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Opinion To reduce gun violence, D.C. must invest in communities

Guns seized by the D.C. Metropolitan Police Department are displayed at a news conference in February. (Astrid Riecken/For The Washington Post)

Kelly Sampson is the director of racial justice and senior counsel at Brady, one of the oldest gun violence prevention organizations in the country.

It has become clear that D.C. needs to take a new approach to addressing gun violence. Following a surge in homicides and a damning report that D.C.’s initiative to “crack down” on gun crimes operated in a discriminatory manner, targeting Black residents almost exclusively, it’s clear, too, that the city must adopt an approach that doesn’t harm Black and brown residents and actually prevents gun violence from occurring.

We must invest in communities where violence is concentrated to resolve conflict and prevent violence, while targeting the flow of illegal guns into the city. In short, we need to adopt the mind-set: Are we addressing the symptom or the root cause?

Gun homicides in D.C. are not evenly distributed. Although Black residents compose 46 percent of D.C.’s population, we account for 95 percent of the city’s homicide victims. In the same way, Wards 7 and 8, whose residents are predominantly Black, are disproportionately affected by gun violence. Making up only 23 percent of the D.C. population, Wards 7 and 8 account for 55 percent of the city’s total homicides for 2020. A disturbing report published last month shows that Black people in D.C. have a far lower life expectancy than their White counterparts and that homicide contributed the most to this gap for Black men ages 15 to 39.

Yet current policies misdiagnose the root causes of gun homicide and focus on perpetrators, a mind-set that has historically led policymakers to prescribe solutions, such as over-policing, that actually fuel cycles of gun violence. As noted historian Heather Ann Thompson succinctly put it: “The level of gun violence in today’s inner cities is the direct product of our criminal justice policies.”

This means that efforts to reduce gun violence in D.C. must account for underlying factors, which is not to say that the city should stop enforcing gun laws or deny Black gun violence victims justice. Protecting Black residents from violence is essential, and the city fortunately has programs and policies already in place on which it can build.

This includes investment in the communities most affected by gun violence and in community-based programs that help interrupt cycles of violence and conflict. In statements to WAMU in March, D.C. Council member Charles Allen (D-Ward 6) pointed to why this approach is necessary, stating, “Almost every case [of gun violence] is between individuals where there is some type of conflict. And so if we can find who the individual is, who is in conflict, identify the relationship that is in conflict and work to try to remove them from that situation, as well as remove the firearm for that situation.”

This anecdotal reading is backed up by decades of evidence. As the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development put it, higher rates of violent crime in predominantly Black communities “are linked to structural disparities: segregated neighborhoods also tend to be disadvantaged and lack access to community resources, institutions, and means of social control such as effective policing as well as social trust.”

D.C. is on the right path. In July, following mass protests for police reform, the D.C. Council voted to increase funding for community violence prevention programs, reallocating the funds from the police department’s budget to these needed community-based strategies.

Community activists and leaders such as the Far Southeast Family Strengthening Collaborative and the Community Justice Action Fund, among others, have called for this kind of investment for years. It’s past time to listen to those calls.

Investing in groups such as the Alliance of Concerned Men will complement law enforcement’s ongoing efforts to combat gun trafficking. While D.C. has some of the most effective gun laws in the nation, the city is awash in illegal weapons flowing from neighbors with less stringent gun laws. It’s why Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) asked the Virginia General Assembly this winter to pass needed reforms, which are now law, as the majority of guns recovered in crime scenes were historically trafficked from Virginia.

This dual-track approach of investing in communities and resolving conflict on the ground while addressing the flow of guns into the city can help D.C. address violence in our city. Most important, it does so without over-policing or penalizing the very communities most affected by violence. It looks at the causes of violence without punishing its victims.

D.C. has an incredible opportunity at the moment to take that reality to heart and drive real change that prevents violence and empowers people. That’s an investment worth making.

Read more:

Colbert I. King: Gun violence in D.C. is treated as a normal part of life. That needs to change.

Phil Mendelson: D.C. police need help in combating gun use

Colbert I. King: Washington, D.C. is drowning in a flood of illegal guns

Devin Hughes: 2020 is shattering gun violence records. We must act.