Ending Gun Violence Requires Long-Term Investments in People and Communities

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Quansay L. Markham (17 years old), Jonathon McPherson (17), Jadeen Moore (19), Acarrie Ingram-Triner (19), and Jordan Atwater-Lewis (17) are among the people who were shot and killed in Champaign-Urbana in 2021. Are there things we could have done as a community to save their lives?

Champaign’s sharp rise in firearm shootings is consistent with the national gun violence epidemic. And, like other communities across the country, Champaign is scrambling to find solutions to this public health concern. Many of these solutions focus on the symptoms of the problem and thus rely on deterrence, and not on the structural issues or the root causes of the problem. If we are ever going to end gun violence, we must make long-term investments in the people and communities most impacted by gun violence.

According to the Gun Violence Archive database, between 2019 and 2021, the U.S. witnessed a 13 percent increase in gun-related deaths. This includes a 66 percent increase in deaths from mass shootings. During this same period, firearm homicides in the city of Champaign went from 2 to an all-time high of 16, a 700% increase. And while mass shootings are not an immediate concern in Champaign, the number of shooting victims has nearly doubled in the last two years (34 shooting victims in 2019 vs. 67 in 2021).

After six years of grappling with the questions of how best to deal with gun violence in our local community, the Champaign City Council provisionally passed a comprehensive Community Gun Violence Reduction Blueprint in December 2021. The city has moved from primarily focusing on strategies targeting people “at risk” for engaging in gun violence to incorporating more community and social service interventions providing healing for those impacted by gun violence.

We applaud the three broad goals outlined in the Blueprint: prevention/reduction of gun violence; community engagement and support; and data-driven decision making. Implementing data-supported interventions in these areas will begin to chip away at the issue. However, more is needed to ensure that our city is doing everything it can to address the root causes of gun violence.

We disagree with gun violence experts such as crime researcher Thomas Abt, whose main recommendations focus on police interventions targeting individuals and groups at the highest risk for violence. Although the solutions may be “evidence-based,” they fail to engage the root causes of the violence.

The Educational Fund to Stop Gun Violence—a nonprofit organization committed to identifying evidence-based solutions to what seems like an intractable social problem—isolated several core sources of gun violence. Among them are income inequality, poverty, underfunded public housing, under-resourced public services, underperforming schools, hopelessness about the future, and easy access to firearms.

All of the data points to a link between racialized poverty and gun violence. A report from Everytown Research & Policy notes that Black Americans are disproportionately impacted by gun violence, especially those living in poor and under-resourced communities. Consistent with this national trend, the statistics reported in the Blueprint indicate that firearm-related deaths and shots fired occur in Champaign neighborhoods with the highest concentration of poverty and Black American residents.

We need investments in people and communities that have been systematically exploited and disinvested in through a long history of anti-Black institutional racism. Better policing will not change the conditions that create the inequalities which breed the violence and traumatize communities of loving families and hard-working adults. Thus, multiyear anti-racism and anti-poverty initiatives are necessary to create lasting changes beyond one or two years.

We urge the city to implement initiatives to eradicate racialized poverty, such as creating jobs that pay a living wage, and expand access to affordable, quality housing.

Markham, McPherson, Moore, Ingram-Triner, and Atwater-Lewis are among the growing number of teenagers killed by gun violence. More children and teenagers die from gunshot wounds than from cancer, asthma, and opioids combined, according to the chapter on gun violence in the Children’s Defense Fund’s The State of America’s Children report.

In addition to specific larger anti-racism and poverty programs, what seems to be missing in discussions of the solutions to gun violence are the voices of Black youth. Although the Blueprint features investments in youth development including expanding Goal Getters in Champaign Unit 4 schools as well as education and mentoring programs such as DREAAM, the document does not include what youth would like the community to invest in.

Between 2017 and 2020, we worked with a small group of Black teens aged 13 to 17 on a youth participatory action research project called #PowerUp. #PowerUp was cultivated in partnership with a local after-school program to engage youth in social issues in their community and to find ways to contribute to the health and development of those communities, using a youth-centered approach. The teens identified gun violence as the top concern they wanted to study.

The student researchers engaged in discussions about gun violence and the structural issues or root causes of gun violence in their community, which included talking to community members and police representatives to deepen their learning, and they completed a photovoice research project. The latter included an analysis of photos they took during visits to four neighborhoods identified as having higher rates of shots fired.

Most of the teens were familiar with at least one of the neighborhoods we visited. During the visits they observed indicators of poverty (broken windows, trash, and general blight) and they shared stories of positive things that happen in neighborhoods like these—block parties with food, music, and laughter.

The teens were clear on what is needed to address gun violence in local neighborhoods. #PowerUp researchers recommended implementing programs accessible to a wide range of teenage youth. They asserted that community violence is connected to the lack of teen-centered institutions and activities. They specifically called for more teen-centered gymnasiums and work training/internship programs that lead to well-paying jobs. Such programs would provide (a) alternatives to “bad things” and (b) an outlet to express their emotions.

The #PowerUp researchers also concluded initiatives were needed that build a sense of community within neighborhoods with significant numbers of African Americans. This could entail the creation of teen-centered community spaces that serve the social, emotional, and mental well-being of teens. They asked for intergenerational discussions that engage teens and adults in conversations about how to address issues within the community, and more community gatherings to enhance collective care and connection, like CU Days, the annual weekend event held at Douglass Park.

The teens shared their findings at two national psychology conferences and to Champaign’s Community Coalition’s Community Violence Response Task Force before the COVID-19 pandemic. The #PowerUp researchers ended their presentation at the Coalition meeting in early 2020 with a call for a Teen Summit. This multiday event would provide youth an opportunity to connect with others, learn about employment and recreational opportunities within the community, consult with educators who could provide insight on school applications, engage in fun activities, and help the city think through solutions to the complexities of gun violence and the trauma it has wreaked on many youths and their families.

Gun violence is complex, but not intractable. City-wide economic development policies targeting the people most impacted by gun violence are needed to address the root of the problem. Teen researchers also remind us that long-term institutional changes that center youth voices and their development are also needed. This includes building more spaces that foster teens’ physical, social, and mental health and cultivate stronger communities in which teens are nurtured.

Helen A. Neville is a professor of Educational Psychology and African American Studies at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

Dr. Nick Grant is a post-doctoral fellow at Yale University and recently received his Ph.D in clinical-community psychology at the University of Illinois-at Urbana-Champaign.

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