If gun laws are immutable, gun culture must change

If gun laws are immutable, gun culture must change

As states and courts fall all over themselves to make guns more available, the civilian arsenal has ballooned to 400 million guns in the US.

Twenty-eight states now have Stand your Ground laws, which allow you to shoot perceived threats out in public, on the street. Twenty-seven states have Permitless Carry, which, as the name suggests, allows you to carry a gun with no permit and no safety training.

Unsurprisingly, gun fatalities have soared by 20% since the pre-pandemic period and 40% from a decade ago.

Americans don't want any of this. Gun control is popular: majorities of Americans from both parties favour stronger restrictions, especially universal background checks. But it's blocked by politics and the courts. The gun lobby has deftly insinuated gun rights into our culture wars, making them a proxy for conservative values. To advance the cause of gun control, we have to look elsewhere than changing the laws. Instead, we should try changing culture.

In fact, there are already successful examples of this in Community Violence Intervention (CVI).

CVI programmes focus on likely perpetrators of violence and aim to interrupt conflicts before they occur. By halting destructive outbursts by those most prone to violence -- and by those whom they may inspire in turn -- CVI stops the contagion of violence.

In this way, CVI programmes are the best counter to gun rights supporters, who use urban violence to justify loading up on guns and loosening gun laws. If violence were rarer, it could deflate the gun rights cause.

One prominent CVI programme was Boston's Operation Ceasefire, directed by the noted criminologist David Kennedy in the mid-1990s. Prof Kennedy organised "call-ins" with the "less than 1% of the city's youth … responsible for more than 60% of youth homicide". At the call-ins, police addressed the gang members, spelling out the harsh penalties that await them if they continue a life of crime, while parole officers, social workers and community groups explained how the youths could change their lives. They gave them information about how to get a GED, relocate their homes, and find help for drug addiction or mental health problems. Youth homicides dropped nearly 75% within a year.

Other cities -- Indianapolis, Baltimore, Cincinnati, Oakland, Los Angeles --implemented their own versions of the programme over the next two decades, and saw success. Yet most all lost steam in the face of recurring challenges. In Boston, Operation Ceasefire lapsed after its directors got promotions and their successors failed to coordinate the complex and broad support needed for the programme to succeed.

CVI's holistic approach requires patience, which makes it politically unappealing and unpopular. After Baltimore implemented its version of Operation Ceasefire in 1999, the newly elected mayor, Martin O'Malley, decided it was too slow. He opted for a version of Broken Windows policing, which operates on the premise that no infraction, no matter how small, should be tolerated in order to stem a culture of lawlessness that nurtures violent crime. Murders fell, but this approach was not sustainable, as it gravely eroded community trust.

Baltimore's next mayor after Mr O'Malley, Sheila Dixon, welcomed Safe Streets, which uses another model of CVI called the Cure Violence approach that deploys "violence interrupters" to defuse brewing conflicts between individuals and groups. After Dixon was convicted of embezzlement and removed from office, the new leadership reintroduced coercive police measures, which landed the city in riots in 2015 after Freddie Gray died in police custody.

Police don't care for CVI models because they see them as resource-intensive and insufficiently punitive. CVI requires constant attention to a city's drivers of crime, which can quickly change. Police also dismiss CVI as effective for small and targeted areas but not for whole cities. Yet violent crime is driven by a few key actors. CVI aims to zero in on them and nip cycles of violence in the bud.

But politicians and voters are smitten with coercive policing. When police behave violently, they send the message that lawlessness is endemic to a community, so much so that it has infected the police, too.

In this way, coercive policing has much in common with the gun rights movement. They share instinctive desires to punish. And they both suggest we can simply crush wrongdoing through force. In our armed society, however, this is hard to do. Even the police increasingly find themselves outgunned.

CVI approaches change our cultural approach to violence -- making it something that can be prevented rather than something that requires violence in response. As a society, we will not achieve lasting order through force. Violence is contagious. It prompts and incites more violence. ©ZÓCALO PUBLIC SQUARE.

Firmin DeBrabander is a professor of philosophy at the Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore, and the author of 'Do Guns Make Us Free' and 'Life After Privacy'.

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