The great debate on gun violence

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Violent crime in the US increased in 2020 after declining for decades. CNN's John Avlon looks at what politicians can do to prevent this increase in violence after the nation's latest mass shooting left nine dead in San Jose, California.

Posted: May 27, 2021 11:00 PM
Updated: May 27, 2021 11:00 PM

Since George Floyd's murder, there have been two distinct conversations about public safety in America. One has focused on how policing disproportionately harms communities of color, particularly Black men. The other has focused on gun violence, which also disproportionately harms Black men.

Commentators have increasingly speculated about whether these two conversations will collide, with public safety concerns pushing criminal justice and policing reform to the side. The implicit assumption is the two are intrinsically in tension: either we can reduce gun violence, or we can reform the justice system. But, in fact, the data tell us this "zero sum" view is wrong.

Gun violence is surging. In 2020, after months of pandemic lockdown, economic instability, young people out of school and a 'hidden epidemic' of pandemic-related trauma, America's largest cities suffered an estimated 30% increase in homicides. These numbers don't appear to be slowing down. In fact, as we enter what may be shaping up as one of the deadliest summers on record, gun sales are reaching record highs.

In years past, spikes in violence prompted calls for punitive measures like mandatory minimums in sentencing. Partly this was due to skepticism that anything besides "tough on crime" works. In the 1960s, the War on Poverty was followed by a doubling of the homicide rate; in the 1970s, social scientists concluded rehabilitation and prevention programs didn't work.

But we've learned a lot since then about the nature of gun violence in America. And what we've learned shows us that it's possible (or more than that -- deeply necessary) to reduce the harms from gun violence and from the criminal justice system itself at the same time. As cities across the country confront calls to both defund the police and reduce gun violence, that insight is critical.

First, we need to leverage what we've learned about the promise of community violence intervention (CVI) programs, especially those that help address the untreated trauma rampant in the underserved urban neighborhoods experiencing the highest rates of gun violence.

Consider, for example, the READI program, started after a 2016 spike in gun violence in Chicago and run by the nonprofit Heartland Alliance here. READI (stands for Rapid Employment and Development Initiative) works with the most vulnerable men in Chicago -- -- 70% of participants have been shot before and 90% have been arrested -- and over two years of intensive programming, connects them with jobs or job training and trauma-informed supports.

Preliminary findings on READI that my research center (the University of Chicago Crime Lab) helped generate are promising: Participants who went through the the program were 40% less likely to be the victims of gun homicides or shootings. We have the chance to expand READI and programs like it across the country right now. President Joe Biden has called on Congress to invest $5 billion in them, and local city and state officials can add to that investment through the American Rescue Plan funding they've already received.

Second, we need to address the pipeline of legal and illegal guns that fuels the violence. In 2020, gun sales in the United States rose by some 65% over 2019, according to Small Arms Analytics, a consulting firm based in Greenville, South Carolina.

A striking number of those guns that end up at crime scenes come from the same small number of gun dealers.

For example, in Chicago, just two gun stores were the source of more than one of every 10 guns recovered or confiscated by law enforcement in 2017. The federal agency responsible for ensuring these gun dealers follow the law, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF), has for years been vastly (and intentionally) under-resourced. The ATF employs 811 field investigators to carry out compliance inspections of more than 53,000 federally licensed firearms dealers.

No wonder that, at most, only 11% of all firearms dealers were inspected in 2020. Congress could address this staffing shortage by providing ATF the resources they need to adequately inspect dealers and enforce the law. In the meantime, there are executive actions the Biden administration can take to crack down on illegal gun trafficking, including requiring gun stores to video-record sales, increasing the number of gun sellers that must conduct background checks, and releasing more data on the underground gun market

Finally, we must work to make policing more transparent and accountable -- not just because it's the right thing to do, but because that's when policing is most effective. Researchers have found that publicized cases of police violence thwart the suppression of law breaking by driving down 911 calls, ultimately making cities as a whole, and Black residents in particular, less safe.

And while some people come to the conclusion that nothing can be done to change policing in America, we have some encouraging indications that "consent decrees" could be a useful tool to make policing more effective and more just. For example around 20 years ago, the Los Angeles Police Department entered into a consent decree with the US Department of Justice under which the department promised to adopt reform measures under a court's supervision.

By the time the consent decree ended in 2009, Los Angeles had experienced a 55% decline in violent crime and a consistent drop in the use of serious force by law enforcement. By 2019, shootings by Los Angeles police officers reached a 30-year low.

Given the disproportionate rate at which Black men are killed by police in the US, calls to defund the police are not surprising. But fixing or reimagining policing to reduce the harms from enforcement will save more lives than entirely abolishing the police -- which the data historically suggest could cause overall rates of violent crime to go up, with an outsized share of additional victims likely to be Black and Brown.

Because our leaders have for so long viewed solving the overlapping crises of gun violence and harms created by the criminal justice system as being in tension -- a zero-sum tradeoff -- we've been stuck in unhelpful debates about choosing one crisis over the other. We must and can find solutions that advance justice and reduce gun violence simultaneously -- otherwise we'll be having the same conversations next year, and the year after.

Mississippi Coronavirus Cases

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Cases: 479326

Reported Deaths: 9353
CountyCasesDeaths
Harrison32779484
Hinds30924582
DeSoto30319353
Jackson23542341
Rankin21235366
Lee14803219
Madison14120271
Jones13327223
Forrest13078236
Lauderdale11501303
Lowndes10377176
Lamar10163130
Pearl River9008217
Lafayette8193137
Hancock7404111
Oktibbeha6909122
Washington6900150
Monroe6459159
Neshoba6441201
Warren6387163
Pontotoc623093
Panola6203125
Bolivar6072144
Marshall6068121
Union571386
Pike5574135
Alcorn533289
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George466072
Scott454796
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Prentiss443377
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Adams4376116
Tate4327101
Simpson4313112
Wayne430766
Copiah429587
Yazoo419686
Covington413292
Sunflower4123104
Marion4073104
Leake395486
Coahoma391098
Newton367274
Grenada3543104
Stone350359
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Attala324286
Jasper313162
Winston303091
Clay294173
Chickasaw286265
Clarke279890
Calhoun263940
Holmes261387
Smith248048
Yalobusha219647
Tallahatchie217550
Walthall209958
Greene206845
Lawrence205732
Perry198553
Amite197651
Webster195042
Noxubee177739
Montgomery171654
Jefferson Davis167442
Carroll161437
Tunica150834
Benton141533
Kemper138039
Claiborne126134
Choctaw126026
Humphreys125937
Franklin116328
Quitman103426
Wilkinson101536
Jefferson87333
Sharkey62320
Issaquena1926
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Alabama Coronavirus Cases

Cases: 778549

Reported Deaths: 13665
CountyCasesDeaths
Jefferson1105871747
Mobile704651206
Madison49152610
Baldwin35946479
Shelby35796302
Tuscaloosa33410532
Montgomery32906672
Lee22231216
Calhoun20791397
Morgan19605326
Etowah18837449
Marshall17465272
Houston16452368
St. Clair15233293
Limestone14376182
Cullman14348246
Elmore14241256
Lauderdale13298278
Talladega12699230
DeKalb12036233
Walker10430323
Autauga9568133
Blount9555152
Jackson9235146
Coffee8728169
Colbert8426179
Dale8410170
Escambia6526114
Tallapoosa6501172
Covington6396163
Chilton6293141
Russell598555
Franklin5719100
Chambers5315133
Marion4734115
Dallas4665182
Clarke457076
Pike456294
Geneva4315116
Winston417192
Lawrence4086108
Bibb401680
Barbour341968
Marengo323183
Butler314988
Monroe314652
Pickens300470
Randolph299955
Henry298356
Hale289383
Cherokee284652
Fayette275672
Washington244848
Crenshaw235168
Clay225163
Macon217657
Cleburne217149
Lamar192140
Conecuh179646
Lowndes170158
Coosa166432
Wilcox155736
Bullock147742
Perry136036
Sumter124136
Greene120142
Choctaw72826
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