By Kelly Sampson, Brady Counsel, Constitutional Litigation, Legal Alliance and Racial Justice; and Gregory Jackson Jr., gun violence survivor, Anacostia resident, and National Advocacy Director for the Community Justice Action Fund
“Sober people look both ways at the beginning of a new year, surveying the errors of the past, and providing against the possible errors of the future.” — Frederick Douglas
2020 is barely two weeks old, but is already proving to be an eventful year for D.C. — and that’s after a record-breaking 2019. Pardon the understatement, but the city and region had an eventful year. The longest government shutdown of all time, the #dontmutedc campaign, and titles for the Mystics and the Nats — all happened last year. While year-end retrospectives aren’t short on federal drama, championship parades, and Go-go beats, 2019’s most urgent story might be homicide’s steady and merciless toll on the city. Last year, D.C. suffered 167 homicides, the highest in over a decade, and recovered 115 ‘ghost guns’, the highest number recorded in the city.
2019’s homicide rate is bad in isolation, and even more troubling in context. It comes after D.C.’s homicide rate had already risen 40% between 2017 and 2018. All together, homicide claimed 327 lives between 2018 and 2019. That’s about equivalent to a plane crash a year. This is not okay.
We’re a little over two weeks into 2020 and already we’ve seen multiple homicides.
So, how can 2020 be different?
First, we have to identify the problem. Homicide can involve many things. In D.C. it almost always involves guns. In 2019, for example, 80% of all D.C. homicide victims were shot. Similarly, 78% of all D.C. homicide victims were shot in 2018. Even in 2012, which had a relatively “low” 88 homicides, gun violence caused 65% of them. There is no denying it; guns drive up homicide rates. As researcher Thomas Abt found, “[o]ver 30 peer-reviewed studies confirm that higher rates of firearm possession are associated with an increased risk for violence and homicide; studies that say otherwise have been debunked.” (emphasis added).
That naturally raises the question — how, then, can D.C. save its residents? The short answer is: it depends and it’s complicated. Gun homicide and gun violence are complex issues that need comprehensive solutions. But, we do know where to start. While it’s not exhaustive, we know that funding, promoting, and supporting community-based intervention programs, along with keeping illegal guns off the streets and investing in the most impacted communities, can prevent gun violence and create safer communities for us all. Prevention, of course, isn’t a polite way of saying “over-incarcerate,” it’s rather a call to address gun violence’s root causes while stopping its tools from entering the community.
1. Fund, promote, and support community-based intervention programs.
Like resources, infrastructure, and opportunity, gun homicide is not evenly distributed across D.C. Wards 7 and 8, for example, suffered 84 gun homicides in 2019 — more than all the other Wards combined. In particular, majority-Black Ward 8, where 31% of families live below the poverty level, had 51 gun homicides. In contrast, majority-White Ward 3, where just 1.71% of families live below the poverty level, only had one. 2018 was no different; Wards 7 and 8 suffered 85 gun homicides, but Wards 3 and 2 had none. Pick a year and you’ll likely find the same pattern: poorer, minority neighborhoods bearing the brunt of D.C.’s gun homicide rate. Now, just to be clear, the gun violence plaguing the city’s poor, Black and Brown neighborhoods does not in any way mean that those residents are inherently violence-prone. That malicious stereotype allows people to wash their hands of an uncomfortable truth; “high rates of violence in poor communities of color come not from deficiencies in culture or values but from long legacies of racial persecution that have resulted in concentrated poverty and disadvantage.”
Adding insult to injury, violence hits already distressed areas with even more loss. Along with the obvious physical damage, gun homicide also hurts mental health, academic attainment, economic prospects, social networks, family unites, police/community relations, and reputation. In so many cases, a lethal bullet is the last link in a chain of disadvantage, trauma, and indifference. So an effective prevention strategy has to break the chain. For that reason, the City and concerned residents can prevent gun homicide by funding, supporting, and promoting community-based prevention programs such as the Far Southeast Family Strengthening Collaborative, Training Grounds, Alliance of Concerned Men, Four LLC, and the Traron Center to name just a few of the local organizations working to prevent gun violence through addressing directly impacted communities.
2. Prevent Crime Guns
City officials rightly say that illegal guns — or crime guns—are a major contributing factor to rising homicide. D.C. Police Chief Peter Newsham, for instance, noted, “[o]ur primary focus on crime has always been and will continue to be removing illegal firearms from our neighborhoods.” Removing illegal guns from neighborhoods is definitely good; keeping them from getting there in the first place is even better. After all, guns don’t grow on trees. They come from somewhere — usually a federally licensed firearms dealer (FFL). So, one way to reduce gun homicide in D.C., is to reform “crime gun” suppliers, or shut them down if they refuse to adopt safer practices. A crime gun is a gun recovered by law enforcement that may have been used in a crime, or the possession of the gun itself may have been a crime. Just a small minority of FFLs supply crime guns. Indeed, about 5% of gun dealers are responsible for about 90% of recovered crime guns.; 86% of dealers do not have even a single crime gun derived from their business in a given year. Yet, this small percentage of gun dealers are allowed to continue selling guns to the public.
D.C. is working with Maryland and Virginia to help reduce the number of illegal guns traveling between their jurisdictions. But this problem goes well beyond the Potomac’s banks. Nationally, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) inspects only 8% of federal firearms licensees (FFLs) a year. From October 2017 to October 2017, the ATF cited nearly 6,000 for violations of law, yet revoked the licenses of less than 1% of them. Reducing the number of crime guns flowing into D.C. keeps them out of our communities. It keeps them out of the hands of those who would misuse them or who cannot responsibly own them. In short, it keeps us safer. So that the public knows who these bad actors are, D.C. should publicize aggregate gun trace data that shows the dealers from which guns recovered in Washington originate. D.C. should encourage surrounding jurisdictions to push gun dealer codes of conduct, requiring the firearms industry to adopt the safest business practices.
3. Invest in Neighborhoods Most Impacted by Violence
The same neighborhoods suffering the most intense violence are the same ones suffering from ailing infrastructure, beleaguered schools, inadequate medical services, and insecure housing. These trying conditions naturally create heightened stress in areas already suffering from violence. As researchers Achim Wolf, Ron Gray and Seena Fazel found, addressing economic inequality, social cohesion, and discrimination can reduce violence.
D.C.’s problems do not occur in a vacuum. Just as illegal guns move between Maryland, Virginia and D.C., they also move up and down the East Coast and across the country. Indeed, Mayor Bowser called on Virginia’s new Democratic majority to support the city’s efforts to prevent homicide, by passing effective gun laws. Virginia is a key source for D.C.’s crime guns.
Because guns flow across the country, local measures alone are not enough. We need federal action. And yet, D.C. has no real voice in federal policy-making. Not only do D.C.’s 700,000 residents lack voting Congressional representation, but the city’s self-governance is subject to a level of Congressional oversight and scrutiny that often turns into political grandstanding.
While D.C. demands statehood and equal representation, politicians from other states in the U.S. House of Representatives and U.S. Senate have turned D.C.’s gun safety laws into political poker chips. Congress routinely ignores D.C.’s right to home rule by adding amendments into federal laws that invalidate D.C. laws, including gun safety laws. The supposed right to self-governance is a bedrock of American democracy. For the 167 people killed in D.C last year, it’s too late to protect that right, but we must keep fighting, because our city is less safe when we cannot fully determine and fund our own public safety laws.
But, when that progress isn’t even across the whole city, when violence disproportionately affects minority and lower-income neighborhoods, and, when gun violence continues to traumatize our children and our communities we cannot be complacent. We can’t merely accept progress, we must demand solutions.
Maybe a new year is a good time to start doing so.