Treating America’s Gun Violence Epidemic

A troubling fact to consider: firearm homicide is the leading cause of death for African Americans age 1-44. Even though African Americans make up about 13% of the U.S. population, this group is affected by over 54% of all firearm homicides. These statistics clearly show a racial disparity in terms of violence and public safety in our country.

English: Walther PPQ firearm

English: Walther PPQ firearm (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

For years, the government and social science field have focused on two seemingly ineffective methods to reduce gun violence:

  • Reactionary punishment measures, e.g., throwing people in prison
  • Programs that focus on fixing schools, homes, poverty, and family systems in an indirect effort to prevent future violence

Dr. Gary Slutkin, the Founder and Executive Director of the nonprofit Cure Violence, applied his knowledge from fighting international epidemic diseases such as cholera, HIV/AIDS and tuberculosis to explain why these methods are not working and offer a new approach. In his TED Talk, Dr. Slutkin explained that punishment is not a main driver of behavior change, and successful preventive programs should focus on changing specific external factors rather than treating “everything on earth.”

After looking at maps and data for gun violence, Dr. Slutkin concluded that homicides are similar to infectious diseases in that they are clustered geographically, occur in waves, and the greatest predictor for new cases are preceding cases within the observed community. From these observations, he proposed that the steps to reduce gun violence should follow the same principles that are used to reverse disease epidemics:

  1. Interrupt transmission
  2. Prevent future spread
  3. Shift the norms

The nonprofit Cure Violence applied these principles in their programs, hiring violence interrupters from within the community to interrupt and prevent violence, incorporating outreach workers to prevent future spread by giving affected community members six months of ‘therapy,’ and implementing community activities and public education to shift the norms.

The U.S. Department of Justice, Center for Disease Control, and Johns Hopkins have commissioned studies replicating this approach in 11 communities. So far, 16% of shootings and 34% of killings have been directly reduced as result of this program, and communities where the program is implemented have experienced an overall 41% reduction in shootings and 73% killings as a result of gun violence.

This new approach could ultimately signify a shift in the way that gun violence is prevented throughout the country, and therefore reduce the number of African Americans and other racial/ethnic groups who are injured or killed every year.

What do you think about this strategy of treating gun violence like an infectious disease? Please comment below and let us know.

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I have extensive experience coordinating communications and outreach initiatives focused on health and social issues. In my current position as Project Specialist, I provide communications technical assistance to regional and federal efforts within the National Partnership for Action initiative, with support from the Office of Minority Health. I am a former Peace Corps volunteer who worked on health and social affairs projects in the Federated States of Micronesia. Read more.