Gun violence in California needs a public health response

In summary

National and local authorities continue to call on law enforcement to prevent gun violence. Community leaders believe gun violence should be treated as a public health crisis and incorporate prevention strategies that address social factors in areas most at risk.

Guest comment written by

Brian Malta

Brian Malte is the Executive Director of the Hope and Heal Fund and a nationally recognized leader in 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 rates of gun violence rise across the country, police budgets have grown like roadblocks in the name of prevention and disruption.

To reduce violence in California, research shows we need to invest in our communities instead. We must build bridges – to employment opportunities, to healing, to mental health services, to a sense of shared safety – for real gun violence prevention.

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

Every three minutes in California someone is killed by a gun. And firearm injuries are the leading cause of death for young Californians 19 and under and for young people under 24 nationally.

It is a public health crisis.

While firearm homicides in California have increased in recent years, fueled by increased gun sales and reduced community ties and awareness due to COVID, this increase in violence is reversible.

Public funding of prevention, interruption and response efforts is crucial to reducing armed violence. However, it is most effective when it comes to adopting a public health approach that incorporates community expertise and leadership. This model is a clear and proven path to equity in safety and health.

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 to the program. This funding supports critical violence reduction initiatives in communities most at risk.

Still, funding for CalVIP is handled by the California Board of State and Community Corrections, an agency that oversees law enforcement, rather than public health officials. Unfortunately, as we’ve seen in cities like Stockton and Sacramento where leaders have chosen to circumvent the public health model, granting law enforcement this kind of discretion can be profoundly contrary to best practice and the rule of thumb. prevention funding intent.

Law enforcement is primarily engaged in intervention by enforcing laws. When law enforcement is used as a preventive force, it often results in increased police or probation presence, criminalization and/or prosecution. These practices often have little to do with prevention or post-traumatic response.

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

Organizations that are trusted and trained, culturally knowledgeable and rooted in communities – in a different light – are best prepared to lead prevention efforts. This trust and approach must extend to the agencies funding and enabling this work.

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

  • Treat gun violence as a chronic problem and use a public health approach (social determinants of health) rooted in affected communities.
  • Demand prevention efforts at the state and municipal levels are led by organizations with a public health and health equity perspective.
  • Remove barriers that prevent communities from accessing public funding opportunities so those most affected can lead efforts.
  • Change policies and budgets to recognize that law enforcement focuses on investigative and prosecutorial tactics, not prevention.
  • Recognize that violence reduction strategies must clearly define and include prevention, intervention and follow-up.
  • Ensure that entities that facilitate community funding and gun violence prevention strategies fall under public health rather than law enforcement (for example, the Los Angeles County Office of Violence Prevention does part of the public health department)

These approaches would set a powerful precedent. California would have appropriate tools, eventually funded at the scale of the problem, to pave the way for effective community-owned violence prevention and disruption efforts.

There is no future in funding paradigms that favor law enforcement responses to public health issues. One is in adequately funding communities – and that’s a secure and equitable future. Californians deserve it.

Gun violence in California needs a public health response

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