On October 2, a marathon Democratic gun violence forum, featuring nine of the presidential candidates, was hosted by MSNBC, March for Our Lives and Giffords. Each candidate took the stage for half an hour to answer questions from gun violence survivors and advocates about their proposals.
Policies like universal background checks, a ban on assault weapons and more research on gun violence found broad agreement. But Senator Cory Booker went further than most in advocating a federal gun licensing system—part of the comprehensive gun control plan that he released in May. He criticized candidates like former Vice President Joe Biden, for not supporting this, and Representative Beto O’Rourke, for only coming around to it later. “You should not be a nominee from our party that can seriously stand in front of urban places and say, ‘I will protect you,’ if you don’t believe in gun licensing,” said Booker.
O’Rourke had the breakout gun moment of the campaign so far, when he endorsed a mandatory assault weapons buyback at the ABC presidential debate on September 12: “Hell yes, we are going to take your AR-15, your AK-47,” he said; “…we are not going to allow [them] to be used against our fellow Americans anymore.”
There were almost 40,000 gun deaths in the US in 2017, and a June Morning Consult/Politico poll found that along with climate change and abortion restrictions, gun policy is the leading issue of concern for Democratic primary voters.
But while national attention centers on recent mass shootings like those in El Paso or Dayton—or the political brouhaha within the leadership of the National Rifle Association—there is less focus on regular and increasingly normalized gun violence in cities like Baltimore or Chicago. According to the Chicago Tribune, 2,101 people had been shot (including non-fatally) in the city in 2019 up to September 29.
“The conversation about guns is absolutely necessary,” Cinaiya Stubbs, executive director of Chicago Youth Programs (CYP), told Filter. “People around the country are worried because assault weapons are proliferated in areas where they shouldn’t be. But where we miss the mark is we often don’t see the daily violence on the streets of Chicago or Detroit or Los Angeles, because we have a more narrow view of what is gun violence.”
“Gun violence begets poverty begets gun violence, and it creates a vicious cycle.”
Stubbs and her organization work to curb gun violence not through gun control advocacy, but through targeted youth intervention. CYP supports children living in or at risk of poverty, by helping them succeed in school, providing mentorship, and addressing physical or mental health concerns, among other interventions. The organization works with about 700 children each year. Its program retains many children year-after-year, for 12 years on average.
“We get to know our families quite intimately,” Stubbs said, “and what strikes us is that poverty is such a deep-seated and profound issue in their lives. Gun violence begets poverty begets gun violence, and it creates a vicious cycle.”
That is why Stubbs believes that reducing gun violence in cities like Chicago doesn’t stop at gun policy, but must include improving the social and economic well-being of young people and others at risk.
Many people vulnerable to involvement in gun violence in Chicago are also dealing with over-policing, mass incarceration, housing instability, and substance use and mental health challenges.
“We are pushing for legislation and funding for interventions we know work related to those issues,” said Stephanie Schmitz Bechteler, vice president and executive director of the Research and Policy Center of the Chicago Urban League. “What we’re seeing now is decades in the making. Communities are experiencing the cumulative stress of a lack of opportunities and resources in communities and in schools, of racial segregation and criminal justice inequities, which all contribute to the violence in different ways.”
Schmitz Bechteler stressed the endemic lack of affordable housing in cities like Chicago, which creates instability for families and larger communities. “If you have families always relocating to different areas in search of affordable housing, that creates stress for everyone,” she told Filter.
As gun violence becomes normalized in certain communities, it creates unseen trauma and despair. Stubbs estimates about 85 percent of the children in CYP’s caseload either have had a friend or family member be a victim of gun violence, or have been a victim themselves.
“Our kids aren’t going to gun shops or gun shows, they are getting them illegally.”
While Stubbs supports policy proposals like gun buybacks, she believes that gun control doesn’t address the root problems of violence in cities like hers. She noted that many guns involved in Chicago shootings aren’t obtained legally, meaning gun control cannot function in isolation from other reforms.
“Guns flow into Chicago from other places,” she said. “Our kids aren’t going to gun shops or gun shows, they are getting them illegally. Policy changes that target legal gun sellers won’t necessarily stop guns getting into the hood. Our kids tell us they can find guns easier than they can find cigarettes.”
Stubbs pointed to several other social trends that contribute to violence in Chicago. Among them is what she calls a breakdown in street gang leadership over the decades. “We all remember back in the day, there was a hierarchy and even a respect that gang leadership had to follow,” Stubbs said. “That has gone away. There is no leadership or structure, there is infighting and territorial disputes among factions.”
Christopher Moraff has described for Filter how law enforcement targeting of drug kingpins and gang leaders can lead to an uptick in violence known as the “freelancer effect.”
Another driver Stubbs cited is gender-based conflicts that often escalate through social media. “It’s honestly a fight over ‘manhood’,” she said. “There is a need for children to show that they are bigger or tougher or stronger than others, and social media is used as a tool to prod and poke each other, and invite confrontations in public.”
Reducing gun violence, then, will involve much more than simply gun licensing or buybacks. It will require comprehensively and holistically addressing the root causes of violence and despair in impacted communities. Schmitz Bechteler also believes this effort must center people from these communities, empowering them to engage in direct outreach work on their own streets.
“We should be employing folks who have lived these same experiences,” she said, “who have knowledge of what is happening in the communities and can respond in these ‘flash point’ situations before things tip over into violence. That is preventative work that cities can be funding.”
Photo courtesy of St. Louis Circuit Attorney’s Office via WikiMedia Commons.