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A copy of the book ‘Grand Theft Childhood: The Surprising Truth About Violent Video Games’ sits at one attendee’s place at the table as U.S. Vice President Joe Biden convenes a meeting with representatives from the video game industry, in a dialogue about gun violence, in his office in Washington, January 11, 2013.
The prophet Jeremiah told the weary and heart-broken exiles of Jerusalem that they should “seek the peace of the city.”
Jeremiah’s words ring in my ears as I reflect on our current national debate on gun violence. As a country, we stand on the edge of the most important opportunity we have had in over a decade to enact common sense gun laws and to address public safety. Yet, there is a deafening silence in this conversation.
To truly “seek the peace” of our cities and prevent gun violence, we must talk about urban gun violence and what works to prevent it. Failure to address this everyday issue is a moral abomination to anyone who would take the words of Jeremiah seriously.
Two years ago, I presided over the funeral of Larry, a teen from my congregation who was shot and killed in the Bay Area. More than 500 grief-stricken teenagers filled the pews that day, and I asked how many of them had been to more than one funeral. Far too many hands went up. I kept counting. Three funerals? Four? I got as high as 10, and more than half of the young people in the church wept as their hands remained lifted in the air.
Jeremiah asks us to seek the peace of the city. There has been much conversation over the past week about a comprehensive plan to prevent gun violence. We’ve heard important and necessary calls for better enforcement of existing gun laws, an assault weapons ban, universal background checks and increased mental health investments. Even the nonsensical calls of NRA lobbyists to arm teachers have risen into the national conversation. Yet, there is a troubling absence of any mention of a targeted approach to addressing urban gun violence in our cities.
And let’s be clear that the issue of gun violence is a uniquely concentrated problem that disproportionately impacts poor neighborhoods. To address it, it will take all of the common sense gun laws mentioned above, along with a well-resourced and targeted response to particular cities.
Harvard University Professor and former Assistant U.S. Attorney General Ted Heinrich’s has studied gun violence for years. His stunning analysis reveals that:
“At first glance, violence in the United States appears to be a broad problem requiring sustained systemic change to remedy. A closer look shows the problem is extremely concentrated. So too, perhaps is the remedy. In 2010 in the U.S., 14,748 people lost their lives to murder. Only 70 cities suffered more than 25 murders. Those 70 cities account for 41 percent of total murders. Only 14 cities suffered more than 50 murders and account for 10.6 percent of all murders in the U.S.”
In addition, studies have repeatedly shown that a collection of best practices – including intentional collaboration between law enforcement, clergy, health workers, family members and formerly incarcerated individuals– that focuses on the less than 1 percent of the population who commit more than 60 percent of the gun crimes can create a sharp decline (decreases of more than 35 percent) of shootings and gun-related murders in the short term.
Yes, we need an assault weapons ban. Yes, we need universal background checks. Yes, we need mental health investments. But that by itself is insufficient. Any comprehensive plan to combat gun violence must include targeted urban violence prevention polices.
There are already numerous models the Administration could choose from such as the highly acclaimed Boston Ceasefire program. This program teams police with numerous community organizations and churches to discourage gun carrying and spread the word among gang members about increased enforcement. According to the U.S. Department of Justice, in its first year alone, the Ceasefire program remarkably reduced gun violence by 68 percent.
Beyond local collaborations, the federal government could also put its full weight behind efforts to reduce urban gun violence by encouraging innovative efforts to reduce gun violence like it does with education reform among the states. There is no reason why we could not start today a “Race to Prevent Gun Violence” challenge where states and counties would submit proposals that require federal, state, local law enforcement partnerships and community-based collaborations with a minimal goal of reducing violence 10 percent every year.
We have a moral duty to act. We know what works to reduce gun violence, we know where it is most concentrated, and we know whom it most hurts. The greatest moral failure of our time could be in our inability to do what we know works to save the lives of young and poor people in cities across the country.
Pastor Michael McBride is the director of the PICO National Network’s Lifelines to Healing Campaign, a faith-based effort to reduce gun violence.