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Everyone should ask: What more can we do to reduce gun violence?

We need to scale up violence prevention programs

Seized guns are displayed during a press conference at the Chicago Police Department headquarters, Wednesday afternoon, Oct. 28, 2020. About 9,000 guns were recovered in 2020, according to the Chicago Police Department.
Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

Over the July 4 weekend, more than 100 people in Chicago were shot and 20 were killed. In the wake of this horrific surge in gun violence, some blamed the courts, while others blamed police. Still others pointed to a variety of other causes: the pandemic, the economy, civil unrest, easy access to guns, and a demoralized police profession.

As funders of both violence prevention programs and policing reform strategies, we believe everyone in this effort should first look in the mirror and ask themselves what more they can do to reduce gun violence.

We got into this work in a big way in 2016 as Chicago was experiencing a 50 percent jump in gun violence, which some attributed to the release of the Laquan McDonald video in November 2015 showing the troubled teen murdered by a Chicago police officer. Since then, private funders have invested more than $200 million in Chicago to support community-based approaches to violence reduction as well as strategies to increase police legitimacy and other efforts to improve public safety.

Research from both the University of Chicago and Northwestern University shows violence prevention programs are promising, but we are not nearly at scale. We have watched with dismay as gun violence levels went from a high in 2016, to steady declines through 2019, only to bounce back up in 2020 and 2021.

Today, gun violence is not only costing lives and traumatizing whole neighborhoods but undermining the entire city. By some estimates, the annual direct and indirect costs of gun violence is in the neighborhood of $7 billion to $8 billion. The human cost is incalculable.

So, the question is, what more can each of us do? The funder community can and will continue to raise private dollars to both reform policing and fund violence-prevention organizations that are combing through our neighborhoods, engaging with young people at risk, and negotiating peace agreements and helping individuals heal. Thanks to their efforts, thousands of young men have put down guns and are now rebuilding their lives.

By law, we can’t advocate for specific public policies. We can, however, acknowledge our elected officials at the federal, state, county and local levels who are beginning to invest public resources to violence prevention. We hope they do even more in the coming years to take these programs to scale.

As for the programs themselves, we hope they are also asking how they can be more effective. Clearly, they are meaningfully changing the lives of individuals, but they have not yet had the community-level impact needed to really stop the violence. There is enormous need to get better faster and serve more people.

The business community could also reflect on its potential role in driving economic opportunity in high-crime neighborhoods throughout the city. Studies show that mortgage lenders lend eight times more in White neighborhoods than Black neighborhoods. When all development – public and private – is added up, Chicago spends 4.6 dollars in white neighborhoods for every dollar spent in Black neighborhoods. Perhaps, the banks, the developers, and the investment community can shift more resources into under-invested neighborhoods.

The big opportunity for reflection lies with the public sector, including the entire criminal justice system as well as education, housing, development and social service agencies that are all part of the solution. In an ideal world, they would be sitting together on an ongoing basis and finding ways to advance agreed-upon goals, including greater public safety, better educational and economic outcomes, and, in the broadest sense, justice.

Although the officer who shot Laquan McDonald 16 times is now in prison and the city has agreed to a multimillion-dollar settlement, the McDonald family did not get justice. True justice would have been if he hadn’t been shot at all. While it’s too late to bring him back, it’s not too late to change the way we all operate and begin to do things differently.

Collectively, the public sector should be asking the kinds of questions that often fall prey to politics. Are more police the answer or do we need more community investments? Are social service agencies better suited to solving many of the community challenges now left to police?How can we find new and better ways to work together?

The stakes are too high to fail. Chicago has the potential to lead not just America but also the rest of the world in building an inclusive city where everyone, no matter their background, has a path to success. Today, too many of our young men don’t have that path. The only life they know is the street. That isn’t their fault. It’s ours.

Jen Keeling is the Director of Strategic Partnerships for Chicago CRED. Tawa Mitchell is the Senior Program Officer for the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. They are also the new co-chairs of the Partnership for Safe and Peaceful Communities, a collaboration of more than 50 foundations and donors supporting public safety in Chicago.