California gun violence needs a public health response

in short

State and local officials are still asking law enforcement to stop gun violence. Community leaders believe that gun violence should be treated as a public health crisis, and prevention strategies should include those that address social factors in areas most at risk.

Guest Comment written by

Brian Malte

Brian Malte is the executive director of the Hope and Heal Fund and a nationally recognized leader on gun violence prevention. He helped pass many of California’s most effective gun laws.

Chet P. Hewitt

Chet P. Hewitt is CEO of The Center and President and CEO of the Sierra Health Foundation.

There is an African proverb that says, “In times of crisis, the wise build bridges and the foolish build dams.” As gun violence rates soar across the country, police budgets have swelled like dams in the name of prevention and deterrence.

To reduce violence in California, research suggests we should instead invest in our communities. We need to build bridges — to job opportunities, to medical, to mental health services, to a sense of shared safety — to real gun violence prevention.

How will California react after another horrific mass shooting – this time in Monterey Park?

One person is killed by a gun every three minutes in California. And firearm injuries are the leading cause of death for youths 19 and younger in California and for youths younger than 24 nationwide.

This is a public health crisis.

While California gun homicides have increased over the past few years due to increased gun sales and decreased community connections and outreach due to COVID, this increase in violence is reversible.

Public funding of prevention, interruption and intervention efforts is critical to reducing gun violence. However, it is most effective when adopting a public health approach that integrates community expertise and leadership. This model is a proven, clear path to safety and health equity.

To its credit, California has increased public funding to address gun violence through initiatives such as the California Violence Intervention and Prevention Grant Program, or CalVIP. In 2022, the state allocated a record $156 million for the program. This funding supports critical violence reduction initiatives in the highest risk communities.

Yet CalVIP funding is controlled by the California Board of State and Community Corrections, an agency overseen by law enforcement rather than public health officials. Unfortunately, as we have seen in cities like Stockton and Sacramento, where leaders chose to sidestep the public health model, this type of discretion to law enforcement may be deeply antithetical to both best practices and the intent of prevention funding. Could

Law enforcement is primarily engaged in intervention by enforcing laws. When law enforcement is used as a deterrent force, it often involves an increase in police or probation attendance, criminalization and/or prosecution. These practices often have little to do with prevention or post-trauma response to care.

Incorporating community work within law enforcement confuses intervention and prevention. This approach ignores the social and economic drivers of gun violence, as well as the effects of street violence, interpersonal violence, and suicides. Gun violence prevention requires extraordinary expertise and an understanding that violence stems from chronic conditions of historical oppression, poverty, and racism.

Credible and trained organizations with cultural knowledge that are embedded in communities are best prepared to lead prevention efforts – in a different light. This belief and approach must extend to the agencies funding and enabling this work.

So, how do we create opportunities in communities and ensure smart funding for effective gun violence prevention?

  • Treat gun violence as a chronic issue and use a public health (social determinants of health) approach rooted in affected communities.
  • Demand reduction efforts at the state and municipal levels are led by agencies with a public health and health equity perspective.
  • Remove barriers to communities accessing public funding opportunities so that those most affected can lead the efforts.
  • Shift policies and budgets to acknowledge law enforcement is focused on investigation and prosecution tactics – not prevention.
  • Recognize that strategies to reduce violence must include prevention, intervention and aftercare, clearly defined and understood.
  • Ensure that community-based funding and gun violence prevention strategies are placed in public health rather than law enforcement (for example, Los Angeles County’s Office of Violence Prevention is part of the Department of Public Health)

These attitudes will set a powerful precedent. California will have the proper tools to lead effective, community-owned violence prevention and abatement efforts, ultimately funded at the scale of the issue.

There is no future in funding paradigms that support law enforcement responses to public health problems. Adequately funded communities have one – and it has a secure and equitable future. Californians deserve this.

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