Gun Violence Series Part 3: Preventing Gun Violence – Changing the Narrative

By Aida Vajzovic

“A well regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed.” The words of the Second Amendment to the United States Constitution, shown above, have historically been interpreted as providing a rather narrow right to gun ownership for the defense of the state. Most recently, however, this right to gun ownership has been interpreted as giving individuals the right to bear arms for personal self-defense, not only for the creation of a militia as the text of the amendment may suggest. In 2008, the Supreme Court, in the five to four decision of District of Columbia v. Heller, held that 1) the Second Amendment conferred an individual right to keep and bear arms; 2) statutes banning handgun possession in the home violated the Second Amendment; and 3) statutes containing prohibitions against rendering any lawful firearm in the home operable for purposes of immediate self-defense violated the Second Amendment.[1] This decision was both hotly contested and widely celebrated, as it was seen as a victory for the NRA and American gun rights, but also seen as cementing a definition of gun ownership into the Constitution that seems to vary from the actual text of the Constitution itself.

D.C. v. Heller was decided in 2008. In 1999, the infamous Columbine school shooting left 13 dead, made headlines around the world, and became one of the first mass shootings in the United States to be so widely publicized.[2] In 2007, a student at Virginia Tech University opened fire, killing 32; in 2012, a shooter entered an Aurora, CO movie theater and opened fire, killing 12; also in 2012, an armed man entered a Newtown, CT elementary school, killing 27 children and adults.[3] In 2014, Elliot Rodger, after publishing a manifesto, went on a killing spree, shooting six at his California University.[4] Each of these mass shootings received widespread publicity, with the shooters put on trial (either formally or through news outlets), their medical health histories evaluated, their social lives dissected, etc.[5] Each time one of these mass shootings occurs, the public begins again the gun-control debate. Forces both for and against greater gun control laws sling statistics back and forth, with one side claiming background checks are needed, while the other claims they are ineffective. The same goes for any proposed change to the system.

However, the focus of both sides is flawed. Mass shootings, such as those discussed above, do not make up the majority of gun violence in the United States. In fact, most of the gun violence we see in the United States comes from shootings that do not attract attention from mass media outlets. Of the roughly 16,000 homicide deaths per year in the U.S., 11,000 of these are committed with a firearm.[6] This number has actually decreased a great deal over the past 20 years, as homicide rates, and firearm-related homicide rates, have decreased by almost 40%.[7] These findings correlate with gang participation and violence. Males, Blacks and Hispanics, and persons aged 18 to 24 are most likely to be affected by gun violence. Persons living in urban areas are most likely to be affected by non-fatal gun violence.[8] “Gun-related homicide is most prevalent among gangs and during the commission of felony crimes.”[9] 92% of gang-related homicides were caused by firearms in 2008. With urban “hot-spots” in large cities correlating with these numbers, we see that gang-related gun violence is actually a much larger problem than mass shootings in the United States. In certain “gang centers”, such as Chicago and Los Angeles, a predicted half of all homicides are commissioned by gang violence.[10] However, gang-related shootings receive far less media attention than mass shootings do. Reasons for explaining this phenomenon vary widely: from the prevalence and then normality of gang violence to the people affected by gang violence – Hispanic and Black inner-city males, generally, to the feeling of uselessness in solving such a wide-ranging issue.[11] Whatever the reason may be, there needs to be a stronger focus on gang violence if we truly want a reduction in gun violence across the United States. This means that programs and proposed legislation cannot simply focus on mass shootings expanded in importance by the media; with or without media attention, gang violence, and gang membership itself, must be targeted if we wish to reduce violence.

In Boston, police teamed up with several agencies to do just that. In 1996, “Operation Ceasefire”, part of the Boston Gun Project, was created by several different organizations in Boston, including the police department, the Massachusetts Department of Youth Services, and gang outreach and prevention “street workers”.[12] While the methods used by Operation Ceasefire were severe, including crackdowns on minor crimes and a zero-tolerance policy, they were coupled with direct communication with repeat offenders and a community-wide operation.[13] Operation Ceasefire did correlate with a significant drop in gun violence over the course of three years, which the Harvard Kennedy School itself has determined was due to the work of the Boston Gun Project. While we cannot use Operation Ceasefire as a conclusive method of reducing gang violence, we can determine that cross-agency and cross-community work seems to be the most effective way to reduce gun violence; including police departments, community workers, churches, schools, and the federal government in programs designed to reduce violence allows not only for a crackdown on crime, but also allows for an understanding of the issues at the heart of gang violence and provides opportunities for gang members to leave without criminal records that can have debilitating effects on futures. Strategies such as Operation Ceasefire seem to suggest that the community must itself become involved in a kind of community policing in order to reduce gun violence.

Thus, programs and legislation for reducing gun violence must have multi-pronged approaches. While we have discussed just a small portion of gun violence here, proposed legislation should include criminal background checks, supported by the majority of Americans,[14] a focus on illegal gun-runners, who provide up to 40% of firearms for repeat offenders[15]; a community-based focus on reducing gang-on-gang violence which prevents youths from becoming such repeat offenders; and, most importantly, more research into gun violence.[16] As long as the Second Amendment is interpreted to allow individual gun ownership for personal benefit, legislation must be enacted, and soon, to prevent the violence that comes with gun ownership while maintaining the rights provided for in the Constitution.

More recommendations: http://www.jhsph.edu/events/gun-policy-summit/information-for-media/

[1] District of Columbia v. Heller, 128 S. Ct. 2783 (U.S. 2008)

[2] Colorado State University, The Social Science Journal, March 2009 <http://www.users.miamioh.edu/muschegw/SOCSCI718.pdf>

[3]CNN, 25 Deadliest Mass Shootings Fast Facts, September 2, 2014 <http://www.cnn.com/2013/09/16/us/20-deadliest-mass-shootings-in-u-s-history-fast-facts/>

[4] NY Times, Before Brief, Deadly Spree, Trouble Since Age 8, June 1, 2014, <http://www.nytimes.com/2014/06/02/us/elliot-rodger-killings-in-california-followed-years-of-withdrawal.html?_r=0>

[5] Id.

[6] Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, <http://www.cdc.gov/nchs/fastats/homicide.htm>

[7] Bureau of Justice Statistics, Firearm Violence, May 7, 2013, <http://www.bjs.gov/index.cfm?iid=4616&ty=pbdetail>

[8] BJS, May 2013, <http://www.bjs.gov/content/pub/pdf/fv9311.pdf>

[9] National Institute of Justice, Gun Violence, <http://www.nij.gov/topics/crime/gun-violence/Pages/welcome.aspx#note5>

[10] National Gang Center, http://www.nationalgangcenter.gov/survey-analysis/measuring-the-extent-of-gang-problems

[11] National Gang Center, http://www.nationalgangcenter.gov/survey-analysis/demographics

[12] Harvard Kennedy School, Chart: Ceasefire, <http://www.hks.harvard.edu/programs/criminaljustice/research-publications/gangs-guns-urban-violence/operation-ceasefire-boston-gun-project/chart-ceasefire>

[13] National Institute of Justice, Reducing Gun Violence: The Boston Gun Project’s Operation Ceasefire, September 2001, < https://www.ncjrs.gov/pdffiles1/nij/188741.pdf>

[14] Gallup, <http://www.gallup.com/poll/162083/americans-wanted-gun-background-checks-pass-senate.aspx>

[15] BJS, May 2013, <http://www.bjs.gov/content/pub/pdf/fv9311.pdf>

[16] For further reading on the federal funding freeze: http://www.apa.org/science/about/psa/2013/02/gun-violence.aspx

Picture credit: https://publichealthwatch.wordpress.com/2014/03/14/young-guns-how-gun-violence-is-devastating-the-millennial-generation/

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