Shooting rate of 1009 per 100,000 for blacks compared to 9 per 100,000 among whites. Note that the disparity was smaller (24x) in 2014.
The damage inflicted by gun violence goes far beyond lost lives, and all city residents pay the cost. Gun violence strains public services like law enforcement and medical care, and it depresses economic growth by lowering property values and driving residents to leave their communities. One study found that for each homicide in a city, 70 residents flee, further hollowing out neighborhoods where tax revenues are already low and services insufficient.Ander R, Cook PJ, Ludwig J, Pollack H. Gun Violence among School-Age Youth in Chicago. Crime Lab, The University of Chicago; 2009. http://bit. ly/1TJDzrq. Accessed May 19, 2016.
By one estimate, a single gunshot wound has a societal cost of about $1 million when all the consequences are added up; by extrapolation, the researchers projected that gun violence costs Chicago $2.5 billion dollars each year.Chicago Crime Lab. https: //crimelab.uchicago.edu/page/report Economic research on real estate prices show that in high-crime areas, houses can lose as much as 40 percent of their value.Lynch, Allen K. and David. W Rasmussen. 2001. “Measuring the Impact of Crime on House Prices.” Applied Economics 33(15): 1981-1989. And an analysis of eight major American cities found that violent crime imposed total direct costs on them of $3.7 billion per year.Shapiro RJ, Hassett KA. The Economic Benefits of Reducing Violent Crime: A Case Study of Eight American Cities. Center for American Progress; 2012. http://ampr.gs/1TsgEFa. Accessed May 19, 2016.
But just as high rates of gun violence depress the growth of communities, reducing those rates allows cities to flourish. The analysis of eight cities found that lower homicide rates translated into significant increases in housing values — and as housing values rise, so do property tax revenues, providing funds to strengthen city services and further bolster growth. A 10 percent reduction in homicides was predicted to increase residential real estate values in the eight studied cities by more than $15 billion.Shapiro RJ, Hassett KA. The Economic Benefits of Reducing Violent Crime: A Case Study of Eight American Cities. Center for American Progress; 2012. http://ampr.gs/1TsgEFa. Accessed May 19, 2016. While the measures described in this report may require cities to invest time and resources, the costs are negligible compared to the toll cities already pay for gun violence each and every day.
America’s Exceptional Rate of Urban Gun Violence
Some features of urban life that contribute to cities’ higher rates of gun violence cannot be changed. Because cities bring great wealth and poverty together, there is greater financial incentive for robbery, which contributes to some violent crime.Glaeser EL. Sacerdote B. Why Is There More Crime in Cities? National Bureau of Economic Research; 1996. http://bit.ly/1Ty0IxG. At the same time, the anonymity of city life means people who commit crimes face a lower probability of being recognized or arrested. Indeed, in cities, the clearance rate for murder investigations — the share ending in an arrest — is substantially lower than that in towns and rural areas.FBI Criminal Justice Information Services. Federal Bureau of Investigation uniform crime reporting. Federal Bureau of Investigation. http://1.usa. gov/1K56APR. Accessed May 24, 2016. Perhaps most importantly, over the second half of the twentieth century, many U.S. cities saw a concentration of poverty and disadvantage unrivaled elsewhere in the country,Sampson R, Wilson WJ. Towards a theory of race, crime, and urban inequality. In: John Hagan, Peterson R, ed. Crime and Inequality. Stanford University Press; 1995: 37-54. factors associated with significantly more violent crime.Kang S. Inequality and crime revisited: Effects of local inequality and economic segregation on crime. J Popul Econ. 2015; 29(2): 593-626. “It is noteworthy that the estimated effect of poverty concentration on crime is particularly large for violent crimes. In panel A, a one standard deviation increase in the dissimilarity index would result in a 17 percent increase in murder rates, a 17 percent increase in rape, a 10 percent increase in aggravated assault, and a 14 percent increase in robbery. By contrast, a one standard deviation increase in the dissimilarity index is associated with a 2 percent increase in burglary, a 3 percent increase in larceny, and a 4 percent increase in motor vehicle theft. … Alleviating the extent of poverty concentration and promoting mixed-income residential environment in disadvantaged neighborhoods may prove effective in achieving successful urban crime control. Given the recent prominence of gentrification and public housing improvement project (e.g., HOPE VI), it would be of great interest to further explore whether and how these changes in neighborhood composition influence crime.”
But there is no ironclad rule that cities must be more violent than other types of communities; the low rates of violence experienced by cities elsewhere around the world makes this clear. Large cities in the United Kingdom,NRA. How the UK covers up murder stats. America’s 1st Freedom. July 2015. http://bit.ly/1U8435Z. Accessed May 19, 2016. Canada, Australia, and New Zealand do not experience homicides at nearly the level of even America’s safest cities — and they are ten times safer than America’s most violent ones (see Appendix).
Cities and Gun Suicide
While cities experience elevated rates of gun homicide, they experience lower rates of another form of gun violence: suicide. A CDC analysis of mortality data in 2006-7 found that the average gun suicide rate in 62 large cities was 43 percent lower than that in areas outside of their metropolitan areas, representing a total of about 1,450fewer gun suicides each year.Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Violence-related firearm deaths among residents of metropolitan areas and cities – United States, 2006 – 2007. MMWR Surveill Summ. 2011; 60 (18): 573-578.The non-MSA suicide rate is 8.2 per 100,000. Were the city population experiencing gun suicides at that rate instead of at 4.7, it would amass 1,449 additional gun suicides. A separate review of youth suicide data found that rural youth were more than twice as likely to kill themselves with a firearm as urban youth, and the disparity grew significantly wider between 1996 and 2010.Fontanella CA, Hiance-Steelesmith DL, Phillips GS, et al. Widening rural-urban disparities in youth suicides, United States, 1996-2010. JAMA Pediatr. 2015; 169(5): 466-473. In New York City, the firearm suicide rate is one-seventh the national rate, pulling the city’s overall suicide rate down to about half the national average.New York City Health Department. Suicide and Self-Inflicted Injuries in New York City. Vol 11. New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene; 2012. http://on.nyc.gov/1OQb2o1. Accessed May 19, 2016.
This pattern is consistent with a large body of research showing that Americans are more likely to commit suicide if they live in an area with a higher household prevalence of firearmsMiller M, Lippmann SJ, Azrael D, Hemenway D. Household firearm ownership and rates of suicide across the 50 United States. J Trauma. 2007; 62 (4): 1029-1034; discussion 1034-1035. or if they themselves have recently purchased a gun.Wintemute GJ, Parham CA, Beaumont JJ, Wright MA, Drake C. Mortality among recent purchasers of handguns. N Engl J Med. 1999; 341(21): 1583-1589. While rates of gun ownership are rarely measured, prior national surveys found that respondents in large cities were about half as likely to own firearms as those in rural communities.Cook PJ, Ludwig J. Guns in America: Results of a Comprehensive National Survey on Firearms Ownership and Use. Police Foundation; 1996. http:// every.tw/1OQbD9l. Rates of gun suicide are also lower among immigrant and non-white populations, groups that constitute a larger share of urban populations.Wadsworth T, Kubrin CE. Hispanic suicide in US metropolitan areas: Examining the effects of immigration, assimilation, affluence, and disadvantage. Am J Sociol. 2007; 112(6): 1848-1885.
A Uniquely Lethal Weapon
When it comes to making American cities safe, “crime is not the problem,” criminologist Frank Zimring famously wrote.Zimring FE, Hawkins G. Crime Is Not the Problem: Lethal Violence in America. New York, NY: Oxford University Press; 1999. Lethal violence is the problem, he argued, and it is committed almost exclusively with guns. This is a consequence of guns’ basic mechanics: they are uniquely lethal. In studies going back decades, assaults involving firearms have proven to be five times more likely to end in the death of the victim than those involving knives, and the difference is even greater with higher-caliber firearms.Zimring FE. Firearms, violence, and the potential impact of firearms control. J Law Med Ethics. 2004; 32: 34-37. Contrary to the conventional wisdom, the vast majority of crimes are committed by criminals who are unarmed.National Crime Victimization Survey. Bureau of Justice Statistics Office of Justice Programs Website. http://1.usa.gov/1yFuBl5. Published 1973. Updated 2014. But more than two in three U.S. murders are by gunshot,Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Center for Injury Prevention and Control. Injury prevention & control: Data & statistics (WISQARS). Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. http://1.usa. gov/1plXBux. Published December 18, 2015. Accessed May 23, 2016. In 2014, around 70 percent of murders were with guns . and in America’s most violent cities that share rises as high as 90 percent — the vast majority committed with handguns.
The difference between America’s safest cities and its most dangerous ones is almost exclusively attributable to gun violence. The country’s 25 largest cities vary relatively little in terms of non-gun homicides — from between 1.2 and 7 per 100,000 residents on average between 2011-15, for example — but they diverge in gun homicides over seven times that range from 1 to 40 per 100,000 residents (See Appendix). And in the cities with the highest homicide rates, guns account for nearly 9 in 10 murders. This raises the question of why disputes in some cities are so much more likely to end in gunfire, with deadly consequences. The answer hinges in part on who commits those homicides, how they obtained their guns, and what policies were — or weren’t — in place to prevent them from doing so.
Strong Gun Laws Matter
While no law will entirely stop criminals from accessing guns, strong laws make it more difficult, blocking access to the legal market and increasing the cost and risk of obtaining one elsewhere. This, in turn, reduces the likelihood that the crimes they commit will be deadly.
Since 1968, federal law has prohibited certain narrow categories of persons from buying or possessing firearms including convicted felons and domestic abusers, who are at higher risk for subsequent offenses. And since 1994 all licensed gun dealers are required to conduct instant background checks on their buyers, to ensure they are not barred from possessing firearms. The process takes just minutes, and each year tens of millions of lawful gun purchasers complete checks without incident, but tens of thousands of prohibited people also attempt to buy guns from dealers and the background check stops those sales.Everytown for Gun Safety. Gun violence by the numbers. EverytownResearch.org. http://every.tw/1SB6gKk. Published November 30, 2015. Accessed May 19, 2016.
But there is a huge loophole in federal law, which exempts unlicensed sales from the background check requirement, including transfers between strangers who meet online, and this provides criminals ready access to guns they are not legally allowed to own. Unlicensed sales take place with no background check and no record keeping, which means they make up an unknowable share of total firearm sales, but it is certain the number is significant. National surveys in the early 1990s and 2000s found that about 40 percent of gun owners obtained their firearms in transfers that would not require a background checkCook PJ, Ludwig J. Guns in America: Results of a Comprehensive National Survey on Firearms Ownership and Use. Police Foundation; 1996. http:// every.tw/1OQbD9l. Miller M. National Firearm Survey, 2004. Harvard School of Public Health; 2004. http://bit.ly/WV6eDY. Accessed May 19, 2016 — a share that forthcoming research appears to confirm.Masters K. Just how many people get guns without a background check? Fast-tracked research is set to provide an answer. October 21, 2015. http:// bit.ly/1XdsFj6. Accessed October 21, 2015 Given the size of the U.S. gun market, this means that millions of guns are exchanged each year without background checks. And surveys of people incarcerated for gun crimes consistently show a majority obtained their firearms in unlicensed transfers.Cook PJ, Parker ST. Survey of Inmates in State Correctional Facilities (SISCF). Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS); 2004. http://1.usa.gov/1zJ6x3U. While 18 states have gone beyond federal law to require background checks on all handgun sales, 32 states continue to allow unlicensed transfers to occur without a check, no questions asked.Background Check States. Is your state a background check state? http:// bit.ly/1WN5Ljr. Accessed May 19, 2016.
Consequently, some cities are hobbled by state legislators who fail to pass strong laws — in their own capitols and in those of neighboring states. An analysis of gun trafficking in 53 U.S. cities found that those in states where background checks were required for unlicensed handgun sales had 48 percent less intrastate gun trafficking.Webster DW, Vernick JS, Bulzacchelli MT. Effects of state-level firearm seller accountability policies on firearm trafficking. J Urban Health. 2009; 86(4): 525-537.
Even in states with strong laws, traffickers go to states where laws are weak and return with trafficked guns. In 2014, 28 percent of guns that law enforcement successfully traced back to their first retail sale came from a different state than that in which they were recovered; in New York City, the share from out-of-state topped 90 percent.Pereira I. Bloomberg: 90% of illegal guns used in NYC crimes come from other states. Newsday. July 31, 2013. http://nwsdy.li/1TmQYWU. Accessed May 19, 2016. And about half of the traced crime guns that crossed state lines nationwide came from just 10 states where gun laws are particularly weak.Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. Firearms trace data - 2014. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. http://1.usa. gov/1JeZbNz. Published August 14, 2015. Accessed May 23, 2016. States that do not require background checks for all handgun sales export nearly three times as many guns that are later recovered at out-of-state crime scenes as states that require background checks, controlling for population.Everytown for Gun Safety. Gun Background Checks Reduce Crime and Save Lives; 2015. Kahane LH. Understanding the interstate export of crime guns: A gravity model approach. Contemp Econ Policy. 2013; 31(3): 618-634.
Shrinking the Black Market for Guns
As in the rest of the country, gun violence in cities takes place in a range of varied circumstances: an irate neighbor allegedly shoots and kills an acquaintance after a dispute;Kyros K. US Marshalls Capture Harrisburg Shooting Suspect. Fox43 News July 13, 2015. http://bit.ly/1XWG4wh. Walker was prohibited from possessing firearms due to a prior criminal history. In 2005, Walker pleaded guilty to aggravated assault, a felony, and was sentenced to a minimum term of 40 months in state prison. an abuser allegedly shoots and kills a former girlfriend;Juhl W. Man booked in California linked to Las Vegas Slaying. Las Vegas Review Journal (Nevada) July 24, 2014 http://bit.ly/1ZseQMY. Accessed May 19, 2016. McFarland was prohibited from possessing firearms due to his prior criminal history. In 2005, McFarland pleaded no contest and was found guilty of a domestic violence misdemeanor (battery) against his then-girlfriend, with whom he cohabitated at the time of the incident. In 2012, he was charged with the felony crime of battery with substantial bodily harm, and charges were pending at the time of the homicide. a gang-involved man shooting at a member of a rival group kills a third party.Gang member convicted of Compton murder, attempted murder news release. Los Angeles, CA: Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office; March 10, 2016. http://1.usa.gov/1rbgYxx. Accessed May 19, 2016. Daniel was prohibited from possessing firearms due to a prior criminal history. In 2004, Daniel pleaded no contest and was found guilty of felonious robbery and was sentenced to three years in state prison. Yet all three of these murders have a common thread, which is typical of gun crimes in cities as it is nationwide: the perpetrator was prohibited from possessing guns due to a history of high-risk behavior, but obtained one anyway. A study of people incarcerated for committing gun crimes found that only 30 percent would have been able to legally possess their firearm under the strongest state laws.Vittes KA, Vernick JS, Webster DW. Legal status and source of offenders’ firearms in states with the least stringent criteria for gun ownership. Inj Prev. 2013; 19(1): 26-31. A forthcoming analysis of the criminal records of 620 adults who had committed firearms crimes in Boston found that 64 percent were prohibited from possessing firearms at the time of the crime.Braga AA, Cook PH. The criminal records of gun offenders. Georgetown Law of Law & Public Policy. Forthcoming. Cities experience elevated rates of gun violence, in large part, because their scale allows them to support a black market that puts guns into dangerous hands.
But evidence is growing that strong laws and effective enforcement can constrain the black market and improve public safety. At least in some U.S. cities, the supply of illegal guns is relatively limited, buyers and sellers are hard to find, and doing so is risky. A seminal study of the black market for firearms in Chicago showed that contrary to conventional wisdom, it’s not cheap or easy to buy a gun on the street: criminals report paying $250 to $400 on the black market for guns valued at only $50 to $100 in the legal market, the quality of firearms is uncertain, and conducting the transaction poses substantial risk of harm or arrest. More than one in three attempts to purchase a gun in Chicago’s black market ended in failure.Cook P, Ludwig J, Venkatesh S, Braga A. Underground gun markets. National Bureau of Economic Research. November 2005. When the underground market for guns is suppressed, gun violence may fall as a result. Forthcoming research shows that between 1981 and 2014, changes in the number of handguns recovered by Boston police were strongly associated with changes in the number of gun homicides: when fewer handguns were on the streets and recovered by cops, fewer gun homicides took place.Braga AA. Long Term Trends in the Sources of Boston Crime Guns. Manuscript in development.
The channels supplying the illegal gun market in each city vary; in some, research suggests just a few licensed gun dealers are funneling a large volume of guns to the black market, even unwittingly. While most gun dealers run their businesses responsibly, a small share sell a disproportionate share of guns later used in crimes, and it isn’t just because they sell more guns to begin with. When ATF reviewed data tracing guns recovered at crime scenes back to the retailers who first sold them, the agency found that just 1.2 percent of gun dealers accounted for fully 57.4 percent of the traced guns.Buckles BA. Commerce in Firearms in the United States. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, Department of the Treasury; 2000. http://bit. ly/1sgihJX. A 2005 study of handguns sold in California, which controlled for retailers’ sales-volume, found a diminished but persistent concentration: dealers who accounted for 18 percent of handgun sales were responsible for 46 percent of traced guns used in violent firearm crimes.Wintemute GJ, Cook PJ, Wright MA. Risk factors among handgun retailers for frequent and disproportionate sales of guns used in violent and firearm related crimes. Inj Prev. 2005; 11 (6): 357-363. Dealers’ diligence in spotting illegal purchasers varies widely: under test conditions, significant proportions of licensed retailers prove willing to sell guns to “straw purchasers,” a trafficking technique where a criminal picks out a gun and then another person buys it under their name.Sorenson SB, Vittes KA. Buying a handgun for someone else: Firearm dealer willingness to sell. Inj Prev. 2003; 9 (2): 147-150. Wintemute G. Firearm retailers’ willingness to participate in an illegal gun purchase. J Urban Health. 2010; 87 (5): 865-878.
Theft is another significant contributor to the black market. By definition, every stolen gun winds up in criminal hands, and these thefts undermine policies that attempt to staunch the flow of guns to the black market through other trafficking channels. U.S. Department of Justice data suggests that thefts of firearms are declining nationwide but 145,300 guns were still lost this way in 2010.Langton L. Firearms Stolen during Household Burglaries and Other Property Crimes, 2005–2010. November; 2012. http://1.usa.gov/VyU57v. Accessed May 23, 2016. And while just a fraction of people incarcerated for gun crimes report having obtained their firearm by stealing it themselves, stolen guns invariably make their way through the black market to criminal end-users.Vittes KA, Vernick JS, Webster DW. Legal status and source of offenders’ firearms in states with the least stringent criteria for gun ownership. Inj Prev. 2013; 19(1): 26-31.
Everytown obtained data from police departments in 14 major American cities, who together received reports of 9,817 stolen guns in 2014 (see Appendix). The rates of reported firearm thefts vary across cities by an order of magnitude, likely reflecting differing rates of residential burglary, prevalence of firearm ownership, and gun storage practices.
Finally, even where cities successfully constrain the supply of illegal firearms, they may still need to alter public spaces that otherwise sustain gun availability. For decades, in cities across the country, law enforcement have observed people sharing “community guns” stashed in public places.Zdan A. Task force takes on problem of “community guns” in Trenton. The Times of Trenton. May 11, 2012.Curran K. Police target “shared guns” stashed in Boston neighborhoods. ABC 5 (Boston). September 24, 2015. http://bit.ly/1YDathp. Accessed May 17, 2016. Michels S. “Neighborhood” gun tied to girl’s death. ABC News. June 17, 2008. http://abcn.ws/1Qi0g3H. Accessed May 19, 2016. O’Hara J. This handgun was used in 13 shootings, 1 armed robbery in Syracuse. The Syracuse Post-Standard. November 23, 2009. http://bit.ly/1VdMdnR. Accessed May 17, 2016. Ethnographic research in a high-crime neighborhood in Chicago suggested that youths unaffiliated with gangs may purchase guns collectively because they have limited access to gun dealers or because they can’t afford a gun on their own.Cook P, Ludwig J, Venkatesh S, Braga A. Underground gun markets. National Bureau of Economic Research. November 2005. Kept in a public place — in a mailbox, a bag under the stairs, a wheel well, the bottom of a light pole, a garbage pail, a hallway radiator, under a building, or in the possession of a person (“the holster”) who is above suspicionWilson M. Hidden communal guns are more common. The New York Times. February 10, 2012. http://nyti.ms/1sD2rM2. Accessed May 19, 2016. — these guns have the potential to increase the accessibility of firearms even when supply is suppressed.
Risk and Gun Violence
Within any given city, gun violence is not evenly distributed across its residents or its neighborhoods; a few people and places are far more at-risk than others. That risk, in turn, is shaped by the relationships between people that make violence more likely and more deadly, and the places where violence is so frequent it becomes a vicious cycle. Understanding how risk shapes gun violence, in turn, can help policy makers think about where and who to best target for intervention.
Gangs are one factor that elevate risk. Whether referred to as groups, crews, or cliques, they contribute to gun violence in cities across the U.S. by initiating disputes that can turn violent, by affecting local norms about violence and guns as personal protection, and by increasing members’ access to firearms even where gun laws are otherwise strongly enforced. Gang-involved youth are also among those at highest risk of becoming victims of gun crimes. But the violence produced by gangs extends far beyond the gangs themselves and into the communities they are a part of — and it can’t be dismissed or ignored.
There is no single, concise definition for gang-related violence — the U.S. Department of Justice has a tiered, five-part taxonomyAnnese JM. “Stash guns” give Staten Island hoodlums quick access to firearms. Staten Island Advance. September 23, 2012. http://bit. ly/1Vy1qAF. Accessed May 17, 2016. (1) An association of three or more individuals; (2) Whose members collectively identify themselves by adopting a group identity, which they use to create an atmosphere of fear or intimidation, frequently by employing one or more of the following: a common name, slogan, identifying sign, symbol, tattoo or other physical marking, style or color of clothing, hairstyle, hand sign or graffiti; (3) Whose purpose in part is to engage in criminal activity and which uses violence or intimidation to further its criminal objectives. (4) Whose members engage in criminal activity or acts of juvenile delinquency that if committed by an adult would be crimes with the intent to enhance or preserve the association’s power, reputation or economic resources. (5) The association may also possess some of the following characteristics: The members may employ rules for joining and operating within the association; The members may meet on a recurring basis; The association may provide physical protection of its members from others; The association may seek to exercise control over a particular geographic location or region, or it may simply defend its perceived interests against rivals. The association may have an identifiable structure. See: About Violent Gangs, Criminal Division, U.S. Department of Justice — but most cities across the country report gang-related activity,National Gang Center. National Youth Gang Survey Analysis. Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, Bureau of Justice Assistance, U.S. Department of Justice; 2013. http://1.usa.gov/1RbPKM2. Accessed May 19, 2016. characterized by groups of individuals that adopt a collective identity and use violence as a tool to achieve their ends.
In some but not all cities, gangs contribute significantly to elevated rates of violence. A review of large U.S. cities found that their rates of gang-related homicides varied widely; even in five cities with a high prevalence of gang homicides, they ranged from 10 to 42 percent of total homicides in each city.Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Cancer screening — United States, 2010. Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report. 2012; 61(3). http://1. usa.gov/1U2jrDD. As cities successfully curb other types of violence, gang violence becomes increasingly prominent. In Chicago, where the number of non-gang-related homicides fell from 1991 to 2011, the share due to gangland disputes crept upward from 15 percent to 30 percent.Research and Development Division. Chicago 2011 Murder Analysis Report. Vol 51. Chicago Police Department; 2014: 275. doi: 10.4085/1062-6050- 51.4.275. http://bit.ly/1XD7qI2. Gang-involved shootings are also particularly “contagious,” often spurring retaliatory and repetitive gun violence.Murder by Structure: Dominance Relations and the Social Structure of Gang Homicide1 Andrew V. Papachristos http://bit.ly/1shZ4JR
Gangs increase violence in American cities, in part, because gang-affiliated youth are more likely to have firearms with them when disputes arise. One study found that, controlling for other factors, gang members were three times more likely to carry guns than non-gang-affiliated youth.Melde C, Esbensen F, Taylor TJ. ‘May piece be with you’: a typological examination of the fear and victimization hypothesis of adolescent weapon carrying. Justice Q. 2009; 26(2): 348–376. Gangs also provide their members with guns trafficked from out of state — undermining strong laws that might otherwise curb access. A recent study of crime guns recovered in Chicago found that gang members were more likely to have guns that had been obtained from licensed dealers in other states, particularly in nearby Indiana where gun laws are weak.Cook PJ, Harris RJ, Ludwig J, Pollack HA. Some sources of crime guns in Chicago: Dirty dealers, straw purchasers, and traffickers. J Crim L & Criminology. 2014; 104: 717. A forthcoming study of guns recovered in Boston showed that those recovered from gang members were 58 percent more likely to come from southern states on the trafficking route known as the Interstate 95 “iron pipeline,” and 52 percent more likely to originate in two states in the northeast with relatively weak laws, New Hampshire and Maine.Braga AA. Long Term Trends in the Sources of Boston Crime Guns. Manuscript in development.
Exposure to violence can heighten risk, since young people who adjust to a violent neighborhood in order to survive in it may ultimately be pulled into its orbit. Even in the American cities with the highest rates of gun violence the majority of city residents live in areas that are relatively safe, but in a small share of neighborhoods — often where poverty and other disadvantages are concentrated — gun violence occurs with dizzying frequency. Researchers who examined Boston crime data over a 29-year period found that just 4.8 percent of streets segments accounted for 74 percent of the gun assaults.Braga AA, Papachristos AV, Hureau DM. The concentration and stability of gun violence at micro places in Boston, 1980–2008. J Quant Criminol. 2009; 26(1): 33-53. Intransigent pockets of violence also persist amidst citywide improvements in safety: while more than 90 percent of New York City’s police precincts experienced a decline in annual homicides between 2000-14, the neighborhood of Brownsville was essentially unchanged, ranking second-most violent in the city in 2014 with 18 murders.Historical New York City crime data. The City of New York. http://on.nyc. gov/1rXet27. Accessed May 19, 2016. Children exposed to violent conditions are more likely to succumb to a wide range of negative health and behavioral outcomes later in life,Wade R Jr, Shea JA, Rubin D, Wood J. Adverse childhood experiences of low-income urban youth. Pediatrics. 2014; 134(1): e13-e20. including increased risk of perpetrating violence themselves.Duke NN, Pettingell SL, McMorris BJ, Borowsky IW. Adolescent violence perpetration: Associations with multiple types of adverse childhood experiences. Pediatrics. 2010; 125(4): e778-e786.
Race, Policy, Community, and Urban Violence
White and black Americans may live in the same city without sharing the same experience of it. A recent survey of residents of Chicago found that black residents were nearly 50 percent more likely to say they or someone they know had been the victim of a recent firearm crime, and more than twice as likely to feel unsafe in their neighborhood.The New York Times, The Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation. Poll of Chicago. 2016. http://bit.ly/1OCjuBM. In a recent poll by the Miami-Herald, more than a third of black respondents said the most important concern facing Miami-Dade County was youth gun violence. In stark contrast, the top category chosen by white respondents was “traffic.”Hanks D. Top challenges for Miami-Dade? Whites say traffic, blacks say child shootings. Miami Herald. May 10, 2016. http://hrld.us/1XD8dsh. Accessed May 19, 2016.
This disconnect reflects the fact that victims of gun violence both nationwide and in cities are disproportionately Americans of color, creating deep disparities in the quality of life for residents based on their race.
Although African Americans make up only 14 percent of the U.S. population, they account for a majority of gun homicide victims in the United States (57 percent).Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Center for Injury Prevention and Control. Injury prevention & control: Data & statistics (WISQARS). Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. http://1.usa. gov/1plXBux. Published December 18, 2015. Accessed May 23, 2016. Data derived from 2010-14. Black women are three times as likely to be murdered with a gun as white women, and black men are nearly ten times as likely to be murdered with a gun as white men.Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Center for Injury Prevention and Control. Injury prevention & control: Data & statistics (WISQARS). Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. http://1.usa. gov/1plXBux. Published December 18, 2015. Accessed May 23, 2016. Indeed, black males age 15 to 34 are more likely to be killed with a gun than to die by any other cause.Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Center for Injury Prevention and Control. Injury prevention & control: Data & statistics (WISQARS). Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. http://1.usa. gov/1plXBux. Published December 18, 2015. Accessed May 23, 2016. Violence is the second largest contributor to differences in life expectancy between white and black males;Lemaire J. The cost of firearm deaths in the United States: Reduced life expectancies and increased insurance costs. J Risk Insur. 2005; 72(3): 359-374. overall, gun homicides reduce the life expectancy of the black male population by nearly a year.Arias E. United States life tables, 2009. National Vital Statistics Reports; 2014. http://1.usa.gov/1gr4nZE. Accessed May 23, 2016.
Part of this disparity is that more black people live in cities: 33 percent of black Americans live in cities with greater than 500,000 people, compared to 21 percent of the overall US population.United States Census Bureau. Metropolitan and micropolitan data. May 2012. http://1.usa.gov/1Cpb22J. Accessed May 23, 2016. But the disparities exist even within cities. In Milwaukee, where the citywide gun homicide rate in 2014 was 14.6 per 100,000, among blacks it was 28.4, and among black males aged 15 to 24 it was 104 per 100,000 — more than 20 times the national average.Totoraitis M. Milwaukee Homicide Review Commission 2014 Annual Report. Milwaukee Homicide Review Commission; 2015. http://bit.ly/27ELmkz. Accessed May 19, 2016.
Violence in cities and race are linked in manifold ways, including the structural factors that also isolate a disproportionate share of black Americans in poor neighborhoods with low-performing schools and high rates of incarceration and unemployment. When Robert Sampson and William Julius Wilson examined the connection between race and violence in cities, they found that whereas most poor whites in major U.S. cities did not live in impoverished neighborhoods, the vast majority of poor blacks did — a trend they observed had only gotten worse.Sampson R, Wilson WJ. Towards a theory of race, crime, and urban inequality. In: John Hagan, Peterson R, ed. Crime and Inequality. Stanford University Press; 1995: 37-54 Of participants in a more recent study in Chicago, on average, even non-poor black residents lived in neighborhoods with higher poverty rates than poor white and Hispanic residents, and blacks as a whole were the only group with a significant likelihood of “compounded poverty” — being poor and living in a neighborhood where 30 percent of the other residents are also poor.Perkins KL, Sampson RJ. Compounded Deprivation in the Transition to Adulthood: The Intersection of Racial and Economic Inequality Among Chicagoans, 1995--2013. RSF: The Russell Sage Foundation Journal of the Social Sciences. 2015; 1(1): 35-54. Poor black residents experience a concentration of disadvantage that is simply not replicated for other groups.
Hispanic Americans also experience a disparate rate of gun violence, though it is slightly less pronounced. Hispanic whites are 2.6 times as likely to be murdered with guns as non-Hispanic whites.Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Center for Injury Prevention and Control. Injury prevention & control: Data & statistics (WISQARS). Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. http://1.usa. gov/1plXBux. Published December 18, 2015. Accessed May 23, 2016. A study of hospital data found that among men aged 15 to 34 across six states, Hispanics were hospitalized for firearm injuries at 2.6 to 17.2 times the rates of non-Hispanic whites.Howell E, Bieler S, Anderson N. State Variation in Hospital Use and Cost of Firearm Assault Injury, 2010. Urban Institute; 2014. http://urbn. is/1cLMMkM. And for Hispanics aged 15 to 24, homicide is the second-leading cause of death; between 1999-2014, 33,532 Hispanics were murdered with guns.Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Center for Injury Prevention and Control. Injury prevention & control: Data & statistics (WISQARS). Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. http://1.usa. gov/1plXBux. Published December 18, 2015. Accessed May 23, 2016.
In an average month more than 50 American women are murdered with guns,Everytown for Gun Safety. Gun violence by the numbers. EverytownResearch.org. http://every.tw/1SB6gKk. Published November 30, 2015. Accessed May 19, 2016. deaths that are to a shocking degree a consequence of domestic violence. More than half of American women shot to death in 2011 — at least 53 percent — were killed by intimate partners or family members.U.S. Department of Justice, Federal Bureau of Investigation, Supplementary Homicide Report, 2011. According to FBI data there were 1,221 gun murders in which a woman was the lead victim. Of these, 649 were killed by an intimate partner or immediate family member — 53 percent of the total. This data likely undercounts the phenomenon because in many other cases law enforcement could not confirm whether a shooter and victim were intimately involved.
The problem isn’t limited to cities, but can make up a substantial share of urban gun violence. A survey of 358 law enforcement agencies found that while domestic violence accounted for 8 percent of calls for service, on average, it was involved in 14 percent of homicides.Police Executive Research Forum. Police improve response to domestic violence, but abuse often remains the “hidden crime.” Subject to Debate. January/February 2015; 29(1). http://bit.ly/1Ewn6CT. Of murders in New York City in 2012, the police classified 18 percent as domestic disputes;NYPD. Murder in New York City. NYPD; 2013. http://on.nyc.gov/1Y5c2H6. in Philadelphia, domestic violence homicides made up 8 percent of the total in 2014.Philadelphia Police Department. Murder/Shooting Analysis 2014. Crime Maps & Stats. 2015.
In many cases, guns play a factor in turning domestic violence into murder. When a gun is present in a situation of domestic violence, it increases the risk the woman will be murdered fivefold.Jacqueline C. Campbell, Daniel Webster, and Jane Koziol-McLain, “Risk Factors for Femicide in Abusive Relationships: Results from a Multisite Case Control Study,” American Journal of Public Health 93, no. 7 (June 2003): http://1.usa.gov/1osjCet.
To address the danger that guns pose in these situations, federal law prohibits abusers from having guns if they have been convicted of a domestic violence crime or are subject to an active domestic violence restraining order.18 U.S.C. § 922(g)(8),(9). But federal law does not address how to ensure that these abusers turn in the guns they already have — an oversight that can have tragic consequences.In the case of abusers who become barred from having guns when a judge issues a restraining order against them, careful review of actual court practice shows that judges rarely enforce this prohibition. Everytown for Gun Safety, “Domestic Abuse Protective Orders and Firearm Access in Rhode Island,” June2015, available at http://everytown.org/documents/2015/06/rhode-island-dv-whitepaper.pdf.
Not All Gun Violence Can Be Explained, But That Doesn’t Mean It Can’t Be Changed
Changes in the gun homicide rates of America’s largest cities raise questions about urban gun violence even as they present a hopeful picture. Everytown obtained data on gun homicides from the 25 largest U.S. cities from 2006 to 2015 (see Appendix). Nearly eighty percent of them experienced a significant decline in their gun homicide rate over the last decade, and overall their gun homicide rate fell 25 percent. The variation between and within cities poses questions for researchers,Pyrooz DC. Structural covariates of gang homicide in large U.S. cities. J Res Crime Delinq. 2012; 49(4): 489-518. but it demonstrates one thing definitively: gun violence is not a fact of life for American cities.
These cities vary widely in their geography, their levels of poverty and segregation, the policing strategies they have employed, and more. The way those factors contribute to gun violence is still poorly understood. Policing, in particular, has been the focus of considerable research and debate, and while there is no doubt it can have a strong influence on reducing urban gun violence, it is beyond the scope of this report to review the benefits and drawbacks of specific tactics. Researchers in other settings are working to better understand these issues; for example, the U.S. Department of Justice’s initiative Advancing 21st Century Policing is testing specific policing strategies across the country.Community Oriented Policing Services, U.S. Department of Justice. Department of Justice announces initiative to advance 21st century policing. COPS. http://1.usa.gov/1WlRg6i. Published May 23, 2016. Accessed May 31, 2016.
The intent of this report is not to explain the variation in gun violence in cities; its intent is to take what is most valuable from each of them. In New York City, where homicide fell by 85 percent between 1990 and the present, from 2,245 at their heightOffice of the Mayor, News from the Blue Room, http://on.nyc.gov/28naRHy. Published December 28, 2012. to 352 in 2015, researchers continue to dispute the causes, and this report does not purport to resolve those debates. But there is a consensus that New York City’s commitment to gathering and responding to data played an important role, along with a framework of strong gun safety laws. And the great decline in violence occurred over a period in which rates of incarceration in New York continued to fall.Office of the Mayor. Mayor Bloomberg announces New York City’s incarceration rate hits new all-time low. NYC.gov. http://on.nyc. gov/22AWwD0. Published December 26, 2013. Accessed May 31, 2016.
In other cities, gun violence remains stubbornly frequent, but this does not preclude individual programs there from succeeding at the same time — programs that could be expanded and incorporated into broader strategies. As such, this report separates the experience of cities as a whole from individual programs within them, assessing the latter on how well they work, not by changes in citywide homicide rates that reflect a much wider range of factors.
The cities highlighted in this report share a common thread in that they draw on data to guide their approaches, to measure the changes effected, and to sustain success. And their stories serve another purpose: in their victories, large and small, they demonstrate that gun violence is not intractable. It is not something that American communities must learn to live with. It is knotty and difficult, and progress against it might be slow or inconsistent — but progress is possible.
A Decade of Gun Homicides in Large American Cities
One in four Americans murdered with guns die in just 30 cities. Data obtained from their police departments show that, controlling for population, their rates of gun violence vary — but also reflect some common trends. Despite an uptick in some cities in 2015, the overall trend over the last decade has generally been one of decline.
The below figures illustrate the gun homicides in each city per 100,000 residents, and compares that rate to the average of the country’s 25 most populous cities. In 2015, these cities accounted for over 3,400 gun homicides.
Strategies for Reducing Gun Violence in American Cities
Mayors, law enforcement, and community leaders have always been at the forefront of innovating to reduce gun violence. Across the country, they have developed and implemented a diverse range of strategies tailored to their own unique needs, and this report highlights more than 30 of them across dozens of cities. The highlighted approaches vary in the investment required, the population served, the groups involved in implementation, and in other important respects. Some are supported by an ample body of evidence, while other emerging interventions need further study but are promising because they approach urban gun violence in a coherent way.
This report does not prescribe any single program or tactic. Instead, it presents seven strategies, drawn from practices developed by dozens of city and community leaders across the country.
Understand the Major Factors Driving Local Gun Violence
Cities are engines of information. No matter how large or small, they generate data about gun crime and violence within their boundaries, from the characteristics of the victims and perpetrators, to the types of gun recovered by law enforcement, to the way the criminal justice system processes people arrested for crimes. Cities have continually demonstrated that by bringing this information together in new ways, they can take more focused and strategic actions to reduce gun violence. And by sharing that information, their unique experience can inform the actions of other cities around the country.
Review each homicide to understand why it happened and how that could inform future interventions
Different types of homicides are driven by different neighborhood and individual factors,Kubrin CE, Wadsworth T. Identifying the structural correlates of African American killings: What can we learn from data disaggregation? Homicide Stud. 2003; 7(1): 3-35. and the means for preventing future homicides are just as variable.Mares D. Social disorganization and gang homicides in Chicago: A neighborhood level comparison of disaggregated homicides. Youth Violence and Juv Justice. 2010; 8(1): 38-57. To diagnose the types of gun violence afflicting them, cities can commit to fully reviewing all homicide deaths and the factors that produced them.
The Milwaukee Homicide Review Commission (MHRC), launched in 2005 under the administration of Mayor Tom Barrett, brings multiple agencies and community stakeholders together to closely review every homicide and non-fatal shooting in the city. What began as a combined effort by the mayor, district attorney, and police department now includes an array of government agencies including the Departments of Corrections and Health. By producing a rich description of homicides in the city, the MHRC provides vital intelligence for devising gun violence prevention strategies.
At its outset, for example, the MHRC identified a concentration of homicides that occurred near or in bars. In Milwaukee, known informally as “Brew City,” taverns are a part of the cultural fabric. But some taverns were generating especially high numbers of calls for service to the police, and the MHRC’s data showed that in the first six months of 2006 ten disputes that began in taverns resulted in homicides, accounting for about 10 percent of the murders in the city.Totoraitis M. Milwaukee Homicide Review Commission 2014 Annual Report. Milwaukee Homicide Review Commission; 2015. http://bit.ly/27ELmkz. Accessed May 19, 2016. In response, the city adopted a nuisance ordinance requiring bars that had three calls for service for a violent offense to install interior and exterior cameras that would deter crime or capture evidence to sanction offenders.Find ordinance and legal to review how it bas been amended. See: http:// www.jsonline.com/news/milwaukee/29172984.html. By 2014, tavern-related homicides had fallen 80 percent.Totoraitis M. Milwaukee Homicide Review Commission 2014 Annual Report. Milwaukee Homicide Review Commission; 2015. http://bit.ly/27ELmkz. Accessed May 19, 2016.
“The goal was to get a better understanding of what was going on with our homicides — to really help us think through what are the protective factors, what are the risk factors, what are some system issues — to reduce the gun violence we’re seeing in Milwaukee.” — Mallory O’Brien, Founding Director, Milwaukee Homicide Review Commission, WIDr. Mallory O’Brien. Personal Correspondence. May 2016.
The homicide review process also gives community members the opportunity to contribute their expertise and work directly towards positive change. Community based organizations such as block watches and churches regularly join government agencies to review closed homicide cases, and they consider how to supplement typical criminal justice responses with other local interventions. Later, both the findings of the reviews and updates on the responses are shared with the community at large. Establishing this process required that the police and other agencies build trust among the civil society organizations, and increase the communication and collaboration between disparate agencies.Azrael D, Braga AB, O’Brien M. Developing the Capacity to Understand and Prevent Homicide: An Evaluation of the Milwaukee Homicide Review Commission. National Criminal Justice Reference Service; 2013. http://1.usa. gov/1WN4ngR. Accessed May 23, 2016.
Most importantly, the review and recommendations it produced appeared to reduce gun violence. A U.S. Department of Justice evaluation undertaken in 2013 found that areas where the review was active at the time experienced a 52 percent decrease in monthly homicides compared to a 9.2 percent decrease in parts of the city that were not a part of it.Azrael D, Braga AB, O’Brien M. Developing the Capacity to Understand and Prevent Homicide: An Evaluation of the Milwaukee Homicide Review Commission. National Criminal Justice Reference Service; 2013. http://1.usa. gov/1WN4ngR. Accessed May 23, 2016. What began as an experiment by a single city has since spread: the MHRC has conducted trainings with scores of other cities.O’Brien M. Research in Brief: What Do We Get out of Homicide Reviews? The Police Chief; 2013. http://bit.ly/1RkLTw0. Accessed May 23, 2016. “As a result of the project, over 90 jurisdictions to date have been trained on the homicide review method. Several jurisdictions are starting their own reviews; including Baton Rouge, Birmingham, Chicago, Indianapolis, New Orleans, and Saginaw.”
Apply a public health analysis to local crime patterns
Other cities have taken different approaches to diagnosing the local drivers of gun violence by employing the tools of public health. In Wilmington, DE, which experienced a 45 percent surge in shootings in 2013 compared to the two years prior, the city council determined that a new approach was needed. Recognizing that victims of gun crimes were often suspected perpetrators of later ones, as if violence were a contagious pathogen, the council took a natural next step and passed a resolution requesting an investigation by the epidemic experts — the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).Cornish A. Wilmington, Del., struggles with outsized murder rate. All Things Considered. January 2014. http://n.pr/1TRXCdf.
CDC experts reviewed nearly 600 firearm-related arrests that took place in the city over more than five years, linking administrative data from across the city’s agencies and looking for patterns among the perpetrators, their prior interaction with city and state programs, and other factors that could explain their path to violence.Sumner S, Mercy J, Hillis S, Maenner M, Socias C. Elevated Rates of Urban Firearm Violence and Opportunities for prevention—Wilmington, Delaware. Division of Violence Prevention, National Center for Injury Prevention and Control, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; 2015. http://1.usa.gov/24lo3rA. The researchers then used that information to pinpoint risk factors that could identify those at high risk of committing violence in the future.Bidgood J. When gun violence felt like a disease, a city in Delaware turned to the CDC. The New York Times. December 24, 2015. http://nyti. ms/1Wd4emS. Accessed May 19, 2016. For example, nearly half the arrestees (48 percent) had been admitted to an emergency room for a violent injury since the year 2000. Taking a group of factors into consideration and focusing on males age 15 to 29, the CDC was able to identify 205 individuals who ultimately had a 66 percent chance of being arrested for a firearm crime in the study-period, and who accounted for 73 percent of all firearm crimes committed by that age-group during the time.
“We cannot arrest our way out of this problem… We need to engage the science or root cause analysis with practice on the ground that will bring forth healthy outcomes.” – Rita Landgraf, Delaware Department of Health and Social ServicesPizzi J. CDC to Wilmington: Target at-risk youth for help. Delaware Online. November 3, 2015. http://delonline.us/1NOR6O4. Accessed May 19, 2016.
The analysis demonstrated that by linking public health and criminal justice data, Wilmington could better focus its response to violence on the slim fraction of residents who needed it most. Wilmington and the State of Delaware have since formed a community advisory board to identify the best ways to act on the report findings and improve violence prevention.Pizzi J. Community group to help implement CDC recommendations. Delaware Online. March 16, 2016. http://delonline.us/25zQCUz. Accessed May 31, 2016. Policy makers in other cities that adopt this approach may be able to allocate resources more efficiently and effectively, by focusing on the populations where those efforts are most needed and most likely to make a difference.
Improve utility and use of crime gun trace data
A disproportionate share of interpersonal firearm violence is committed by people who are prohibited from possessing guns but obtain them anyway. Because of this, it is critical that cities actively monitor how firearms reach their local illegal market. Cities can do this by fully harnessing crime gun trace data, which links each firearm recovered by law enforcement that was used or suspected to have been used in crime to the location, time, and circumstances of its first legal sale.
A basic step that every city can take is to adopt a standard policy of tracing all crime guns. This maximizes the value of crime gun trace data as an intelligence tool, by providing a more comprehensive sample of the guns recovered from the illegal market and thus more accurately reflecting the trafficking channels that brought them there. If only some firearms are traced, the true shape of the illegal market may be distorted or not apparent. In eleven states, state law or executive order requires local law enforcement agencies to trace firearms recovered under most or all circumstances.Cal. Penal Code § 11108.3; Conn. Gen. Stat. § 54-36n; 720 ILCS 5/24-8 (tracing of firearms illegally possessed, used in felonies, and those lost, mislaid or believed to be stolen); COMAR 01.01.1998.20; ALM GL ch. 140, § 131Q; NJ Stat §§ 52: 17B-9.18, 52: 17B-5.3; NY CLS Exec. § 230; NC Gen. Stat. § 143B-902; 18 Pa.C.S. §6127 (tracing of firearms illegally possessed). 2016 Va. SB 608 amending and reenacting Va. Code § 52-25.1 was approved by the Governor on March 1, 2016 and becomes effective July 1, 2016. As of the date of publication, 2015 DE HB 217 is on the Governor’s desk.
Tracing the Path of a Gun
Since 1968, each firearm manufactured in or imported into the U.S. bears a serial number that, in combination with other characteristics of the gun, allows it to be uniquely identified. When law enforcement recover a firearm they can submit that information to ATF who, at no cost to the requesting agency, will attempt to identify the gun dealer who first sold it and ultimately the first buyer.Mayors Against Illegal Guns. Tracing Guns to Solve Crimes and Enhance Public Safety. Everytown for Gun Safety; 2015. http://every.tw/1sxPxxW. Accessed May 23, 2016. That person may very well be the perpetrator of the crime, and even if not, they may be able to provide crucial information about the person to whom they transferred the gun, allowing law enforcement to “trace” the gun and follow its chain of custody until they reach the assailant. In 2015, law enforcement submitted more than 370,000 recovered crime guns to ATF for tracing.Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. Fact Sheet - National Tracing Center. ATFNTC; 2016. http://every.tw/1knbegX. Accessed May 23, 2016.
Each successful trace is a lead, and trace data are frequently used
to solve gun crimes. The U.S. Department of Justice’s landmark study Following The Gun found that 29 percent of ATF’s gun trafficking investigations between July 1996 and December 1998 were initiated through analysis of crime gun trace data, specialized records created when multiple guns are sold together as part of a single transaction, or both. All told, tracing was used as an investigative tool in 60 percent of the investigations.Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. Following the Gun: Enforcing Federal Laws Against Firearms Traffickers. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives; 2000. http://every.tw/1knbegX. Accessed May 23, 2016. A typical success story comes from Montgomery County, Maryland, where detectives investigating a cold homicide case from October 2014 recovered a partially dismantled firearm on the side of a highway. They traced the gun, followed the chain of custody through five subsequent owners, and finally arrested and convicted the killer two years after the murder had taken place.“Woman Convicted in Shooting Death of Neighbor, Lover,” CSN Baltimore (Baltimore, MD), October 22, 2014, http://bit.ly/1IdQHoo.
While each trace has investigative value, pooled together they describe meaningful patterns in gun trafficking, with diverse applications for focusing enforcement and creating a more responsible firearm market. Trace data may indicate that particular gun dealers are responsible for a disproportionate share of purchases of firearms that are later recovered at crime scenes, or that high volumes of crimes guns originate from a handful of buyers. Whether or not this indicates unlawful activity on the part of the seller or buyer, it can inform deployment of investigative and regulatory resources or spur gun dealers themselves to take steps to greater responsibility.
Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. Fact sheet: National Tracing Center. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. Published March 2016. http://1.usa.gov/21J2eCq. Accessed May 19, 2016.
Mayors have also played a critical role in protecting access to trace data, and can continue to advocate for its use. Beginning in 2003 under the leadership of gun-lobby ally Kansas Senator Todd Tiahrt, Congress restricted cities’ access to and use of trace data, passing a series of eponymous budget riders known as the Tiahrt Amendments. At their height, these amendments greatly restricted law enforcement’s ability to share trace data, and while city leaders fought these restrictions and were successful in relaxing some of them in 2007 and 2009,King DH. New York’s gun battle. Gotham Gazette. May 18, 2009. http://bit. ly/27QQF0r. Accessed May 19, 2016. the amendments continue to hinder the investigation and prosecution of gun crimes, by barring ATF from releasing trace data and rendering it inadmissible as evidence.Public Law 108-199 (108th Congress). Public Law 108-447 (108th Congress), Public Law 109-108 (109th Congress). Public Law 110-161 (110th Congress). City leaders can continue to demand that Congress repeal the remaining Tiahrt Amendments and restore access to this invaluable public safety resource, a measure more than 1,000 current and former mayors who belong to Mayors Against Illegal Guns have affirmed.Everytown for Gun Safety. Mayors Against Illegal Guns. Everytown for Gun Safety. http://every.tw/1szirOv. Accessed May 24, 2016. (1)“Oppose all federal efforts to restrict cities’ right to access, use, and share trace data that is so essential to effective enforcement, or to interfere with the ability of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives to combat illegal gun trafficking.”
Cities tracing firearms can also improve their tracing practices to generate higher-quality information. According to aggregate data published by ATF, 31 percent of guns that law enforcement recovered and submitted to ATF in 2014 could not be successfully traced.Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. Firearms trace data - 2014. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. http://1.usa. gov/1JeZbNz. Published August 14, 2015. Accessed May 23, 2016. This represents over 70,000 guns that were recovered by law enforcement agencies that year and submitted for tracing — but which were not converted into useful data to advance criminal investigations or crack down on gun trafficking. While some guns are not successfully traced due to their age or because their serial number has been defaced, a significant share of failed traces are the result of misidentification on the part of the submitting agency. Gun manufacturers are not required to standardize serial numbers and other identifying markings (in contrast to vehicle identification numbers on cars, for example), so a gun may bear a confusing array of symbols and brands, and an average law enforcement officer without specialized training and experience can easily submit the wrong information. For example, a recent study of guns recovered in Boston found that one in five traces by the city’s police failed because the submitted trace form had problems that prevented ATF from achieving a match.Braga AA, Hureau DM. Strong gun laws are not enough: the need for improved enforcement of secondhand gun transfer laws in Massachusetts. Preventive Medicine. 2015; 79: 37-42.
The Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office has taken a methodical approach to improving the accuracy of its tracing program, even as the agency greatly increases the number of crime guns it traces. Beginning in 2005 they began conducting trainings on firearm identification for their deputies, and ultimately offered the program to deputies from the surrounding counties. Today, every new officer is required to go through a four-hour training that includes sections on firearm identification and tracing. According to Detective Stephen Barborini, who helped develop and run the program, “When we first started we had 20 percent that were misclassified. Now we’re down to below 10 percent.”Stephen Barborini. Personal Correspondence. May 2016
Even in the biggest cities, the guns recovered by local law enforcement only represent a fraction of the larger regional flows of illegal guns, so another measure cities can take is to create platforms for accessing and sharing crime gun trace data more widely. ATF recently instituted a system for Collective Data Sharing, whereby cities that opt in can view data submitted by other participating cities within their state. The mayor of Boston, MA, Martin Walsh, took an even more proactive approach: after an analysis of trace data showed that nearly one in five guns recovered in the city originated in New Hampshire or Maine,Braga AA, Hureau DM. Strong gun laws are not enough: the need for improved enforcement of secondhand gun transfer laws in Massachusetts. Preventive Medicine. 2015; 79: 37-42. he initiated a series of annual regional meetings to bring mayors and law enforcement from the entire New England area together.Mayor Walsh convenes Mayors, Municipal Leaders, Law Enforcement for New England’s first Regional Gun Trafficking Summit. Boston, MA: Boston Mayor’s Office; April 24, 2014. http://bit.ly/27QR1nQ. Accessed May 23, 2016. Mayor Walsh hosts 2015 New England Gun Violence Summit, joined by Commissioner Evans, Mayors and Law Enforcement Officials news release. Boston, MA: Boston Mayor’s Office; November 19, 2015. http://bit. ly/25c6P2c. Accessed May 23, 2016. Mayor Walsh announces partnership with Arms with Ethics at New England Regional Gun Violence Summit news release. Boston, MA: Boston Mayor’s Office; April 6, 2016. http://bit. ly/244K6mb. Accessed May 23, 2016. Gang member convicted of Compton murder, attempted murder news release. Los Angeles, CA: Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office; March 10, 2016. http://1.usa.gov/1rbgYxx. Accessed May 19, 2016. The group set a goal of establishing a regional center for pooling and analyzing trace data that would not otherwise be available to better understand trafficking in the Northeast, and is now considering measures that individual cities could adopt to curb the flow.
Trace data are also critical for educating the general public about how the illegal gun market operates and the role that lawful gun owners and dealers play within it. In the late 1990s ATF prepared annual reports for major cities describing the characteristics of their underground gun markets.Schindel D. Final Audit Report on the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms’ Expenditures for the Youth Crime Gun Interdiction Initiative. Department of the Treasury; 2000. http://1.usa.gov/1TZOUGU. The agency eventually discontinued the practice, but cities can reintroduce it. In 2014 the Office of the Mayor of Chicago issued an analysis of the city’s trace data, produced with technical assistance from the University of Chicago Crime Lab. The analysis showed that 60 percent of Chicago-recovered guns came from other states, particularly those with weak laws like Indiana and Mississippi.City of Chicago. Tracing the Guns: The Impact of Illegal Guns on Violence in Chicago. City of Chicago - Office of the Mayor, Chicago Police Department; 2014. http://bit.ly/1iwPt6c. Accessed May 23, 2016. It also showed that four major nearby gun dealers (three in the Illinois suburbs and one in Indiana) sold 20 percent of guns later recovered from Chicago streets — 3,173 over a four-year period — one of which later adopted responsible sales practices to deter straw purchasers.
All cities are entitled to access and analyze the historical trace data produced by their own law enforcement agencies, and could potentially produce reports comparable to Chicago’s model. Cities are not constrained by the Tiahrt Amendments, which are riders on the federal budget and do not limit the activities of local government.
Map the locations where most gun crime occurs
In any given city, a vast majority of gun violence regularly occurs in a small share of the city’s total area. A seminal analysis of the spatial concentration of crime in Minneapolis found that 3.3 percent of addresses accounted for half of calls to police.Sherman LW, Gartin PR, Buerger ME. Hot spots of predatory crime: Routine activities and the criminology of place. Criminology. 1989; 27(1):27-56. A more recent analysis of 14 years of official Seattle police data showed that between 4 and 5 percent of street segments accounted for more than half the reported incidents of crime; moreover, a drop in the city’s overall crime rate was largely accounted for by declines in a few places with previously high concentrations of crime.Weisburd DL, Bushway S, Lum C, Yang S-M (2004) Trajectories of crime at places: a longitudinal study of street segments in the city of Seattle. Criminology 42: 283–321
Over the last two decades the majority of police districts across the country have adopted crime mapping as a tool to shape where they direct their resources. With the emergence of the well-known CompStat model in the 1990s, New York City’s police department was among the first to map places where crime victimization was occurring with a high and regular frequency and direct resources to them. Locations of gun crime victimization and arrests were among the first indicators used in NYPD’s approach.Bureau of Justice Assistance and Police Executive Research Forum. Compstat: its origins, evolution, and future in law enforcement agencies. Washington, DC, 2013. Similar strategies proliferated nationwide; in New Orleans, for example, then-Mayor Marc Morial implemented a crime-mapping approach as part of a broader information sharing strategy,New Orleans Police Department. Affordable Crime Mapping and Information Sharing Technology. City of New Orleans; 2001. http://1.usa. gov/1PQ66zY. and other cities have taken comparable action. A 2008 survey of over 170 police departments found that nearly 90 percent were implementing some version of crime mapping to deal with violent crime in their jurisdictions.Police Executive Research Forum. Violent crime in America: What we know about hot spots enforcement. Washington, DC, 2008. Police Executive Research Forum. Of them, 92 percent measured their success by reductions in crime; 76 percent also incorporated citizen feedback.
Programs developed from crime maps have had significant impacts on gun crime. In the mid 1990s, Kansas City, MO, mapped areas of elevated gun crime and responded with additional patrols, leading to a 65 percent increase in recoveries of illegal guns and a 49 percent decrease in gun crimes, both statistically significant.Sherman L, Shaw J, Rogan D. The Kansas City Gun Experiment. National Institute of Justice Research in Brief. 1995. http://www.popcenter.org/problems/drive_by_shooting/PDFs/Sherman_etal_KansasCity_1995.pdf.
Share data with community members and with other cities
Existing federal systems for sharing basic crime data between cities are antiquated and, while new systems are being developed, this deters them from interpreting their own experience in light of changes in others, and adopting lessons learned from their peers. Historically, cities have also been reluctant to share public safety data out of concerns about how the public will react, though hiding problems surely only further undermines the trust of residents in the long run.
Cities can now choose from a number of platforms for pooling their data. One example is the private company Socrata, which works with hundreds of cities to release all types of municipal data in an open-source format, including indicators of crime.The Data Platform for 21st Century Digital Government. Socrata, Inc. http://bit.ly/1RRYiYK. Accessed June 2, 2016. “When most people think about violence, they care about what happens in the few blocks around their house,” says Socrata’s director of non-profit and philanthropic partnerships Cam Caldwell.Cam Caldwell. Personal correspondence. May 19, 2016. Accordingly, beyond just making the data available, some cities produce it in a format that allows users to drill down to specific neighborhoods or police precincts to understand trends in their area.
Cities collect enormous amounts of data related to gun violence — from the time and location of individual crimes to the type and source of recovered firearms — and can more deeply engage the public in the issue by making those data available. Caldwell says an additional step would be for cities to set data-driven goals for reducing crime, and then hold themselves accountable for the data measuring communities’ real experience.
Reduce the Supply of Illegal Guns
Once cities have identified how guns are reaching prohibited possessors, they can take action to reduce that flow and make it more difficult for these high-risk people to access guns. This need not affect the tens of millions of responsible American gun owners who safeguard the approximately 265 million firearms in the U.S.Deb Azrael. Personal Communication. June 3, 2016. Estimates from the 2015 Northeastern University/Harvard School of Health National Firearms Survey (with funding from the New Venture Fund and the Veteran’s Administration). The number of firearms used in any given year to commit an act of violence or the recovered from a crime scene is much smaller, perhaps 500,000.National Crime Victimization Survey. Bureau of Justice Statistics Office of Justice Programs Website. http://1.usa.gov/1yFuBl5. Published 1973. Updated 2014. Data from the National Crime Victimization Survey show there were 414,600 “non-fatal firearm incidents” in 2011, along with 11,000 gun homicides. Similarly, law enforcement recovered and attempted to trace 346,000 guns in 2014. Reducing the supply of illegal guns by cutting off sources to the underground market can ultimately reduce criminal access and misuse.
Require background checks for all gun sales
Each year millions of guns change hands in unlicensed sales, with no federal background check requirement, and many of these firearms ultimately reach the illegal market. While Congress has so far failed to close the loophole in federal law, states have taken action. Eighteen states require background checks for all handgun sales including six that passed laws since 2013,Background Check States. Is your state a background check state? http:// bit.ly/1WN5Ljr. Accessed May 19, 2016. and in November 2016 voters in Maine and Nevada will choose by ballot whether to do so.
In many cities only a fraction of guns recovered at crime scenes were themselves purchased within that city’s limits, limiting the cities’ ability to close this loophole. Furthermore, many state legislatures have enacted laws that are known as preemption laws, barring cities from passing local gun laws, which hamstrings them from taking any action of their own.Goss K. Disarmed: The Missing Movement for Gun Control in America. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press; 2008. But cities have shown that there are still a variety of actions they can take to encourage responsible gun sale practices.
In 2013, Tucson, AZ City Councilman Steven Kozachik led efforts to pass a resolution declaring that the city will lease its property only to gun shows where vendors agree to conduct a background check before each sale. The resolution was adopted unanimously. The council has passed additional ordinances or resolutions empowering law enforcement to subject a person suspected of negligently firing a gun to a blood or breath alcohol test, requiring gun owners who lose a firearm or discover it stolen to report it to law enforcement within 48 hours,Daronco D. Tucson City Council OKs two gun laws to give police a hand. Arizona Daily Star. May 30, 2013. http://bit.ly/22mgUaS. Accessed May 19, 2016. and asking gun dealers to adopt a handful of responsible sales practices.Tucson News Now Staff. Tucson City Council asks gun dealers to follow Brady Bill code of conduct. Tucson News Now. November 4, 2015. http:// bit.ly/1XNUMGc. Accessed May 23, 2016.
“I am weary of people being afraid of the [gun] issue: there is no reason to be afraid of the issue.” – Steven Kozachik, City Councilman, Tucson, ArizonaSteven Kozachik. Personal Correspondence. May 2016.
Where state laws preempt local lawmaking and prevent cities from establishing background check requirements for gun sales, cities have signaled their strong support for background check requirements by passing resolutions calling on state and federal legislators to act. One such city is Golden, CO, whose Mayor Marjorie Sloan still gets choked up recalling her attendance at the memorial for the 12 people killed and 70 injured in the July 2012 Aurora mass shooting. Limited by the state’s preemption law, but inspired by prior actions of South Tucson, AZ,Eckstrom J, Uhlich K. Guest Column: Tucson, South Tucson Councils support bill to fix US gun-check system. Arizona Daily Star. September 23, 2012. http://bit.ly/1OiWrRR. Accessed May 19, 2016. she led the city council to unanimously pass a resolution calling on Congress to act and require a background check for all gun sales.City of Golden. Resolution No. 2222: A resolution of the City of Golden declaring support for the fix gun checks act and other measures to reduce gun violence. http://bit.ly/1sy03p1. Riviera Beach, FL,Kleinberg E. Mayors urge plan to reduce illegal gun sales. Palm Beach Post. November 10, 2012. http://pbpo.st/1UTG6Er. Accessed May 23, 2016. Chula Vista, CA,Gonzales N. Chula Vista Council passes gun control resolution. NBC 7 (San Diego). Published January 15, 2013. http://bit.ly/1XjUMNI. Accessed May 23, 2016. Telluride, CO,Klingsporn K. In Telluride, officials look into gun laws. Telluride Daily Planet. January 18, 2013. http://bit.ly/1T8WdyR. Accessed May 23, 2016. Teaneck, NJ,Burrow M. Teaneck Council approves measure against gun violence. Teaneck Suburbanite. February 20, 2013. http://bit.ly/1TrFhDI. Accessed May 19, 2016. Tucson, AZ,Powers Hannley P. Tucson cracks down on gun shows, requires background checks. The Huffington Post. April 10, 2013. http://huff. to/1sb933R. Accessed May 19, 2016. Tolleson, AZ,McCann E. Tolleson takes stance on gun sales. West Valley View. June 17, 2013. http://bit.ly/24Lt16n. Accessed May 23, 2016. and many others followed. Mayor Sloan recalls only one constituent that ever voiced a negative opinion to her about the measure. The following year, bolstered by the support of communities like Golden, Colorado state legislators passed a measure requiring criminal background checks for all gun sales. The state’s expanded background check requirement has since blocked hundreds of prohibited people from obtaining guns in unlicensed sales including people convicted of sexual assault, under restraining orders, and prohibited from possessing firearms due to severe mental illness.Everytown for Gun Safety. Memo on the Impact of Background Checks in Colorado. Everytown for Gun Safety Support Fund; 2015. http://every. tw/1U7cLRQ. Accessed May 23, 2016.
Strengthen oversight of gun dealers
When numerous crime guns are traced back to a single dealer, it may indicate he or she is contributing disproportionately to the illegal gun market, whether unintentionally or not. In such cases, cities have taken a variety of enforcement or educational measures to reduce diversion of guns to criminals.
In the late 1990s, the cities of Chicago, IL, Detroit, MI, and Gary, IN, conducted undercover investigations of retail gun stores suspected of facilitating illegal gun sales, and then sued those sellers who sales involved evidence of illegal conduct. An evaluation of the litigation found the greatest evidence of impact in Chicago, where the stings and subsequent indictments were associated with an abrupt 46 percent reduction in the flow of new guns to criminals. The researchers attributed this to the large quantity of dealers the city targeted, wide press coverage of the operation that spread the message to other dealers, and follow-up by law enforcement.Webster DW, Bulzacchelli MT, Zeoli AM, Vernick JS. Effects of undercover police stings of gun dealers on the supply of new guns to criminals. Inj Prev. 2006; 12(4): 225-230.
Building on this, in 2006 New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg (a major donor to Everytown and a founding member of Mayors Against Illegal Guns) initiated an undercover investigation of 55 gun dealers across seven states. Trace data showed that these dealers contributed a disproportionate number of guns recovered at New York City crime scenes, and subsequent investigations found evidence of illegal sales practices by more than two-dozen dealers.Webster DW, Vernick JS, eds. Spurring Responsible Firearms Sales Practices through Litigation. In: Reducing Gun Violence in America: Informing Policy with Evidence and Analysis. JHU Press; 2015: 123. The city ultimately sued 27 dealers who were caught facilitating illegal sales, and nearly all of them came to an agreement to change their sales practices. An monitor appointed by the court was granted the ability to train gun store employees, inspect records, and conduct undercover tests of their practices.Weissman A. Re: City of New York v. Mickalis Pawn Shop, LLC, et al., 06 CV 2233 (E.D.N.Y.) (JBW)(CLP). July 2011. See: http://everytownresearch.org/documents/2016/06/straw-purchaser-training-manual.pdf. A subsequent evaluation found that the number of guns sold by ten of the targeted dealers that were later recovered at New York City crime scenes fell by 84 percent.Webster DW, Vernick JS, eds. Spurring Responsible Firearms Sales Practices through Litigation. In: Reducing Gun Violence in America: Informing Policy with Evidence and Analysis. JHU Press; 2015: 123. By 2015, the court-appointed monitor had conducted a total of 22 training sessions with the dealers, made 36 unannounced simulated straw purchases to test their resolve, and conducted 82 on-site inspections. After the settlement was terminated, several of the dealers opted to voluntarily continue to follow the sales practices.Pope PB. Re: City of New York v. A-i Jewelry & Pawn, Inc. et al., No. 06-cv- 2233(JBW)(CLP). June 2015. http://bit.ly/1TGQpuI. Even where gun dealers are not deliberately trafficking firearms, trace data may show that a small set of them are supporting the illegal market and induce them to take additional actions to reduce diversion to criminals. Many dealers are willing partners: a majority of licensed gun dealers are aware of attempts to illegally purchase firearms at their stores and consider illegal firearm sales to be a serious crime. In a national survey, 67 percent of gun dealers reported experiencing at least one attempted straw purchase in the last year and 10 percent reported attempted straw purchases and undocumented purchases occurring at least once a month.Wintemute GJ. Frequency of and responses to illegal activity related to commerce in firearms: findings from the Firearms Licensee Survey. Inj Prev. 2013; 19(6): 412-420. Over half of respondents agreed with the statement: “it is too easy for criminals to get guns in this country.”Wintemute GJ. Characteristics of federally licensed firearms retailers and retail establishments in the United States: initial findings from the firearms licensee survey. J Urban Health. 2013; 90(1): 1-26.
The experience of Lyons, IL, a suburb of Chicago, is one such case. An analysis of trace data later filed in a court proceeding showed that a longtime local gun dealer had sold hundreds of guns recovered at crime scenes in Chicago, of which more than half were recovered within three years, a so-called short “time-to-crime.” This is a widely accepted indicator that the original purchaser bought the gun with criminal intent and deliberately trafficked it to the illegal market.Koper CS. Crime gun risk factors: Buyer, seller, firearm, and transaction characteristics associated with gun trafficking and criminal gun use. J Quant Criminol. 2013; 30(2): 285-315. This data motivated a group of city residents to file a lawsuit against Lyons and two other communities where major gun dealers were located, arguing that their failure to require several commonsense sales practices amounted to a crime against the residents of high-crime Chicago neighborhoods where the guns ended up.
Lyons could have fought to have the lawsuit dismissed, as the other two communities did, but they took a different path. The plaintiffs did not seek damages: instead, they recommended changes in how the towns regulated local gun dealers. The attorney who defended the village against the lawsuit, Burt Odelson, said that was the spark. “The lawsuit was really what got us thinking: could we do this? Do we have the power to regulate the dissemination of guns that fall into bad guy’s hands?”Burt Odelson. Personal correspondence. May 2016.
Working with the Cook County Sheriff and the gun shop itself, and drawing on the recommendations made in the lawsuit, the village developed a set of requirements that everyone was happy with (including the plaintiffs, who dropped Lyons from the lawsuit to focus on the other two communities). Lyons’s ordinance requires local gun shops to adopt a number of responsible sales practices including a requirement that employees pass a background check, that law enforcement inspect the shop twice a year, and that the dealer install sufficient security systems to deter theft.Editorial Board: What every gun shop should be doing. Chicago Tribune. November 3, 2015. http://trib.in/1NyT6Ye. Accessed May 20, 2016. The village also developed an unusual intergovernmental agreement with Cook County to participate in the dealer inspections themselves. The idea is spreading — according to village officials, as many as 30 other municipalities have learned about the ordinance, and are assessing whether it could work in their own communities. The measures resemble those that Wal-Mart adopted in 2008 when they initiated a Responsible Firearm Retailer Partnership with Mayors Against Illegal Guns.Mayors Against Illegal Guns. Wal-mart and Mayors Against Illegal Guns announce “Responsible Firearms Retailer Partnership”: A 10-point voluntary code. April 2008. http://every.tw/20W8VQI.
Experience elsewhere suggests the change in sales practices will make a difference. In 1999, again using trace data, researchers showed that a single gun dealer in Milwaukee was a major source of the city’s crime guns, and had sold more guns later recovered from crime scenes than any other dealer nationwide. After this finding was publicized, the store abruptly adopted changes in sales practices to deter criminal diversion — in that case by dropping cheap handguns favored by criminals from its inventory. In the two years that followed, the number of guns sold by the dealer that were quickly recovered at crime scenes from someone other than the original purchaser fell by 44 percent.Webster DW, Bulzacchelli MT, Zeoli AM, Vernick JS. Effects of undercover police stings of gun dealers on the supply of new guns to criminals. Inj Prev. 2006; 12(4): 225-230.
Faster responsible practices among unlicensed gun sellers
Responsible, law-abiding gun owners play a role in the safety of their communities because the manner in which they store and sell their firearms has an impact on the illegal gun market. Some cities have explored opportunities to educate gun owners on responsible ownership practices, with promising results.
Oftentimes, a city’s effort to educate and communicate with law-abiding gun owners is prompted by data that suddenly illuminates a problem. In the City of Los Angeles, after an analysis of crime gun data showed that many guns had been obtained through straw purchases at local licensed gun dealers, the city worked with partners including ATF and the nonprofit think-tank the RAND Corporation to initiate a “letter campaign” to educate new gun buyers about their responsibilities under the law, including the background check and record-keeping requirements of any subsequent sale.Ridgeway G, Braga AA, Tita G, Pierce GL. Intervening in gun markets: an experiment to assess the impact of targeted gun-law messaging. J Exp Criminol. 2010; 7(1): 103-109.
“Sometimes governments need to find creative ways to get past these hurdles. We understand the concerns the public has. We don’t agree that the store or the village is responsible when the gun is stolen or taken or misused illegally. But that doesn’t meant that we can’t find a way to try and prevent it, or at least to minimize it. And that is what we believe we did.” – Ray Hanania, Spokesperson, Village of LyonsRay Hanania. Personal Correspondence. May 2016.
New gun purchasers received a letter during the state’s 10-day waiting period, before they had claimed possession of the gun, reminding them that the gun could be traced back to them if it was later used in a crime. While the longer-term impact on the likelihood of those guns being recovered by police are still under study by RAND with a grant from the National Institute of Justice,NIJ Award Detail: Disrupting Illegal Gun Transfers. Number: 2013-R2- CX-0016 National Institute of Justice. http://bit.ly/1XshdjC. Accessed May 23, 2016. the intervention appeared to motivate sellers to take greater responsibility for lost guns. In an experiment that randomized the gun buyers receiving the letter and compared them to a group who did not, the recipients were two times as likely to report their firearms lost or stolen.
More recently, Boston adopted a similar approach. After an analysis of trace data on firearms recovered in the city showed that despite Massachusetts’ strong gun laws — which require gun purchasers to show a permit and submit a secondhand transfer record to the state police — more than 62 percent of firearms recovered in Boston from someone other than their original purchaser had been transferred or lost without notification of the police.Braga AA, Hureau DM. Strong gun laws are not enough: the need for improved enforcement of secondhand gun transfer laws in Massachusetts. Preventive Medicine. 2015; 79: 37-42. Acting on the analysis, the city sent letters to the 8,000 residents with registered firearms with details on how to lawfully transfer their firearm, and to offer a free gun lock,Walsh MJ, Evans WB. Letter to Legal Gun Owners. August 2015. http://bit. ly/1TrQ4hm. though too little time has passed to assess the results.
Many cities operate community-wide gun collection programs — known as “buybacks” — in which incentives are offered to residents who turn firearms into the authorities. These events are often successful at removing hundreds or even thousands of guns from circulation. It is also possible that gun buybacks provide other community benefits, by raising awareness of the risk posed by unsafe firearm storage in the home and by creating opportunities for community-members to dispose of unused guns. But there is no evidence that buybacks limit criminal access to firearms or reduce gun violence.
Studies of buybacks held in the 1990s in Seattle, Boston, and Milwaukee showed that surrendered firearms differed significantly from guns used in crimes, and participating individuals differed significantly from those most likely to perpetrate them.Kuhn EM, Nie CL, O’Brien ME, Withers RL, Wintemute GJ, Hargarten SW. Missing the target: A comparison of buyback and fatality related guns. Inj Prev. 2002; 8(2): 143-146. Callahan CM, Rivara FP, Koepsell TD. Money for guns: evaluation of the Seattle Gun Buy-Back Program, Public Health Rep. 1994; 109(4): 472-477. Romero MP, Wintemute GJ, Vernick JS. Characteristics of a gun exchange program, and an assessment of potential benefits. Inj Prev. 1998; 4(3): 206-210. Guns were less likely to be the cheap semi-automatic weapons favored by youth offenders, and participants were older and reported few risk factors associated with firearm homicide.Romero MP, Wintemute GJ, Vernick JS. Characteristics of a gun exchange program, and an assessment of potential benefits. Inj Prev 1998; 4: 206–10.
It is not clear that buybacks reduce household exposure to firearms, either; two-thirds of surveyed participants in a buyback program operated by Seattle reported retaining firearms other than those they surrendered.Callahan CM, Rivara FP, Koepsell TD. Money for guns: evaluation of the Seattle Gun Buy-Back Program, Public Health Rep. 1994; 109(4): 472-477.
Researchers suggest that communities conducting buybacks adopt techniques to collect firearms more typical of those used in crimes:Braga AA, Wintemute G. Improving the potential effectiveness of gun buyback programs. Am J Prev Med. 2013; 45 (5): 668-671.
- Offer monetary compensation for surrendered semiautomatic handguns, which are more commonly used in crimes, rather than for long guns
- Require participants to show proof of local residency, to deter out-of-city dealers from using the buyback to liquidate low-value inventory
- Establish community drop-off locations including churches and NGOs in neighborhoods with high rates of gun violence
- Implement a sophisticated communications campaign to attract a greater number of potential participants
When Boston, MA, held a gun buyback using those techniques, a higher share of recovered firearms were handguns compared to an earlier buyback; a higher share of guns were successfully traced; and of those, a higher share had been purchased within the previous three years.
Reduce gun theft
By definition, a gun that is stolen has entered criminal hands. While some factors driving firearm theft are beyond the reach of known policy interventions, other can be addressed. Cities that have begun analyzing data on stolen guns have identified several measures to reduce this flow.
One measure many cities can adopt is a requirement that a gun owner who loses a firearm or discovers it has been stolen promptly report the incident to law enforcement. Timely reporting of lost or stolen firearms ensures that cities have a better measure of the magnitude and circumstances shaping this channel to the underground gun market. Research also shows that states with such laws are significantly less likely to export guns to other states, controlling for other factors.Knight B. State Gun Policy and Cross-State Externalities: Evidence from Crime Gun Tracing. American Economic Journal: Economic Policy. 2013; 5(4): 200-229.
“For too long, cities have waited for Washington or Harrisburg to take the lead in the fight for the kind of commonsense gun safety measures our citizens want. This demonstrates what can be achieved when local governing bodies and mayors step up to take action on gun safety.” – Mayor Michael Nutter, Philadelphia, PAGoldberg MA. Mayor Nutter’s crackdown on lost/stolen guns comes under heavy fire. Philadelphia Weekly. March 6, 2012. http://bit.ly/1qFqhoq. Accessed May 23, 2016.
Beginning in 2008, after a string of shootings of Pennsylvania law enforcement involving stolen guns, dozens of cities in Pennsylvania passed laws requiring residents to report lost or stolen firearms.Mayor Nutter to join PA Mayors For Gun Safety news release. Philadelphia, PA: City of Philadelphia; September 16, 2008. http://bit.ly/1XsiRSm. Accessed May 23, 2016. In addition to improving data about lost or stolen firearms, the ordinances give law enforcement another tool to pursue gun traffickers. As Mayor Rick Gray of Lancaster, PA, explains: “When a gun one of these guys bought and sold turns up after it’s been used in a crime, they like to say they lost the gun or it was stolen, but they just never got around to reporting it. This ordinance takes away that excuse.”Reilly PJ. NRA may challenge lost-gun ordinance. Lancaster Online. June 16, 2009. http://bit.ly/1s5swCT. Accessed May 20, 2016. NRA fought to have the laws struck down and attempted to intimidate the cities into repealing them by enacting legislation that would give the group standing to sue the municipalities. However, courts found the NRA lacked standing and dismissed the case.See NRA v. City of Pittsburgh, 999 A.2d 1256 (Pa. Commw. Ct. 2010); NRA v. City of Philadelphia, 977 A.2d 78 (Pa. Commw. Ct. 2009).
A growing number of cities have identified guns stored in cars as particularly vulnerable to theft. Of cities for which Everytown obtained data, nearly one in five guns reported stolen were taken from vehicles — ranging from nine percent in St. Paul, MN to 52 percent in Hartford, CT (see Appendix). The number of guns stolen in this way can be considerable: in Phoenix, AZ, over the decade 2005-14, police received reports of 4,664 guns stolen from vehicles.
Where cities track data on gun theft this problem comes into focus and invites problem solving — and identification of the problem in turn encourages better data collection. In November 2015 after a rise in vehicle burglaries involving firearms in Lafayette Parish, LA, the Criminal Justice Coordinating Committee (CJCC) analyzed the data and realized that cars were the most frequent source of firearms reported stolen in the city, and more often than not the car had been left unlocked. In response, CJCC developed a ‘Love it/Lock it’ campaign to encourage residents to lock their vehicles if there are valuables in them, particularly guns.Dickerson S. New initiative combats gun thefts in Lafayette. The Advertiser. November 9, 2015. http://bit.ly/1j7XtB3. Accessed May 23, 2016.
As part of this push to prevent gun theft, law enforcement also improved their data collection practices: in vehicle burglary reports, officers are now required to track whether the car was locked, says CJCC Executive Director Holly Howat. Beginning in January 2016 the department started checking each recovered crime gun to see if it had been reported stolen.Holly Howat. Personal correspondence. May 2016. She says it has shifted the department’s mindset: “We’re not going to get everyone to lock their car, but we can make a dent in this, and there are some things we can do. They’re more open to trying to address this issue.” This is as an example of how changes in public behavior and law enforcement technique can build on one another, magnifying their collective impact.
“We’re going to publicize [thefts] weekly and we’ll also have maps showing where the vehicle burglaries have been for the last week. We want the public to be aware; we want them to be involved in crime prevention.” – Holly Howat, Executive Director, Criminal Justice Coordinating Committee, Lafayette, LAMeaux C. Chief Jim Craft, Holly Howat talk Love It/Lock It Campaign. KPEL 365. November 10, 2015. http://bit.ly/1OC3nsy. Accessed May 23, 2016.
Other cities have adopted legislative approaches to promote more responsible gun storage behavior that might directly impact criminal activity and public safety. On January 19, 2016, the City Council of Oakland, CA, unanimously approved a measure making it a crime for firearms to be left unsecured in unattended cars parked in public places.NBC Bay Area Staff. Oakland City Council passes gun law, banning large capacity magazine, safer firearms storage. NBC Bay Area. January 5, 2016. http://bit.ly/21xpqHx. Accessed May 23, 2016; Oakland, Cal., Ordinance 13351 (Jan. 19, 2016). Less than a month later on February 9, 2016, the Board of Supervisors of San Francisco, CA, unanimously approved an ordinance requiring firearms left in unattended vehicles to be secured.San Francisco, Cal., Ordinance No. 13-16 (Feb. 18, 2016). The ordinance stipulates that anyone other than an on-duty law enforcement or military officer who leaves a firearm in an unattended vehicle must store the gun in a trunk that cannot be accessed from the main body of the vehicle or, if the vehicle lacks such a trunk, inside a lock box underneath the seat or otherwise outside of public view.Har J. San Francisco begins process to require strict lock-up of guns in cars. The Orange County Register. Published February 2, 2016. http://bit. ly/1WSwB6j. Accessed May 23, 2016.
Improve Public Spaces
The environment influences individuals’ actions, and research increasingly shows this has implications for reducing gun violence. From the way a walk outdoors lowers stress and improves cognitive performanceBratman GN, Daily GC, Levy BJ, Gross JJ. The benefits of nature experience: Improved affect and cognition. Landsc Urban Plan. 2015/6; 138: 41-50. to how areas with a scarcity of grocery stores contribute to the poor nutrition of local residents,Dubowitz T. Changes in diet, neighborhood satisfaction, and food access after introduction of a full service supermarket in a former food desert. In: 2015 Fall Conference: The Golden Age of Evidence-Based Policy. Appam; 2015. Bodor JN, Rose D, Farley TA, Swalm C, Scott SK. Neighbourhood fruit and vegetable availability and consumption: The role of small food stores in an urban environment. Public Health Nutr. 2008; 11(4): 413-420. Thomsen MR, Nayga RM Jr, Alviola PA IV, Rouse HL. The effect of food deserts on the body mass index of elementary schoolchildren. Am J Agric Econ. 2016; 98(1): 1-18. our surroundings — what researchers often call the “built environment” — change the way we think, feel, and make decisions.
With that in mind, some urban communities have adopted strategies to reduce gun violence by reshaping public spaces that facilitate gun crime. In Philadelphia, a local horticultural society is turning abandoned lots into clean green spaces, reducing the opportunities to store guns and drugs in those vacant areas. And in New York City, the housing authority is improving lighting in public housing, literally shining a light into shadowy areas where urban gun violence and related crime had been occurring.
“Clean and green” vacant lots and buildings
Vacant lots and abandoned industrial sites provide hiding places for guns, and can contribute to a sense that police and government are not invested in a community.South EC, Kondo MC, Cheney RA, Branas CC. Neighborhood blight, stress, and health: a walking trial of urban greening and ambulatory heart rate. Am J Public Health. 2015; 105(5): 909-913. Branas CC, Cheney RA, MacDonald JM, Tam VW, Jackson TD, Ten Have TR. A difference-indifferences analysis of health, safety, and greening vacant urban space. Am J Epidemiol. 2011; 174(11): 1296-1306. Kondo MC, Keene D, Hohl BC, MacDonald JM, Branas CC: A difference-in-differences study of the effects of a new abandoned building remediation strategy on safety. PLoS One Page: 1-14, 2015. Garvin E, Branas C, Keddem S, Sellman J, Cannuscio C. More than just an eyesore: Local insights and solutions on vacant land and urban health. J Urban Health. 2013; 90(3): 412-426. Because these sites get little public attention or pedestrian traffic, they can also foster illicit activity, including gun crime, away from the watchful eyes of community members or law enforcement.Ellen IG, Lacoe J, Sharygin CA. Do foreclosures cause crime? J Urban Econ. 2013/3; 74: 59-70. Stucky TD, Ottensmann JR. Land use and violent crime. Criminology. 2009; 47(4): 1223-1264.
“If it’s vacant property that can be accessed, it allows people to indulge in all kinds of activities. They can use it as a stash house for drugs and or guns. A lot of time these guys don’t carry guns on the street because they know we’re stopping them. They put guns in houses, put drugs in houses…it becomes a problem to neighbors and the police department.” – Lt. John Stanford, Philadelphia Police Department, PAJones S. Abandoned: A neighborhood’s fight against vacancy. Axis Philly. Published July 17, 2013. http://bit.ly/1U9MhSC. Accessed May 20, 2016.
Gardening and crime-fighting may not seem like a natural pairing, but Philadelphia and the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society (PHS) bring both to neighborhoods across the city each spring and fall. Working with neighborhood groups and city agencies, PHS transforms vacant lots (of which there are still over 30,000 in Philadelphia) into clean, well-maintained green spaces by removing trash and debris, sowing grass seed, planting trees, and installing a simple wooden fence around the perimeter. PHS and the city then contract with local landscapers, often minority-owned businesses, to maintain these newly created green spaces. PHS also uses the maintenance program to provide jobs to formerly incarcerated individuals.
The benefits go beyond aesthetic improvements.Branas CC, Kondo MC, Murphy SM, South EC, Polsky DE, MacDonald JM. The value of remediating blighted urban environments as a solution to firearm violence in the US. Urban Health Lab, The University of Pennsylvania. www.urbanhealthlab.org. Bogar S, Beyer KM. Green Space, Violence, and Crime: A Systematic Review. Trauma Violence Abuse. March 2015. In a randomized control trial, researchers from the University of Pennsylvania found that these greening treatments were associated with reduced levels of gun assaults in the surrounding areas, a reduction that was sustained for years after the treatment.Garvin EC, Cannuscio CC, Branas CC. Greening vacant lots to reduce violent crime: A randomised controlled trial. Inj Prev. 2013; 19(3): 198-203. Doi: 10.1136/injuryprev-2012-040439. Another evaluation of the Philadelphia program found that residents felt safer and less stressed, and property values rose.Garvin EC, Cannuscio CC, Branas CC. Greening vacant lots to reduce violent crime: A randomised controlled trial. Inj Prev. 2013; 19(3): 198-203. Doi: 10.1136/injuryprev-2012-040439 Altogether, researchers estimated that every dollar spent on ‘cleaning and greening’ in Philadelphia generated an additional $224 in housing wealth and $7.43 in property tax revenues.The Center for High-Impact Philanthropy. Aligning impact for healthy communities: Q&A with the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society. Center for High Impact Philanthropy - University of Pennsylvania. 2013. http://bit. ly/22mqV80. Accessed May 23, 2016.
A similar vacant lot greening program in Youngstown, Ohio was associated with significant reductions in homicides,Kondo M, Hohl B, Han S, Branas C. Effects of greening and community reuse of vacant lots on crime. Urban Stud. October 2015. doi:10.1177/0042098015608058. and research on a public housing project in Chicago found that buildings with high levels of vegetation had 52 percent fewer total crimes, 48 percent fewer property crimes, and 56 percent fewer violent crimes than buildings with low levels of vegetation, despite the fact that residents are randomly assigned to the different buildings.Kuo FE, Sullivan WC. Environment and crime in the inner city: Does vegetation reduce crime? Environ Behav. 2001; 33(3): 343-367
Shine a light on high-crime areas
Gun crime benefits from the cover of darkness. Poor lighting makes it more difficult for witnesses to identify perpetrators, and may make residents less likely to report or intervene in crimes — after all, if you don’t see something, you can’t say something.Garvin EC, Cannuscio CC, Branas CC. Greening vacant lots to reduce violent crime: A randomised controlled trial. Inj Prev. 2013; 19(3): 198-203. Branas CC, Kondo MC, Murphy SM, South EC, Polsky DE, MacDonald JM. The value of remediating blighted urban environments as a solution to firearm violence in the US. Urban Health Lab, The University of Pennsylvania. www.urbanhealthlab.org.
Some cities are testing a simple solution: improved lighting in high-crime areas. By shining a light on shadowy areas that would otherwise be unwatched, these programs aim to deter crime, increase the likelihood that when it does occur it will be seen and stopped, and give communities greater ability to spot and respond to suspicious activity.
“When we think about deterring crime, we need to pursue a broad range of strategies beyond traditional law enforcement. A well-lit street deters crime better than a dark alley, just as opportunities for work and play promote safety better than disadvantage and dis-connection.” – Elizabeth Glazer, Criminal Justice Coordinator, New York City, NYMayor de Blasio announces pioneering study on how outdoor lighting reduces crime news release. New York City, NY: The City of New York; 2016. http://on.nyc.gov/1XsnxHO. Accessed May 23, 2016.
Public housing developments in New York City have higher rates of violent crime than the rest of the city, and over the last decade this difference grew larger. Home to about five percent of New York’s population, they suffered 11 percent of its murders in 2006, and by 2015 the share had risen to 15 percent.Armlovich A. Poverty and progress in New York V: Crime trends in public housing, 2006–15. Manhattan Institute for Policy Research. November 2015. Doi: http://bit.ly/1OT50D6. So in 2014, the city launched the Mayor’s Action Plan for Neighborhood Safety (MAP), a partnership between the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice, the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA), the police, and residents from 15 high-crime public housing developments. The Action Plan aimed to address crime comprehensively, but one element focused on what City Hall and others saw as a critical need: enhanced security lighting.Press Office. Making New York City’s Neighborhoods and Housing Developments Safer. The City of New York; 2014. http://on.nyc. gov/1lUR46o. Accessed May 23, 2016.
The first $1.5 million phase of the lighting project took place in 15 developments with the highest rates of violent crime, where the city installed 150 temporary light towers to better illuminate pathways, public areas and doorways while more permanent security lighting solutions were developed.
“We’ve had a successful relationship with the staff and management. We’ve had good cooperation like I’ve never seen before. Staff has come out at night to refocus the lights so it wouldn’t bother anyone through windows…The City is actually spotlighting people, and now they know if they’re doing something, they’re going to be seen.” – Michael Lopez, RA President at Washington Houses, New York CityMayor de Blasio announces pioneering study on how outdoor lighting reduces crime news release. New York City, NY: The City of New York; 2016. http://on.nyc.gov/1XsnxHO. Accessed May 23, 2016.
NYCHA is now installing new and improved permanent lighting, and in March 2016, the city announced plans to serve 40 additional public housing sites, where MAP worked with residents to identify areas most in need of improved lighting. The expansion also includes an evaluation, conducted in partnership with Crime Lab New York, which will examine the effect of different lighting strategies on crime reduction, perceptions of neighborhood cohesion, and fears of crime.Mayor de Blasio announces pioneering study on how outdoor lighting reduces crime news release. New York City, NY: The City of New York; 2016. http://on.nyc.gov/1XsnxHO. Accessed May 23, 2016
Results are preliminary but encouraging. A year after installation, temporary lighting and other components of the crime reduction initiative were associated with reduced crime in the 15 pilot sites, compared to a slight increase in crime in other NYCHA developments.Armlovich A. Poverty and progress in New York V: Crime trends in public housing, 2006–15. Manhattan Institute for Policy Research. November 2015. Doi: http://bit.ly/1OT50D6.
Outside of New York, similar programs in Atlanta, Milwaukee, Kansas City, and Fort Worth have been associated with reductions in crime, and several cities in the U.K. have seen similar successes. Ensuring that local residents are involved in the decisions about their own community can be an important component in the project’s sustainability and success.Clarke RV. Improving Street Lighting to Reduce Crime in Residential Areas. The Center for Problem-Oriented Policing; 2008.
Leave Fewer Gun Crimes Unsolved
Like communities anywhere, those burdened with high rates of gun violence want laws against violent offenders adequately enforced. Yet in the U.S. today, a significant share of gun crime — a majority of gun homicides in many cities and nearly all non-fatal shootings, not to mention the abundant gunfire that is not even reported to police — are left unsolved, the perpetrators unsanctioned.Wellford C, Cronin J. Clearing up Homicide Clearance Rates. National Institute of Justice; 2000. http://1.usa.gov/1sSHagH.
This leaves violent offenders free to act again, but it also undermines the legitimacy of the formal criminal justice system and leaves a vacuum where retaliatory violence by the community may flourish.Leovy J. Ghettoside: A True Story of Murder in America. New York, NY: Spiegel & Grau; 2008. As longtime Los Angeles Times crime reporter Jill Leovy observed in her 2015 book Ghettoside, throughout history and across cultures, where the legitimate authority of the state is not effective at interceding to provide justice, communities develop their own mechanisms to respond to murder in their midst.Leovy J. Ghettoside: A True Story of Murder in America. New York, NY: Spiegel & Grau ; 2008. When people commit gun crimes but are not punished for it, and witnesses cease to see the value of cooperating with police, and victims become more certain of the justice meted out by the streets than by the court system, gun violence is tenaciously difficult to reduce.
A growing number of communities are adopting practices and technologies to improve how they investigate gun crimes, in particular by drawing from the physical evidence left at crime scenes or on discarded firearms themselves. This allows officers to respond more quickly to gunfire, learn more from the ballistics evidence they collect, deploy resources more effectively, and bring stronger cases against people who commit gun crimes.
Use the best available forensic technologies and processes to solve gun crimes
At the heart of every gun crime is a firearm and spent ammunition — physical evidence that creates a durable link between the weapon, the scene, and the person who committed the crime. A growing number of law enforcement agencies are embracing rigorous firearm forensic investigation practices to ensure they maximize the value of this evidence for solving past crimes and preventing future ones.
One leader in the field is the police department of Newark, NJ, which has created a thorough protocol for firearm intake and processing. They conduct a series of forensic tests of every crime gun regardless of its circumstance of recovery, including visual inspection for trace evidence, latent fingerprints examination, and DNA swabbing. It is not uncommon for a gun recovered without any apparent connection to a crime to be linked by ballistics or genetic material to crimes that took place elsewhere. Newark has also embraced the use the National Integrated Ballistics Identification Network (NIBIN), a digital imaging and database system that allows police to efficiently match ammunition markings to evidence collected by other participating law enforcement agencies nationwide.Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. National Integrated Ballistic Information Network (NIBIN). Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. http://1.usa.gov/1Q5Hkur. Published April 22, 2016. Accessed May 24, 2016. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Center for Injury Prevention and Control. Injury prevention & control: Data & statistics. (WISQARS). Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. http://1.usa.gov/1plXBux. Published December 18, 2015. Accessed May 23, 2016. Where firearms examiners previously relied exclusively on a labor-intensive process of manually examining recovered casings and other ballistics, NIBIN enables them to instantly search a growing national database of casings recovered from other gun crimes. Newark has been particularly successful at eliminating delays introduced by these steps, so the information derived from recovered ballistics evidence is available within two days for investigators. As a result, the city has matched more recovered ballistics using NIBIN than any other law enforcement agency save the much larger jurisdictions of New York City, the Illinois State Police, Miami, and Philadelphia.Di Ionno M. “CSI” or reality? Inside Newark’s ballistics lab. The Star-Ledger. January 31, 2016. http://bit.ly/25kpk81. Accessed May 20, 2016. They were so successful that the New Jersey State Police later implemented their philosophy of timely firearm intelligence statewide.Capt. Geoffrey Noble. Personal correspondence. May 10, 2016.
Another city pioneering improved forensic investigation practices is Denver, CO. Beginning in 2012, the city’s Crime Gun Intelligence Center — a collaboration between local and federal law enforcement — developed new protocols for processing recovered ballistics through NIBIN, submitting the gun to ATF for tracing, linking it with other sources of data, and returning the intelligence to investigators with the goal of more quickly identifying gun criminals. A preliminary evaluation of the program found that CGIC generated 27 arrests between the fourth quarter of 2012 and the end of 2014, and that there were fewer homicides in in the district where they occurred for two months following each arrest.Crifasi CK, White RC, Russell JC, Webster DW. Using Gun Intelligence to Arrest Denver’s Active Shooters. Manuscript in preparation. In November 2015, after ballistics was tied to a shooting in Colorado Springs and then an attempted murder in Denver, CGIC worked with multiple law enforcement agencies to identify suspects in both shootings, and Denver District Attorney Mitch Morissey was able to bring charges in April 2016, more than two years after the first crime occurred.Mitchell K. Denver DA charges man with 2 counts of attempted murder. The Denver Post. April 1, 2016. http://dpo.st/1szdDsg. Accessed May 20, 2016.
Demand that every new semiautomatic handgun feature microstamping technology
Microstamping is another technology that holds promise for further improving the value of recovered ballistics and for helping police solve more gun crimes. Designed for semiautomatic handguns, the class of firearm most frequently recovered from crime scenes,Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. Firearm types recovered and traced in the United States and territories. ATF Reports. http://1.usa.gov/1PnThg3. Accessed May 31, 2016. this technology equips the gun with a microstamped firing pin that impresses a unique code on each bullet’s casing as part of the firing process. Whereas matching ballistics currently relies on striations and other marks that can only be assessed by trained examiners and sophisticated imaging equipment, microstamping would greatly increase the accuracy by which recovered casings are linked to the gun that fired them.
“The technology could help police resolve unsolved shootings and shots-fired cases.” – Chief Frank Fowler, Syracuse Police Department, NYMariani J. Syracuse Mayor Miner, Police Chief Fowler to lobby for pistol microstamping. The Syracuse Post-Standard. June 14, 2010. http://bit. ly/1XSnGov. Accessed May 24, 2016.
In 2013, California enacted legislation requiring all new models of semi-automatic handguns sold in the state to come with the technology installed. Thus far, gun manufacturers have proved unwilling to introduce it, despite its mechanical simplicity and low cost. In New York, where the legislature considered a similar measure, the NRA blocked it five years running — spending more in political contributions in the state during that period than anywhere else. Mayors and law enforcement were at the forefront of efforts to pass the bill. Syracuse Police Chief Frank Fowler made statements and testified in Albany multiple times, along with Mayor Miner. City leaders and law enforcement can continue persuading legislators to introduce and support a requirement that all new semiautomatic handguns sold in their state be fitted with the technology.
Use acoustic technology to detect gunfire as it occurs
Law enforcement historically relied on communities to be their eyes and ears for identifying gun crimes; as a result, they only knew about gun crimes that were reported. But as new technologies become available for measuring gun crimes directly, it is becoming apparent that calls for service vastly underrepresent the number of gun crimes — and obscure the most precise means to respond to them.
Acoustic firearm detection is one new tool being deployed for this purpose. It takes advantage of the fact that gunfire has unique sonic properties that are observable over great distance. Picked up by sensors deployed across an urban neighborhood, the explosive noise can be used to geolocate the discharging firearm. Across areas where they are deployed, these systems have shown that typically, less than 20 percent of gunfire is reported to police.Carr JB, Doleac JL. The Geography, Incidence, and Underreporting of Gun Violence: New Evidence Using ShotSpotter Data. Brookings; 2015. Law enforcement agencies are adopting this technology and integrating it into their practices so that officers can respond to illegal gunfire more quickly and precisely, even when it is not reported. By responding quickly to gunfire, police hope to detain a suspect or recover physical evidence more effectively.
The technology also holds great potential for researchers, who have already shown that the data may provide a means for evaluating other changes in public safety practices. In one of the first studies to integrate it, economists Jennifer Doleac and Jillian Carr compared the frequency of recorded gunfire in Washington, DC across day and nighttime hours to the city’s curfew for youth under age 17 and showed that contrary to reducing gunfire during curfew hours, it appeared to raise it — possibly by emptying streets of bystanders and witnesses who would otherwise have a deterrent effect on street crime.Carr JB, Doleac JL. Keep the kids inside: Juvenile curfews, bad weather, and urban gun violence. University of Wisconsin-Madison. June 2015. And there are likely additional uses for this data. Forthcoming research by the Urban Institute and supported by a grant from the Everytown for Gun Safety Support Fund will utilize measurements of gunfire across six major U.S. cities to assess whether surges in gun violence affect the financial health of neighborhoods within them.
Law enforcement are still working out how to integrate the technology with their practices and weighing the benefits against its cost. Initial reports suggest it is helping some law enforcement agencies respond more proactively and strategically to gun crime. After New York City began installing the technology, city officials reported that officers were able to respond to gunfire and collect ballistics evidence even when no call for service had been made,Para Bult L. NYPD uses ShotSpotter technology to detect Brooklyn shooting. NY Daily News. April 2, 2015. http://nydn.us/27RBSCz. Accessed May 24, 2016. and in some cases to identify a suspect due to their timely investigation.SST, Inc. NYPD uses ShotSpotter, smart phone app, to arrest 3 on gun charges. ShotSpotter. http://bit.ly/1sODwoP. Published December 10, 2015. Accessed May 20, 2016. In Omaha, NE, Capt. Kerry Neumann described how the installation of ShotSpotter data caused police to reevaluate where and when they deployed officers.Wynn M. The bullets stopped. Omaha World-Herald. April 9, 2016. http:// bit.ly/1qJEMZm. Accessed May 24, 2016. In 2011, Boston police began bringing ShotSpotter data together with location data of probationers on GPS-monitoring to identify shootings suspects — resulting in nine arrests that year, as well as allowing them to exonerate a suspect who the overlay showed was not in the area.Ballou B. Boston uses two high-tech tools to combat crime. Boston Globe. September 3, 2012. http://bit.ly/20xoHkB. Accessed May 24, 2016. More systematic data is also being developed: in 2015, the Justice Department awarded a grant to researchers at the Urban Institute to study how the technology is affecting policing in cities that have adopted it.NIJ Award Detail: Number: 2015-R2-CX-K147 National Institute of Justice. http://bit.ly/1sODgWK. Accessed May 24, 2016.
Respond when criminals try to buy guns and fail background checks
The background check system provides another little-tapped source of data to detect when criminals prohibited from possessing guns are seeking to buy them anyway. Every day across the U.S., dozens of wanted fugitives, convicted felons, and domestic abusers currently subject to restraining orders walk into local gun stores and try to buy firearms. Like anyone purchasing a gun from a licensed firearm dealer, they are subject to a criminal background check before the sale goes forward, and because they are barred from doing so by federal law, they fail those background checks and the dealers stop the sales.
“If somebody knowingly applies for a gun but knows they don’t qualify, that’s a misdemeanor, and I want to make sure we prosecute those cases. People who repeatedly apply for guns even though they aren’t qualified may be particularly dangerous people and just the kind of people we don’t want to get access to firearms.” – Stan Garnett, District Attorney, Boulder County, COByars M. Boulder DA plans tougher enforcement on gun laws. Daily Camera Boulder News. http://bit.ly/24lyifv. Published January 2, 2016. Accessed June 2, 2016.
Each denied background check represents a federal crime and in many places a state crime: it is illegal for a person to lie about his or her prohibited status on a background check form in an attempt to get a gun. Prohibited people actively seeking to buy guns represent a real risk: a U.S. Justice Department study of people who fail background checks due to criminal convictions or indictments found that three in ten were re-arrested within the next five years.James Tien et al., Structured Decisions Corporation, Recidivism of Denied Prospective Firearm Purchases, May 2008, at http://1.usa.gov/1Dm1lSG. But the denied background check is also an untapped resource for law enforcement. In an expanding group of states where state background check agencies notify local law enforcement when a gun buyer fails one, they can use this as a resource to follow up with these would-be gun buyers and make arrests when they determine a crime has occurred.
Colorado has a law requiring local law enforcement be informed whenever a person fails a background check and a law making it a misdemeanor for a prohibited person to lie on the background check form and try to buy a gun.C.R.S. 24-33.5-424(5)(a), (10)(a)(I). These laws enable local law enforcement to prosecute these cases, and one municipality that has taken this responsibility seriously is Boulder. The District Attorney there, Stan Garnett, has been outspoken about the need to enforce these laws vigorously.
Typically, the state agency that conducts background checks refers those that are denied to his office, who conduct a factual investigation of each one, including an interview with the suspect, to determine if they committed a crime.Stan Garnett. Personal correspondence. May 23 2016. If the authorities believe that criminal activity has taken place they will make an arrest; as of January 2016, Garnett said his office had already brought six such cases.Byars M. Boulder DA plans tougher enforcement on gun laws. Daily Camera Boulder News. http://bit.ly/24lyifv. Published January 2, 2016. Accessed June 2, 2016. In dozens of other states where local authorities conduct background checks, cities can initiate similar programs.Everytown for Gun Safety. Denied and Dangerous: Alerting Law Enforcement When Dangerous People Break the Law and Attempt to Buy Guns. Everytown for Gun Safety; 2016.
Increase the speed and certainty of sanctions for serious gun offenses
One way to improve the adequate enforcement of existing gun laws is to ensure that when a gun crime occurs, law enforcement officers are diligent in ensuring the evidence is collected carefully and documented thoroughly so it can be used in subsequent criminal justice proceedings. In Palm Beach County, FL, the sheriff’s office found that witnesses to shootings were sometimes reluctant to cooperate with the criminal justice system out of fear or mistrust, but many gun offenders with long arrest records were being identified in traffic stops in unlawful possession of firearms — and then slipping through prosecutors’ fingers because the stop and retrieval of the firearm had not been conducted with care. In response, they established a protocol for deputies to follow when making a firearm related arrest in order to ensure they are building a case that will be admissible in court. They put on latex gloves to examine the scene, document the location of recovered firearms before moving them, obtain a recorded statement from the subject and other witnesses, and fill out all the appropriate paperwork in detail, among other steps.Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office. http://every.tw/1PjpcsI
“It’s nice to make arrests, but you’re wasting your time unless you make prosecutable cases.” – Detective Stephen Barborini, Sheriff’s Office, Palm Beach County, FLStephen Barborini. May 2016.
Cities can also create mechanisms to ensure that the criminal justice system addresses gun offenses more swiftly and consistently. For example, in 2007 the city of Baltimore, MD began holding a biweekly meeting named GunStat. It brought together officials from local, state, and federal law enforcement, including representatives of the police, state’s attorney, and mayor’s office, who reviewed together all felony gun cases, pooling data from their various agencies in order to better understand where they were working well together and where they were dropping the ball.Bykowicz J. GunStat shifts officials’ targets. Baltimore Sun. August 5, 2007. http://bit.ly/1Roij97. Accessed May 24, 2016. “The goal is to have the enforcement across the system be more targeted to gun violence and violent crime,” says Chad Kenney, who served as an analyst in the Baltimore Mayor’s Office at the time. “If we’re doing that effectively, we’re making better-quality arrests that have a more direct effect on reducing gun violence. So we can actually reduce enforcement and reduce crime at the same time, because the quality of the enforcement is higher.”Chad Kenney. Personal correspondence. May 2016. Shootings fell substantially over the period that GunStat was operating, and between 2005-10 the number of arrestees released without charges dropped 68 percent, according to internal data produced at the time.Chad Kenney. Personal correspondence. May 2016.
Sheryl Goldstein, who helped build the program as director of the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice, says its essential elements include a core group of agencies that are totally committed to it; openness by all the partners to build trust and share data; and a full-time data analyst to shepherd the work. But this institutionalization produces what she sees as one of the primary benefits: building collaboration among diverse agencies who nevertheless share the goal of reducing gun violence. “In every other city that I’ve ever dealt with this issue, there is at least one reticent partner. And so I think having something like this as a vehicle to bring people to the table to improve relationship and outcomes is extremely important.”Sheryl Goldstein. Personal correspondence. May 2016. Similar approaches have since been implemented in Philadelphia, PATribune News Service. Philadelphia’s GunStat: It’s like GPS for repeat firearm offenders. Governing. http://bit.ly/25ks4lV. Published September 27, 2012. Accessed May 19, 2016. and Camden, NJ.
Focus on the People and Places Most Likely to be Affected
A significant share of urban gun violence is committed by a small group of repeat offenders, often affiliated with groups or gangs. For example, in Chicago, a network representing less than 6 percent of the city’s total population accounted for 70 percent of non-fatal shootings between 2006-12; for individuals within that network, the risk of being shot was twelve times that of the general population.Papachristos AV, Wildeman C, Roberto E. Tragic, but not random: The social contagion of nonfatal gunshot injuries. Soc Sci Med. 2015; 125: 139-150. And in a study of Boston’s Cape Verdean community, a group of 763 individuals (less than 3 percent of Boston’s total population) were responsible for 85 percent of all shootings.Papachristos AV, Braga AA, Hureau DM. Social networks and the risk of gunshot injury. J Urban Health. 2012; 89(6): 992-1003.
Cities have used a variety of tactics to alter the behavior of these individuals. “Focused deterrence” programs, first implemented as Operation Ceasefire, engage a broad swath of law enforcement and community members to help high-risk individuals move away from violence, and they also create group incentives to stay out of trouble; the group is informed that if any member acts violently, all members will be targeted for swift and severe enforcement actions. Other approaches rely on civil society: “Violence interruption” programs like Cure Violence employ outreach workers (often older men who had served time for their own prior criminal activity) to intervene when they learn about conflicts likely to escalate to violence. And in some cities, programs reach out to individuals hospitalized for gunshot wounds, offering comprehensive services to help turn those near-death incidents into opportunities for change.
Intervene in group violence with ‘focused deterrence’
To address violence perpetrated by a small group of individuals already tightly connected by gangs or other social ties, many cities have employed ‘focused deterrence’ programs that create group, community, and law enforcement pressure to cease engaging in violent behavior.Seabrook J. Don’t shoot: A radical approach to the problem of gang violence. The New Yorker. June 2009: 32-41. Developed in the mid-1990s in Boston by researcher David Kennedy and collaborators and since employed by a growing group of practitioners, successful focused deterrence programs change the perceptions of the highest-risk individuals about the costs of violent offending.
Like many of the programs in this report, focused deterrence begins with making better use of data. Law enforcement pool street intelligence and combine it with other criminal justice data to identify the individuals most likely to perpetrate gun violence—who are also at risk of being victims of gun violence themselves—and map the criminal ties that link those individuals with each other. Police meet with members of the most violent groups, acknowledge that their existing tactics have not worked, and notify them that the community is taking a new approach. If any group member acts violently, the whole group will now be subject to swift and certain consequences from law enforcement. At the same time, group members are offered social services and other support to move away from violent crime, and community members are invited to share the message that violence is not a community norm and will not be tolerated.
The model has been employed in dozens of cities including Cincinnati, OH, where record high homicide rates in 2006 prompted political leaders to bring together law enforcement, academics, medical professionals, local advocates, and other community leaders to found the Cincinnati Initiative to Reduce Violence (CIRV). CIRV adopted a focused deterrence strategy and built on lessons other cities learned from previous experiences implementing it. The CIRV team was deliberate in building a sound, sustainable managerial structure, with the help of local executives from Proctor & Gamble Co. CIRV also developed a comprehensive social services plan, which earlier focused deterrence interventions had sometimes relegated to a secondary priority.Corsaro N, Engel RS. Most challenging of contexts. Criminol Public Policy. 2015; 14(3): 471-505.
To identify the population that CIRV would focus on, law enforcement researchers reviewed homicide records, employed social network mapping, and used other techniques to monitor the complex relationships between violent groups and the individuals associated with them.
Like other focused deterrence programs, CIRV used in-person call-ins to communicate the key program messages. In the first 2.5 years of the program, they held 28 call-in sessions with 568 violent group members. In addition, the law enforcement team completed 163 home visits to deliver messages to specific high-risk individuals under mandatory supervision.
Meanwhile, the service delivery team helped the programs’ participants learn to interact better with their peers and their environment and cope with anti-social behavior. They offered job training, intervened in imminent violent conflicts, and provided other services tailored to the communities’ needs. And the community engagement team conducted trainings and violence prevention programs, responded to shootings, as well as other outreach activities.
In the two years following CIRV’s implementation, gang-member-involved homicides decreased by 38 percent after controlling for potential confounding factors. Violent firearm incidents also declined by roughly 22 percent.
Similar focused deterrence programs implemented in Los Angeles, CA; Boston, MA; Lowell, MA; Stockton, CA; and Indianapolis, IN have been associated with reductions in violent crime of 15 to 40 percent in the treatment areas.Braga AA, Weisburd DL. The Effects of “Pulling Levers” Focused Deterrence Strategies on Crime. Washington, D.C.: Community Oriented Policing Services, U.S. Department of Justice; 2012. http://bit.ly/1XmxlFj. Corsaro N, Engel RS. Most challenging of contexts. Criminol Public Policy. 2015; 14(3): 471-505. In Los Angeles and Boston, researchers also observed reduced rates of violent crime in nearby areas that had not been specifically targeted, putting to rest some fears that crime was simply being pushed into different areas.Bowers KJ, Johnson SD, Guerette RT, Summers L, Poynton S. Spatial displacement and diffusion of benefits among geographically focused policing initiatives: a meta-analytical review. J Exp Criminol. 2011; 7(4): 347-374. Braga AA, Weisburd DL. Must we settle for less rigorous evaluations in large area-based crime prevention programs? Lesson from a Campbell review of focused deterrence. J Exp Criminol. 2014; 10(4): 573-597. Tita G, Jack Riley K, Greenwood P. From Boston to Boyle Heights: The process and prospects of a “pulling levers” strategy in a Los Angeles Barrio. Policing Gangs and Youth Violence. 2003: 102-130.
There is some doubt about whether observed declines in crime attributed to focused deterrence will be sustained over time. In Boston, for example, after focus shifted away from gang-involved youth, violent crime rebounded.Braga AA, Hureau D, Winship C. Losing Faith-Police, Black Churches, and the Resurgence of Youth Violence in Boston. Ohio St J Crim L. 2008; 6: 141. Some focused deterrence programs have also been criticized for imbalance in how they are implemented. A program in Baltimore under-delivered services and over-delivered sanctions, reportedly resulting in 324 arrests in six months but with no clear impact on gun violence.Webster DW, Whitehill JM, Vernick JS, Parker EM. Evaluation of Baltimore’s Safe Streets Program: Effects on Attitudes, Participants’ Experiences, and Gun Violence. Center for the Prevention of Youth Violence, Bloomberg School of Public Health, Johns Hopkins; 2012
To be effective, focused deterrence demands full buy-in and participation from law enforcement, social service agencies and groups, and community leaders. Strong leadership from individuals can help make that coalition a reality, but if it is not institutionalized the program is likely to fall apart as those individuals leave or priorities shift.Kennedy D. Drugs, Race and Common Ground: Reflections on the High Point Intervention. National Institute of Justice Conference; 2008.
The success of a focused deterrence program also depends on a city’s police department and criminal justice system. If they cannot collaborate and credibly communicate the message that violent crime will result in certain, swift, and severe consequences, it undermines the credibility of the entire program.Engel RS, Tillyer MS, Corsaro N. Reducing gang violence using focused deterrence: Evaluating the Cincinnati Initiative to Reduce Violence (CIRV). Justice Q. 2013; 30(3): 403-439. Credibility can also be jeopardized if police and the community they serve do not trust one another,Wallace D, Papachristos AV, Meares T, Fagan J. Desistance and legitimacy: The impact of offender notification meetings on recidivism among high risk offenders. Justice Q. 2015: 1-28. Wallace D, Papachristos AV, Meares T, Fagan J. Justice Q, 2015; Griffiths E, Christian J. Considering focused deterrence in the age of Ferguson, Baltimore, North Charleston, and beyond. Criminol Public Policy. 2015; 14(3): 573-581. a core concern of the President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing.
Defuse conflicts driving the transmission of gun violence with ‘violence interrupters’
Upon returning to the U.S. after a decade treating epidemics overseas, Dr. Gary Slutkin observed that violence resembled an infectious disease in some ways: the more violence a person was exposed to, the more likely they were to exhibit violent behavior themselves. As he saw it, each violent conflict transmitted risk, as their victim was more likely to perpetuate violence on to someone else. And if those transmissions could be blocked, violence might be prevented the same way quick and effective treatment stops the spread of epidemics.Slutkin G. Let’s treat violence like a contagious disease. April 2013. http:// bit.ly/1XUawak. Accessed May 31, 2016.
Slutkin developed a violence interruption program in Chicago to turn the theory into practice. In contrast to focused deterrence, his program worked independently from the police, employing street outreach workers with a deep understanding of the interpersonal dynamics contributing to violence in their communities. That understanding allowed them to focus on the individuals at greatest risk of perpetrating gun violence, and often becoming victims of it, whether the factors that put them at risk were connections to a gang, a personal dispute, or something else entirely. In such circumstances outreach workers offer services and support including conflict mediation to reduce the volatility of the situation and give those involved a way out that doesn’t feel like backing down. The original interruption program in Chicago (now known as Cure Violence) and subsequent iterations in cities like Baltimore and Brooklyn have shown promising results, although the data is still limited.Butts JA, Roman CG, Bostwick L, Porter JR. Cure violence: a public health model to reduce gun violence. Annu Rev Public Health. 2015; 36: 39-53.
“If we seriously want to reduce gun violence — in Richmond or any other city — it is young men [themselves] who must spearhead that transformation…The stipend is a gesture of saying you are valuable, your expertise is valuable, your contribution to this work of creating a healthier city is valuable.” – Devone Boggan, Neighborhood Safety Director, Richmond, CALewis S. Other cities emulate Richmond’s innovative approach to ending gun violence. KQED News. March 9, 2016. http://bit.ly/1WN2f8H. Accessed May 19, 2016.
Richmond, CA, applied this approach in the late 2000s when it was losing one resident a week to homicide, making it the ninth most dangerous city in America by some measures.Boggan DL. To stop crime, hand over cash. The New York Times. July 4, 2015. http://nyti.ms/1KXQG9p. Accessed May 19, 2016. At the time, much of the violence was believed to be perpetrated by a relatively small group; city officials estimated that more than two-thirds of the homicides and assaults in the city were committed by just a few dozen individuals.Wolf AM, Del Prado Lippman A, Glesmann C, Castro E. Process Evaluation for the Office of Neighborhood Safety. National Council on Crime & Delinquency; 2015. So the city’s leaders instituted a violence interruption program modeled on Cure Violence, though with an important twist. Under the name Operation Peacemaker, the city provided traditional services like violence interruption and mentoring. They also offered the most violent offenders a stipend if they participated in an array of social service programs designed to address their risk factors for offending, and refrained from further violent behavior.
The program employed local outreach workers to develop relationships with the highest-risk young men and their communities, and to identify a broader pool of individuals who also appeared to be at high-risk of future offending. Then the city offered them a deal: With a six-month commitment to stop perpetrating violence and to make other positive changes, participants could earn a stipend for a maximum of nine months. There was vocal resistance to the idea from some quarters, but the economic argument was compelling: since every gun homicide burdens the public with hundreds of thousands of dollars in costs, preventing just one homicide would essentially pay for the entire program.Follman M, Lurie J, Lee J, West J. What does gun violence really cost? Mother Jones. April 2015. http://bit.ly/1H6WTvU. Accessed May 31, 2016. Cook P, Ludwig J. The Social Costs of Gun Ownership. Cambridge, MA: National Bureau of Economic Research; 2004. doi:10.3386/w10736.
According to program founder DeVone Boggan, the cash incentives were a practical approach — the stresses of poverty were a driver of some violent behavior — but support services offered by the outreach workers were also crucial. In addition, the program built trust that was previously lacking between the city and the potential offenders.Lewis S. Other cities emulate Richmond’s innovative approach to ending gun violence. KQED News. March 9, 2016. http://bit.ly/1WN2f8H. Accessed May 19, 2016.
In the short term, crime data suggest the program has had some success. In Operation Peacemaker’s first year, Richmond’s homicide rate fell by 50 percent, from 45 homicides in 2009 to 22 the following year, a trend that continued through 2014 parallel to a decline in overall firearm assaults.Wolf AM, Boggan D. Saving Lives: Alternative Approaches to Reducing Gun Violence. International Journal of Social, Behavioral, Educational, Economic, Business and Industrial Engineering. 2015; 9(6): 2191-2199. Based on these promising results, the cities of Oakland, CA, Toledo, OH, and Washington, DC have explored replicating and further evaluating the program.
Offer victims of gunshot injuries comprehensive services
A person admitted to the hospital with a gunshot wound is at elevated risk of further involvement with gun violence — either as a victim or an offender.Fahimi J, Larimer E, Hamud-Ahmed W, et al. Long-term mortality of patients surviving firearm violence. Inj Prev. October 2015. 22 (2): 129–34. In a four-year period in Wilmington, DE, for example, nearly half of those arrested for a gun crime had previously received care for a violent injury.Sumner S, Mercy J, Hillis S, Maenner M, Socias C. Elevated Rates of Urban Firearm Violence and Opportunities for Prevention – Wilmington, Delaware. Division of Violence Prevention, National Center for Injury Prevention and Control Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; 2015. http://1.usa. gov/1o05R93. Accessed May 24, 2016. Reaching such individuals with the right services when they are first injured could reduce their likelihood of subsequent violent crime. A growing number of hospitals respond to these acute injuries in ways that go beyond standard medical care, in an attempt to change the patient’s longer-term outcomes as well. By identifying high-risk individuals, providing appropriate social services, and leveraging a near-death moment as an opportunity for change, medical centers hope to prevent future violence rather than just treat its consequences.
“Trauma centers are well equipped to deal with the blood loss, tissue destruction, and death that accompany violent injuries, but they are not equipped to deal with the social ills that put patients at risk for being repeat victims of violence.” – Carnell Cooper, Dawn Eslinger, and Paul Stolley, University of MarylandCooper C, Eslinger DM, Stolley PD. Hospital-based violence intervention programs work. J Trauma. 2006; 61(3): 534-537; discussion 537-540
An early, well-studied example comes from Baltimore, MD. Between 1999-2001, researchers at the University of Maryland randomly assigned 100 patients with violent injuries to one of two groups. All patients received the necessary medical care, but those in the treatment group also had in-hospital meetings with a social worker who developed an individually tailored plan for them. Those plans might include employment training, education, addiction treatment, conflict-resolution training, family therapy, or other services. After the hospital stay, members of the treatment group met regularly with program staff, parole or probation officers (when applicable), and other program participants. The entire program team met weekly to ensure that the many different services and agencies were working in a coordinated way.
The study was small, but the results were significant. Those individuals in the treatment group were three times less likely to be arrested for a violent crime, and six times less likely to be hospitalized for another violent injury. That led to lower medical spending: the total costs of follow-up hospitalization for the intervention group ($138,000) were one sixth that of the control group ($736,000). Finally, self-reported rates of employment were four times higher in the intervention group, with 82 percent employed versus 20 percent in the control group.Cooper C, Eslinger DM, Stolley PD. Hospital-based violence intervention programs work. J Trauma. 2006; 61(3): 534-537; discussion 537-540.
Similar programs in other cities have also yielded promising results. A program targeting violence-involved youth admitted to an Oakland, CA, hospital found that participants were 70 percent less likely to be arrested for any offense than comparable youth who did not receive the intervention.Becker MG, Hall JS, Ursic CM, Jain S, Calhoun D. Caught in the crossfire: The effects of a peer-based intervention program for violently injured youth. J Adolesc Health. 2004; 34(3): 177-183. Programs in Chicago, IL, San Francisco, CA, and Indianapolis, IN, have been linked to reductions in reinjury, which likely indicate reductions in injury-causing violence.Purtle et al 2013; Gomez G, Simons C, St John W, Creasser D, Hackworth J, Gupta P, Joy T, Kemp H. Project Prescription for Hope (RxH): trauma surgeons and community aligned to reduce injury recidivism caused by violence. Am Surg. 2012; 78: 1000Y1004; Smith R, Dobbins S, Evans A, Balhorta K, Dicker RA. Hospital-based violence intervention: risk reduction resources that are essential for success. J Trauma Acute Care Surg. 2013; Zun LS, Downey L, Rosen J. The effectiveness of an ED-based violence prevention program. Am J Emerg Med. 2006; 24: 8Y13. The San Francisco project, for example, was associated with a 72 percent drop in participants’ violent injuries over six years.Smith R, Dobbins S, Evans A, Balhorta K, Dicker RA. Hospital-based violence intervention: risk reduction resources that are essential for success. J Trauma Acute Care Surg. 2013.
While the hospital provides an opportunity to reach people at risk of perpetrating gun violence, a successful program must provide them with the right mix of services and enforcement. That can be difficult if some resources — for instance, substance abuse treatment — are low quality or in short supply. Another challenge relates to the way these services are funded; until these services can be reimbursed through health care dollars such as Medicaid funds, the programs operate somewhat precariously, often dependent on grant funding.Rochelle Dicker. Personal correspondence. May 18, 2016.
Offer Positive Alternatives to Youth with Risk Factors for Violent Behavior
While there is no way to know every individual’s path to gun violence, there are some warning signs that someone might be at a higher risk of gun violence involvement: skipping classes, acting out, committing less serious crimes.Patterson GR, Forgatch MS, Yoerger KL, Stoolmiller M. Variables that initiate and maintain an early-onset trajectory for juvenile offending. Dev Psychopathol. 1998; 10(3):531-547. Monahan KC, VanDerhei S, Bechtold J, Cauffman E. From the school yard to the squad car: school discipline, truancy, and arrest. J Youth Adolesc. 2014; 43(7): 1110-1122. Reaching young people when they demonstrate those behaviors can put them back on the right track before they ever reach for a gun.
With this in mind, cities have developed programs designed to reach those individuals before they turn to gun crime, offering resources and specialized help to open a path towards a healthy, productive, and crime-free life. Two of these programs originated in Chicago, IL, as an effort to combat the city’s continuing crisis of gun violence, and both have shown promising results in preliminary pilot studies.
Offer cognitive behavioral therapy to youths learning to respond with non-violence
Everyone learns behaviors from cues in their environment, but reactions learned in one setting may cause trouble in another. A confrontational, don’t-mess-with-me attitude might protect a young man from dangerous groups in his neighborhood, but the same attitude will be detrimental to his progress in school or the workplace. To address that challenge, cities can support programs that provide cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) to help individuals adapt their behaviors to different settings deliberately, instead of reacting automatically. Early versions of this program have reduced violence among participants, and similar techniques have a long history of success in areas beyond crime, like helping people quit smoking.Guichenez P, Clauzel I, Cungi C, Quantin X, Godard P, Clauzel AM. The contribution of cognitive-behavioural therapies to smoking cessation. Rev Mal Respir. 2007; 24(2): 171-182.
“They’re not teaching youth ‘Never fight.’ That would be a stupid thing to teach youth in these neighborhoods. It’s just trying to teach youth to slow down a little bit, be a little bit more reflective rather than reflexive in their thinking, and just think for those, you know, five seconds, what kind of situation am I in? Do I need to tamp down this automatic response or not?” – Sara Heller, Assistant Professor of Criminology, University of PennsylvaniaSara Heller. Personal correspondence. 2016.
Since 2001, the Chicago-based organization Youth Guidance has pursued this approach with a program called Becoming a Man (BAM). Sitting in a circle, young men talked through issues with authority, school, what kind of men they wanted to become, and more. They also engaged in activities that teach them how to identify the way in which their thoughts and emotions lead to their behavior, and to regulate their responses. Similar programs take place in schools across the country, but what set BAM apart was the underlying strategy its founder Tony DiVittorio used as he led these discussions: Rather than simply listening or encouraging better behavior, he used cognitive behavioral therapy techniques to show how some behaviors are automatic responses (such as responding aggressively to a perceived insult) versus deliberate choices (thinking about the different response options and choosing one that aligned with their goals). DiVittorio’s program helped youth understand the differences in these behaviors, and increased their ability to respond adaptively in different situations.
Several iterations of the program have been formally evaluated with the help of University of Chicago Crime Lab. The first study included over 2,700 boys in 7th to 10th grade in 18 Chicago public schools; one-third already had an arrest record, and the group as a whole was at high risk of failing out of school. The program had impressive results: after a year, participation reduced violent crime arrests by 44 percent, and other arrests (including weapons offenses) by 37 percent. Their school performance also improved, at a level projected to increase graduation rates by up to 22 percent.Heller SB, Shah AK, Guryan J, Ludwig J, Mullainathan S, Pollack HA. Thinking fast and slow - Some field experiments to reduce crime and dropout in Chicago. NBER Working Paper Series. 2015; (21178). A subsequent study of a new cohort found that participation for one year again reduced violent-crime arrests—this time by 31%.Heller SB, Shah AK, Guryan J, Ludwig J, Mullainathan S, Pollack HA. Thinking fast and slow - Some field experiments to reduce crime and dropout in Chicago. NBER Working Paper Series. 2015; (21178).
CBT has shown promise in other violence prevention applications. Young people at a temporary detention center in Cook County who were randomly assigned to receive CBT were less likely to return to detention within the next 12 to 18 months than comparable detainees.Heller SB, Shah AK, Guryan J, Ludwig J, Mullainathan S, Pollack HA. Thinking fast and slow - Some field experiments to reduce crime and dropout in Chicago. NBER Working Paper Series. 2015; (21178). Programs in Washington State and Los Angeles, CA have improved school achievement and reduced involvement in the criminal justice system.Larson KA, Rumberger RW. ALAS: Achievement for Latinos through academic success. In: Thorton H, ed. Staying in School: A Technical Report of Three Dropout Prevention Projects for Middle School Students with Learning and Emotional Disabilities. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota, Institute on Community Integration; 1995: A1-A71. Washington State Institute of Public Policy. Outcome Evaluation of Washington State’s Research-Based Programs for Juvenile Offenders. Washington State Institute of Public Policy; 2004. http://1.usa.gov/1RYjR9X.
Provide summer employment programs for students in high-violence neighborhoods
Cities intent on deterring youth from crime must offer them an alternative to move toward. While employment training is a popular idea, many programs have yielded disappointing results, perhaps because the populations they served were in need of more intensive services and support.M. Millenky, D. Bloom, S. Muller-Ravett, J. Broadus. Staying on Course: Three-Year Results of the National Guard Youth Challenge Evaluation. MDRC; 2011. http://bit.ly/1XuYFPP. Accessed May 24, 2016. But a rigorous evaluation of a program piloted in Chicago showed that it reached young people at risk of participating in violence and significantly reduced their likelihood of violent-crime arrest over the course of the following year.
In the summer of 2012, the city of Chicago partnered with local nonprofits to roll out a program called One Summer Plus (OSP), which offered 8th through 12th grade students eight weeks of part-time summer employment at Illinois’s minimum wage ($8.25/hour), which would amount to total summer earnings of $1,600. While the federal government has funded similar programs in cities across the country since the 1960s, few had rigorously measured their impact on violence. To evaluate OSP, Chicago partnered with the same research group that studied the CBT intervention described above and used random assignment to enroll kids in the program. Those in the treatment group were assigned job mentors, and some participants also received a version of cognitive behavioral therapy aimed at teaching them to understand and manage the aspects of their emotions and behavior that might interfere with employment — the oft-discussed “soft skills” that enable success in the average workplace.
The program itself only lasted eight weeks, but the researchers tracked rates of re-arrest for another thirteen months. Chicago has a high rate of gun violence compared other cities but the results of the program were remarkable: youth offered jobs were 43 percent less likely to be arrested for violent crime during the study, a decline that represents about four fewer violent-crime arrests per 100 youth.Heller SB. Summer jobs reduce violence among disadvantaged youth. Science. 2014; 346(6214): 1219-1223. And the program didn’t just keep kids out of trouble by keeping them busy: the reduction in arrests was largest during the months after employment. The researchers suggested that the job may have helped the youth develop more positive ways of interacting with others.
In the years that followed, Chicago expanded the program; by the summer of 2016, 3,000 youth were participating, and the city recently announced a $10 million partnership with the Magic Johnson Foundation to expand the intervention further in the years to come.Mayor Emanuel announces 25,000 summer youth job opportunities available through 2016 One Summer Chicago Program news release. Chicago, IL: Chicago Mayor’s Office; March 14, 2016. http://bit.ly/1Twa3eQ. Accessed May 19, 2016.
Similar interventions in other cities have also yielded positive impact, though different programs measure their impact differently; for example, a New York program didn’t increase employment, but it did reduce mortality among participants, likely because of drops in homicide. Other programs have been associated with outcomes like decreased incarceration, increased school attendance, and decreased violent, delinquent, or antisocial behaviors.Hirsch BJ, Hedges LV, Stawicki J, Mekinda MA. After-School Programs for High School Students – An Evaluation of after School Matters; 2011. Center for labor market studies. Hirsch BJ, Hedges LV, Stawicki J, Mekinda MA. After-School Programs for High School Students – An Evaluation of after School Matters. Northwestern University; 2011. Redcross C, Millenky M, Rudd T, MDRC, Levshin V, Vera Institute. More than a Job: Final Results from the Evaluation of the Center for Employment Opportunities (CEO) Transitional Jobs Program. Office of Planning, Research and Evaluation (OPRE), Administration for Children and Families, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services; 2012. http://1.usa.gov/1PLSxBI. Sarah Heller. Personal correspondence. 2016. Sum A, Trubskyy M, McHugh W. The Summer Employment Experiences and the Personal/social Behaviors of Youth Violence Prevention Employment Program Participants and Those of a Comparison Group. Center for Labor Market Studies; 2013. http://bit. ly/1YcbXAW.
Improve Responses to Domestic Violence
Another group at heightened risk of firearm violence are victims of domestic abuse, both nationwide and in cities. The presence of a gun heightens the risk abuse will end in death, but fatal domestic violence is typically the final event in a lengthy pattern of abuse. So where law enforcement have proven able to collaborate closely with one another, share information about people at risk, and restrict abusers’ access to guns, they have saved lives.
Ensure that domestic abusers turn in their guns as required by law
While prohibiting abusers from possessing guns is typically a matter of federal and state law, cities and counties can take the lead on implementing those laws by creating a clear process for domestic abusers to turn in the guns they already own when they become prohibited from having them.
“The intersection of domestic violence and firearms is a deadly one. A workable response was within the grasp of my community so we had to do something. We strongly believe that if our gun surrender policies save even one life, then it is worth it.” – Judge Roberto Cañas, Dallas County, TXRoberto Cañas. Personal correspondence. 2016.
Dallas County provides an example. Both federal and Texas state law prohibit convicted domestic abusers and abusers under restraining orders from possessing guns, but there is no statewide process to ensure that abusers turn in their guns when they become prohibited.Texas Penal Code § 46.04(b), (c). In 2015, a taskforce in Dallas led by Judge Roberto Cañas established a policy for firearm relinquishment in qualifying domestic violence cases. The protocol requires abusers to temporarily relinquish their firearms while they are subject to a restraining order or while they are being tried for a domestic violence crime, and to permanently surrender them if they are convicted.
In each case, the court assesses the defendant’s access to firearms, asking the defendant directly as well as reviewing any other information available to the court including victim interviews, law enforcement lethality assessments, and police reports. The defendant then has 72 hours to turn in all guns or, if he or she owns no guns, to swear to that fact under oath.
Because this protocol was developed and implemented so recently, it is too early to assess the impact on injuries, threats, and homicide by firearm. But the existence of the protocol is itself valuable as an example to other cities, counties, and states tackling implementation of these important laws.
Indeed, the Dallas County experience demonstrates how local jurisdictions are ideally positioned to enforce federal and state domestic violence gun laws. Cities can facilitate partnerships across their law enforcement agencies to solve nuts and bolts logistical or regulatory challenges that no single agency or group can address. For example, one of Dallas County’s challenges involved gun storage, as local police and sheriffs did not have the capacity required to house relinquished firearms. To resolve the issue, the county partnered with a local licensed gun dealer, which agreed to store relinquished firearms in its weapons lockers and provide office space for a sheriff’s deputy to oversee intake.
Assembling a Citywide Strategy
Every city has a unique set of needs and resources, and the diverse programs highlighted in this report show that there is no single best strategy to combat gun violence. But these approaches can be linked and applied together. One city that demonstrates this is New Orleans, LA, which for years has ranked among the most violent cities in the U.S. and remains so today. In 2011 Mayor Mitch Landrieu made addressing lethal violence a city priority, and in an effort to match a complex problem with an appropriately comprehensive solution, he initiated a series of changes including a far-reaching program called NOLA for Life drawing on many of the solutions profiled above.
New Orleans has allowed data to guide its understanding by adopting a homicide review commission process like that of Milwaukee,Wellford C, Bond BJ, Goodison S. Crime in New Orleans: Analyzing Crime Trends and New Orleans’ Responses to Crime. City of New Orleans; 2011. and researchers have conducted a deep epidemiological analysis of guns recovered after use in violent crimes in the city, similar to that of Chicago.National Institute of Justice. NIJ award detail: The epidemiology of crime guns: From legal sale to use in crime. National Institute of Justice. http://bit. ly/1TwcEoT. Accessed May 31, 2016. Recently, the city took steps to reduce the supply of illegal guns: after a series of articles by the New Orleans Times Picayune documenting the scope of gun theft in the city and its contribution to the illegal market,NOLA.com. The New Orleans gun pipeline: Stolen weapons fuel street violence. The Times-Picayune. Published February 16, 2016. http://bit. ly/1TMmzkZ. Accessed May 19, 2016. the city announced a set of ordinances including a requirement that gun owners report firearms that were lost or stolen.Mayor’s Office. Mayor Landrieu, Councilmembers Williams and Gray to announce an Ordinance to promote gun safety in New Orleans. City of New Orleans. http://bit.ly/1XLqhyn. Published May 18, 2016. Accessed May 19, 2016. The city’s program “Fight the Blight” targets the environment by combatting urban blight and abandonment, not unlike efforts in Philadelphia. The city offers greater opportunities for positive engagement, from midnight basketball to behavioral intervention to employment support for youth and individuals re-entering their communities after incarceration, a period when individuals otherwise pose a high risk of returning to crime. The city has committed to strengthening the New Orleans Police Department by connecting the force with the community it serves, targeting resources to where they are most needed, and responding appropriately when violence occurs. And at the center of NOLA for Life, the city has implemented a focused deterrence program to change the behavior of a small number of individuals most likely to kill or be killed, similar to CIRV in Cincinnati.
Citywide levels of violence are the product of numerous factors, and public policies alone do not fully explain why they change — or don’t. But gun violence across New Orleans has fallen 20 percent since NOLA For Life began, even taking into account an uptick in 2015. And a rigorous evaluation of the focused deterrence program that compared trends in the city’s gun homicide rate to that of other cities concluded that it had reduced monthly homicides by 17 percent, driven by a 32.1 percent reduction in gang-member-involved homicides.Corsaro N, Engel RS. Most challenging of contexts. Criminol Public Policy. 2015; 14(3): 471-505.
This experience demonstrates two important aspects of multi-component gun violence prevention efforts. First, it requires a deep and sustained commitment, even in the face of setbacks. And second, ongoing data collection is essential for learning, improving, and course correcting when necessary. Even the best interventions will face stumbling blocks, but a thoughtful and dedicated approach can keep a city on a path headed in the right direction.
This report has only scratched the surface of research available on gun violence in cities. And as diverse as the highlighted city efforts are, they represent just a fraction of the actions being taken by communities across the country. Nevertheless, four clear and practical lessons emerge:
- Act now. As documented in this report, cities are not waiting for legislators in state capitols or Washington, DC to respond to the gun violence that afflicts them. Some low-risk approaches like cognitive behavioral therapy, greening vacant lots, and improving responses to domestic violence can have immediate results.
- Act together. Collaboration is essential for greater impact, whether that means different agencies in the same city working to respond consistently to gun crimes, or cities sharing program data to help improve their respective implementation plans.
- Measure results. The examples throughout the report illustrate that better data leads to better decisions. The worst-case scenario isn’t testing an intervention that turns out to have no impact — it’s continuing to direct resources towards a failing program because nobody knows it doesn’t work. Data collection isn’t always exciting or easy, but down the line, it’s what makes the difference between an informed decision and a hopeful guess.
- Don’t give up. Not every program will work in every city, and some great ideas might not be feasible given constraints on time and resources. But as the highlighted cities demonstrate, there are approaches that can make a measurable impact on gun violence. And for some residents, their city’s persistence in the fight against gun violence can truly be a matter of life or death.