Charity's shift on gun violence

As communities redefine the problem as a public health issue, philanthropy is finding new opportunities to promote solutions.

Rev. Glenn Grayson, above center, and city outreach workers in Pittsburgh pray at a June 4 march for peace as they remember those lost to gun violence.

Mass shootings that capture the national spotlight, like the recent events in Buffalo, New York, and Uvalde, Texas, tend to focus public attention on Washington – specifically the stuck debate over gun control in Congress. That often reinforces frustration that from one tragedy to another nothing changes.

That can obscure attention from the growth of solutions in cities that have cut gun homicides by as much as 60% in some urban neighborhoods, according to the San Francisco-based Giffords Law Center To Prevent Gun Violence. Those programs, called community violence intervention initiatives, seek local solutions to gun violence. They are built on qualities of compassion, forgiveness, and redemption that help bind a community and suppress violent behavior.

One measure of the credibility of these approaches is how philanthropies are taking note. In 1996 Congress banned the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention from studying gun violence as a public health issue. That entrenched a narrow definition of gun violence as a criminal justice issue and deprived private foundations of a critical source of data for developing and promoting other solutions to the problem. The block was repealed in 2018. Since then philanthropies have begun to boost funding to fill the research gap on the broader social and economic causes and costs of gun violence.

“The good news is that philanthropy’s approach to gun violence is evolving,” the news site Inside Philanthropy noted recently. “There has been an uptick in activity as the funding ecosystem shifts from a punitive mindset to a prevention and public health mindset.”

Local officials have been waiting for the shift. In recent years cities have created various models of violence intervention. Those programs unite community stakeholders – religious groups and hospitals, social workers and educators, police and in some cases gang leaders – to identify threats and stop violence before it happens.

These violence intervention programs have shown impressive potential. According to a June 3 survey by the Center for American Progress, they have reduced gun shootings and homicides in Oakland, California, by 50% over the past seven years in areas where they were tried. Chicago saw a 50% decrease in gunshot injuries over an 18-month period starting in 2019 during a program involving 234 men from two neighborhoods; among the participants, 85% reported a personal or family tie to gangs. Shootings and killings dropped by 30% in Baltimore and New York City neighborhoods where respected community figures served as “violence interrupters.”

But these programs represent just a beginning. Cities require funding and research to broaden their reach and share what works. Last year the Biden administration sought to enlist mayors from 16 cities together with law enforcement officials and philanthropic leaders to increase investment in community violence intervention programs. The American Rescue Plan Act, passed by Congress last year, included $350 billion for local initiatives, including $122 billion for violence intervention in schools.

A range of new private funding initiatives for research on gun violence as a public health issue, meanwhile, shows that philanthropy is attempting to align with shifting public policy approaches. But there’s a hurdle. Foundations often have their own approaches and priorities, but community-based violence prevention models depend on local currencies of trust and credibility. That presents a cultural challenge.

“By combining the power of policy change and community action, we can end gun violence. The answers exist,” wrote David Brotherton, the Kendeda Fund’s adviser for gun violence prevention, in The Chronicle of Philanthropy. But “what if the most important step a foundation can take is a humble one – a willingness to learn from others and invest in copying or expanding solutions that have already proven effective?”

As the United States seeks a new balance between gun rights and public safety, violence prevention programs are showing the creative urgency of democracy to find local solutions through civic renewal. That starts with a recognition that the most important resources are already within the most vulnerable communities – which have lessons to share.

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