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Gun Violence’s Root Causes and What to Do About Them

We need a holistic approach that not only gets firearms out of the hands of people with elevated risk of violence but also addresses issues such as income inequality, health disparities and poorly performing schools.

Weapons brought in for a community gun buyback in Syracuse, N.Y.
(Dennis Nett |
My wife and I walk the streets and the trendy Westside BeltLine in our Atlanta neighborhood daily, and we consistently see young men who seem in or barely out of their teens “packing heat” and looking as if they are ready for trouble. They look scary, but they also appear afraid. These mostly Black and brown men could be our sons, brothers, fathers or coworkers. It is sad that many of us are afraid of them. No doubt, the local newspapers and news programs contribute to our fears by focusing on the number of shootings that seem to occur daily. As Maynard Jackson, the late Atlanta mayor, used to say, “If it bleeds, it leads.”

If public officials truly care about reducing violent crime and saving lives, they must deal with the root causes of gun violence. According to the Education Fund to Stop Gun Violence, this includes not only getting guns out of the hands of people with elevated risk of violence but, more importantly, tackling the income inequality, unemployment, health disparities, lack of affordable housing and poorly performing schools that characterize our disadvantaged communities. Tragically, homicide is one of the leading causes of death among African American men, and the impact is especially disproportionate among young Black males like the ones my wife and I encounter on our walks: Black males between the ages of 15 and 34 make up just two percent of the U.S. population but account for 37 percent of gun homicide victims.

Addressing these long-standing problems will require public officials to work across silos, departments and political jurisdictions to take a holistic approach. It will also summon them to make changes through thoughtful action and less tough talk and political theater. A few years back I remember listening with incredulity as then-Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal explained unsuccessfully to a gathering of state college presidents why students, a group at low risk of gun violence, and others on our campuses should be permitted to carry concealed weapons. He argued that if students were armed, they would be less vulnerable to would-be criminals looking to prey on them — a throwback to the Wild West where everyone took the law into their own hands.

Today, politicians are going even further in ratcheting up the tough talk and following this up with policies that encourage citizens to arm themselves. Forty-three states have passed some form of “open carry” gun legislation. Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp, looking forward to a tough Republican re-election primary this year, has even gone so far as to throw his support behind a so-called “constitutional carry” bill that allows for permitless gun carry. According to the Pew Charitable Trusts, 21 states now allow firearms to be carried — openly or concealed — without a permit.

Many conservatives and supporters of the National Rifle Association maintain that carrying a concealed handgun or an assault rifle is a constitutional and civil right. They seem oblivious to the fact that gun-related violence and deaths are spiking across the country. Last month a six-month-old baby, caught in the middle of a crossfire that did not involve his family, was killed in the backseat of his mother’s car in Atlanta, where homicides rose from 99 in 2019 to 158 in 2021. That was a year in which at least 12 cities broke annual homicide records, including Philadelphia (501 homicides); Columbus, Ohio (179); Louisville, Ky. (175); and Baton Rouge, La. (137). These statistics prove that Americans have a gun fetish like no place else in the world and are willing to use guns without regard for human life.

But the upside for change is that there are scholars, practitioners and public officials who know what works to reduce gun violence and what doesn’t. Beyond enacting policies such as universal background checks, we must educate the public and promote the benefits of getting more guns off the street. Thirty years ago, I turned in my guns when the local police scheduled an event wherein you could donate them or receive a modest stipend for doing so.

I value my life and the lives of others, but most of the gun violence is committed by those who don’t value their own lives and don’t believe they have much to live for. We could change this paradigm if we were to place resources into our communities with programs like universal pre-K education to give every child, regardless of the ZIP code where they are born, a head start and dignity.

Beyond this, I recommend that public officials focus on addressing disparities in income, health, education, jobs, housing and the like — all areas that experts tell us drive gun violence. Community leaders should ask: What is the exact problem with these disparities that needs to be addressed first? For example, in health, we know that eliminating food deserts is desirable, but that may not lower gun violence as much as providing low-income communities with mental health resources. The wealth gap needs to be narrowed, but to have an immediate impact on gun violence it might be necessary, in addition to providing high-demand workforce training, to provide wraparound services that emphasize mindfulness, conflict resolution and other modalities that provide better coping skills.

There are other approaches that can have a major impact. According to a study published in the Journal of Urban Economics, investing in programs that clean up and rehabilitate blighted and abandoned properties can decrease gun violence in surrounding neighborhoods by up to 39 percent over one year. Most local governments have offices devoted to cleanliness and code enforcement wherein staff often feel undervalued. These services need to be better coordinated, and the staff and community partners should be informed as to how the important work they do contributes to the reduction of gun violence and the enhancement of public safety.

As violent crime has surged over the past two years, mayors and other chief executives have focused too much on increasing their police forces, as if this alone will solve the problem of gun violence. What is needed to lower homicide rates is a reimagining of public safety through integrating services that improve safety and the overall quality of life for all citizens. Educated and gainfully employed constituents don’t, for the most part, resolve conflicts with guns. They have too much to lose. Public officials must make it a goal to create communities where more residents value their own lives and have too much to lose to take another’s.

Governing's opinion columns reflect the views of their authors and not necessarily those of Governing's editors or management.
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