If We Can’t Change American Gun Laws, We Should Change American Gun Culture

Focusing on Violence Prevention Might Slow Gun Rights Activists’ Arms Race

If We Can’t Change American Gun Laws, We Should Change American Culture | Zocalo Public Square • Arizona State University • Smithsonian

To advance gun control, writes philosophy professor Firmin DeBrabander, Americans have to look beyond changing laws and toward changing culture, community by community. Courtesy of AP Newsroom.

The prospects for gun control laws have never been bleaker. As states and courts fall all over themselves to make guns more available, the civilian arsenal has ballooned to 400 million guns.

Twenty-eight states now have stand-your-ground laws, which allow you to shoot perceived threats out in public, on the street. Twenty-seven states have permitless carry laws, which, as the name suggests, allows you to carry a gun with no permit, and no safety training.

The Supreme Court, meanwhile, has chosen to elevate expansive gun rights. In New York State Rifle and Pistol Association, Inc v Bruen, the court overturned state restrictions, enacted by elected officials, to assert a new—and according to many, outrageous—originalist standard. The conservative justices said we must look to the period between 1791 and 1868 (when the Second and Fourteenth Amendments were ratified, respectively) to determine the constitutionality of gun regulations—a period when there were few such regulations. Following suit, a Texas judge subsequently struck down popular Red Flag Laws, which forbid domestic abusers from accessing firearms, because domestic abuse was not illegal in the salient time period.

Unsurprisingly, gun fatalities have soared by 20 percent since the pre-pandemic period, and 40 percent from a decade ago. The number of mass shootings continues to rise; there has been more than one a day in 2023.

Americans don’t want any of this. Gun control is actually popular: majorities of Americans, from both parties mind you, favor stronger restrictions, especially universal background checks. But it’s blocked by politics and the courts. The gun lobby has deftly insinuated gun rights into our culture wars, making them a proxy for conservative values. To advance the cause of gun control, we have to look elsewhere than changing the laws. Instead, we should try changing culture.

In fact, there are already successful examples of this in Community Violence Intervention. CVI programs focus on likely perpetrators of violence and aim to interrupt conflicts before they occur. By halting destructive outbursts by those most prone to violence—and by those who they may inspire in turn—CVI stops the contagion of violence. In this way, CVI programs are the best counter to gun rights supporters, who use urban violence to justify loading up on guns and loosening gun laws. If violence were rarer, it could deflate the gun rights cause.

To advance the cause of gun control, we have to look elsewhere than changing the laws. Instead, we should try changing culture.

One prominent CVI program was Boston’s Operation Ceasefire, directed by the noted criminologist David Kennedy in the mid-1990s. Kennedy organized “call-ins” with the “less than 1% of the city’s youth…responsible for more than 60% of youth homicide.” At the call-ins, police addressed the gang members, spelling out the harsh penalties that await them if they continue a life of crime, while parole officers, social workers and members of community groups explained how the youths could change their lives. They gave them information about how to get a GED, relocate their homes, and find help for drug addiction or mental health problems. Youth homicides dropped nearly 75% within a year.

Other cities—Indianapolis, Baltimore, Cincinnati, Oakland, Los Angeles—implemented their own versions of the program over the next two decades, and saw success. Yet most all lost steam in the face of recurring challenges. In Boston, Operation Ceasefire lapsed after its directors got promotions and their successors failed to coordinate the complex and broad support needed for the program to succeed.

CVI’s holistic approach requires patience, which makes it politically unappealing and unpopular. After Baltimore implemented its version of Operation Ceasefire in 1999, the newly elected mayor, Martin O’Malley, decided it was too slow. He opted for a version of Broken Windows policing, which operates on the premise that no infraction, no matter how small, should be tolerated, in order to stem a culture of lawlessness that nurtures violent crime. Police targeted loiterers and roughly removed people from high crime neighborhoods after dark. Murders fell, but this approach was not sustainable, as it gravely eroded community trust.

Baltimore’s next mayor after O’Malley, Sheila Dixon, welcomed Safe Streets, which uses another model of CVI called the Cure Violence approach that deploys “violence interrupters” to defuse brewing conflicts between individuals and groups. The interrupters hail from the communities they serve, and are often former gang members. They are paired with, or followed by, outreach workers who connect the youths with social services needed to escape lives of crime.

This model builds on the approach of Operation Ceasefire, but further separates the work of violence deterrence from policing. Violence interrupters strenuously avoid any link to police. They insert themselves amidst warring parties, especially when tensions mount. They visit hospitals after gang members are shot, to learn of plans for vengeance. Much of their work involves “meeting one on one with aggrieved individuals, hosting small group peace-keeping sessions…creating cognitive dissonance by demonstrating contradictory thinking…allowing parties to air their grievances…and buying time to let emotions cool.”

After Dixon was convicted of embezzlement and unceremoniously removed from office, the new leadership reintroduced coercive police measures, which landed the city in riots in 2015 after Freddie Gray died in police custody. But while the city’s murder rate in the city has spiked since 2015, it is markedly lower in neighborhoods where Safe Streets operates.

Police don’t care for CVI models, because they see them as resource-intensive and insufficiently punitive. CVI requires constant attention to a city’s drivers of crime, which can quickly change. Police also dismiss CVI as effective for small and targeted areas, but not for whole cities. Yet violent crime is driven by a few key actors. CVI aims to zero in on them, and nip cycles of violence in the bud.

CVI received a boost from the federal government in President Biden’s vast infrastructure bill. Baltimore was given $50 million to spend in three years on Safe Streets and violence deterrence. This is still a pittance compared to what traditional policing receives. And there is reason to worry that the time line for success is too short.

Politicians and voters are smitten with coercive policing, which reliably blows up in our faces by eroding rule of law. When police behave violently, they send the message that lawlessness is endemic to a community, so much so that it has infected the police, too.

In this way, coercive policing has much in common with the gun rights movement. They share instinctive desires to punish. And they both suggest we can simply crush wrongdoing through force. In our armed society, however, this is hard to do. Even the police increasingly find themselves outgunned.

CVI approaches change our cultural approach to violence, seeing it as something that can be prevented rather than something that necessitates an even greater show of violence in response. As a society, we will not achieve lasting order and respect for law through force—whether it’s delivered by the police or by gun owners. Violence is contagious. It prompts and incites more violence.

In a political moment in which gun control seems politically infeasible, CVI can help stem demand for firearms by those who are responsible for urban violence, and in turn, give gun-rights activists less reason to arm themselves. Still, it’s reasonable to wonder how this approach can be fully effective so long as guns remain frightfully plentiful and gun laws recklessly permissive. Gun control would make the jobs of violence interrupters much easier.


Send A Letter To the Editors

    Please tell us your thoughts. Include your name and daytime phone number, and a link to the article you’re responding to. We may edit your letter for length and clarity and publish it on our site.

    (Optional) Attach an image to your letter. Jpeg, PNG or GIF accepted, 1MB maximum.