Preventing Gun Violence With a Public Health Approach

Updated on August 31, 2021 and originally posted July 20, 2021 by the Annie E. Casey Foundation

Community member holds pamphlets about reducing violence

Pub­lic health strate­gies in Atlanta and Mil­wau­kee have pre­vent­ed gun homi­cides over the past sev­er­al years, accord­ing to a new report by the Annie E. Casey Foun­da­tion. Often referred to as com­mu­ni­ty-based vio­lence inter­ven­tions, the pub­lic health approach to the pre­ven­tion of gun vio­lence imple­ment­ed in the two cities involve exam­in­ing the root caus­es of con­flicts, inter­rupt­ing sit­u­a­tions like­ly to result in gun shoot­ings and pro­mot­ing com­mu­ni­ty-wide healing.

The report, Improv­ing Com­mu­ni­ty Safe­ty Through Pub­lic Health Strate­gies: Lessons From Atlanta and Mil­wau­kee, pro­files work hap­pen­ing in the two cities that can help pub­lic and pri­vate enti­ties — includ­ing gov­ern­ment, ser­vice providers, fun­ders, busi­ness­es and law enforce­ment agen­cies — reimag­ine their strate­gies for reduc­ing gun vio­lence in oth­er Amer­i­can cities with meth­ods that are root­ed in pub­lic health and racial justice.

Down­load the report

The work hap­pen­ing in Mil­wau­kee and Atlanta’s Neigh­bor­hood Plan­ning Unit V (NPU‑V) — which includes the neigh­bor­hoods Adair Park, Capi­tol Gate­way, Mechan­icsville, Peo­plestown, Pitts­burgh and Sum­mer­hill — is part of a nation­al move­ment. Var­i­ous local pub­lic and pri­vate enti­ties, includ­ing the Casey Foun­da­tion, have sup­port­ed the new approach­es to safe­ty in the two cities. 

The Biden admin­is­tra­tion has iden­ti­fied com­mu­ni­ty vio­lence inter­ven­tions like these as cru­cial to its gun vio­lence mit­i­ga­tion efforts nation­wide, encour­ag­ing local gov­ern­ments to use fed­er­al fund­ing from the Amer­i­can Res­cue Plan to imple­ment such pro­grams. Stud­ies show that these approach­es have reduced shoot­ings by more than 60% in cities where they have been imple­ment­ed.

The need for this work is urgent,” says Tomi Hiers, vice pres­i­dent of the Casey Foundation’s Cen­ter for Civic Sites and Com­mu­ni­ty Change. As com­mu­ni­ties con­tin­ue to grap­ple with the effects of the COVID-19 pan­dem­ic — includ­ing spikes in homi­cides and oth­er vio­lent crime — as well as racial injus­tices and the result­ing unrest, we must rec­og­nize the role that pub­lic and pri­vate enti­ties play in empow­er­ing res­i­dents to lead com­mu­ni­ty-safe­ty efforts that cen­ter restora­tive approaches.” 

Improv­ing Safe­ty and Reduc­ing Gun Violence

For the past sev­er­al years, the Casey Foun­da­tion has part­nered with res­i­dents, non­prof­its, hos­pi­tal staff, local lead­ers and oth­ers in sev­er­al com­mu­ni­ties in Atlanta and Mil­wau­kee to:

  • Sup­port vio­lence inter­ven­tions, includ­ing Cure Vio­lence pro­grams that rely on cit­i­zens with life expe­ri­ence and strong com­mu­ni­ty ties, known as cred­i­ble mes­sen­gers,” who can inter­vene when vio­lence or retal­i­a­tion is like­ly to occur;
  • Imple­ment gun vio­lence pre­ven­tion strate­gies at hos­pi­tals, through trained staff and com­mu­ni­ty part­ners who coun­sel patients with injuries from vio­lence and aim to steer them away from retaliation;
  • Cre­ate oppor­tu­ni­ties for com­mu­ni­ty mem­bers to address trau­ma and atone for wrong­do­ing through heal­ing cir­cles,” in which peers pro­vide emo­tion­al sup­port dur­ing facil­i­tat­ed meetings;
  • Advo­cate for pub­lic sup­port of vio­lence inter­ven­tions and redi­rec­tion of funds from crim­i­nal­iza­tion and deten­tion to pre­ven­tion; and
  • Research com­mu­ni­ty vio­lence to devel­op evi­dence of what works in pro­mot­ing safety.

Though gun vio­lence has increased in these two cities over the past two years — as it has across the nation — local part­ners cred­it Cure Vio­lence for slow­ing what would oth­er­wise be a larg­er spike in deaths.

In Atlanta’s NPU‑V, for exam­ple, gun homi­cides have remained rel­a­tive­ly flat dur­ing the first half of 2021 com­pared to pre­vi­ous years, despite a 58% increase in homi­cides across the city through ear­ly June.

In response to the progress in NPU‑V, the Atlanta City Coun­cil in June approved May­or Keisha Lance Bot­toms’ pro­pos­al to use $5 mil­lion in fed­er­al funds from the Amer­i­can Res­cue Plan to expand com­mu­ni­ty-based vio­lence inter­ven­tions in the city. 

Build­ing Con­nec­tions and Gain­ing Sup­port for Gun Vio­lence Pre­ven­tion Strategies

As the report details, local lead­ers and fun­ders in both cities facil­i­tat­ed robust process­es for res­i­dent input before launch­ing poli­cies to reduce gun vio­lence, which was vital to build­ing trust in communities. 

For instance, the com­mu­ni­ty process to devel­op Milwaukee’s Blue­print for Peace — its plan to imple­ment com­mu­ni­ty-based vio­lence inter­ven­tions and oth­er pro­grams — helped the city build a move­ment and raised the pro­file of gun vio­lence as a pub­lic health issue across the city, says Reg­gie Moore, who served as direc­tor of the city’s Office of Vio­lence Pre­ven­tion from 2016 to April 2021

Instead of peo­ple see­ing vio­lence as an unsolv­able issue we could do noth­ing about, it became under­stood that it is a sys­temic, learned behav­ior, for which new approach­es can have an impact,” Moore says. It has inspired hope.”

In Atlanta, NPU‑V lead­ers and non­prof­its appre­ci­at­ed how fun­ders facil­i­tat­ed a com­mu­ni­ty-led process to launch vio­lence inter­ven­tions, says Alfred Gar­ner, who leads safe­ty efforts that serve NPU‑V for CHRIS 180, a local nonprofit.

The Casey Foun­da­tion didn’t come in with a plan and say, This is what we’re going to do in your com­mu­ni­ty,’” Gar­ner says. Instead, they asked, What do you want to see hap­pen in terms of safe­ty in this com­mu­ni­ty? How can we address gun vio­lence? How can we help address trau­ma?’ All these ques­tions and answers came out of a group of elders, com­mu­ni­ty lead­ers and oth­er stakeholders.”

Lessons on Gun Vio­lence Reduc­tion for Communities

The report’s lessons for fun­ders and local offi­cials who are inter­est­ed in imple­ment­ing and sup­port­ing com­mu­ni­ty-based vio­lence inter­ven­tions include: 

  • Engage local com­mu­ni­ty lead­ers and res­i­dents ear­ly and often to ensure local buy-in and com­mu­ni­ty own­er­ship of cho­sen gun vio­lence pre­ven­tion strategies.
  • Build trust and rela­tion­ships. Patience with the process and build­ing rela­tion­ships helps ensure solu­tions have strong roots that will grow. Pro­vid­ing for adapt­abil­i­ty and eval­u­a­tion of what does and does not work can build more effec­tive and more sus­tain­able strategies. 
  • Ensure that part­ners are will­ing to ded­i­cate sig­nif­i­cant time and resources to shift to com­mu­ni­ty-dri­ven, pre­ven­tion-focused approach­es from more tra­di­tion­al law enforce­ment and puni­tive mea­sures that are deeply ingrained and heav­i­ly resourced.
  • Pro­vide res­i­dents with oppor­tu­ni­ties to learn from peers in oth­er loca­tions who have suc­cess­ful­ly imple­ment­ed pre­ven­tion solutions.

Address­ing Gun Vio­lence to Spur Com­mu­ni­ty Change and Pro­mote Equity

Safe­ty is vital to build­ing healthy, thriv­ing com­mu­ni­ties in Atlanta, Mil­wau­kee and com­mu­ni­ties across the nation. When peo­ple feel safe, they are more like­ly to trust pub­lic sys­tems and access need­ed ser­vices, engage and advo­cate on behalf of their neigh­bor­hoods and pur­sue life and career goals. 

Address­ing vio­lence is also key to build­ing racial equi­ty. Gun vio­lence does not affect every­one equal­ly, includ­ing in Atlanta and Mil­wau­kee. Mir­ror­ing nation­al trends, more than 80% of homi­cide vic­tims in both cities in 2020 were Black males, many of them youth and young adults. 

It’s impos­si­ble for com­mu­ni­ties of col­or to thrive when they are not safe,” Hiers says. Com­mu­ni­ty-based vio­lence inter­ven­tions offer a proven path that does not focus on puni­tive mea­sures or cre­ate inter­ac­tions with the crim­i­nal-jus­tice sys­tem. We hope that fun­ders and pub­lic sys­tems begin to acknowl­edge these pro­grams’ effec­tive­ness and join us in sup­port­ing them.” 

Down­load the report

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