In Dallas last week, President Obama spoke movingly of the five officers killed after a protest. The president spoke beautifully of these officers’ acts of service, charity and good will, and he honored how they bravely placed themselves between a gunman and the people who had come to defend their constitutional rights.
Then, while discussing the increased burdens placed upon officers by our society, the president said that in some neighborhoods, it is easier for a teenager to buy a Glock than a book.
That line was uttered in the context of the burdens facing police, but many of the officers watching were taken aback: Although we had lost five brothers, Texas law enforcement had never blamed the gun.
Obama was making an unmistakable reference to the gun-control agenda he has passionately advocated since the horrors at Sandy Hook. Cops, such as Dallas Police Department Chief David O. Brown, recognize America’s serious gun-violence problem.
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But many of the Dallas-area cops I know felt that the line foreshadowed a renewed push of efforts to restrict assault rifles – this time, in the names of our fallen brothers.
And the political morass created every time such measures are put forth has not improved anything. Again and again, calls to increase restrictions on assault rifles and magazines get nowhere, despite bipartisan agreement on what I believe is the most important thing: We all want to reduce gun violence.
We need to think of different ways to accomplish that goal.
I and many of my fellow officers believe reducing the oppressive levels of daily gun violence that plague American cities is possible without even raising the question of new gun-control legislation.
Only recently, Richmond had among America’s highest per capita rates of gun violence. In 2009, there were 47 homicides among 100,000 residents. Officials there theorized that a few bad actors caused most of the problem. As it turned out, 70 percent of their gun violence in 2008 was caused by fewer than 1 percent of the city’s residents. This isn’t unique: in Cincinnati, less than 1 percent of the city’s population was responsible for 74 percent of homicides in 2007.
Richmond developed an innovative, controversial program: It identified the 50 people most likely to shoot someone and engaged with them, even paying them to participate.
The city provided career help, training, résumé writing and health care. It asked people what they feared and helped them create plans to mitigate those fears.
Critics called it “paying gang members not to shoot people.” It was more than that. And it worked.
From 2007 to 2012, the city experienced a 61 percent reduction in homicides. It turned out that the money was nowhere near as important as people had thought – people still show up to the meetings even though no one is paying them anymore. The interventions steered potential killers onto a better path.
“We don’t ask them to turn in their guns,” Devone Boggan, the neighborhood safety director of Richmond’s Office of Neighborhood Safety, told me. “Considering we aren’t negotiating the war zones they do daily, it would reek of privilege for us to make that request.”
The program aims to teach participants that they don’t have to settle their conflicts with guns. Boggan says the process has repeatedly demonstrated that most put their guns down themselves.
Through data-driven decision-making, public-private partnerships and other new methods, the program is expanding. Cities around the United States have taken note. Toledo, Ohio; Washington, D.C.; and several cities in California are considering the model.
These programs successfully save the lives of young black men by reducing gun violence. And none of them depends on passing new gun laws.
Americans need to think beyond guns, and to confront the underlying social and economic problems that cause gun violence. Programs like these are proving it is possible to significantly reduce gun deaths without new gun-control measures – and without breaking the bank.
Regardless of politics, I believe all Americans – from NRA lifetime members to Mayors Against Illegal Guns – truly want to reduce the number of people killed every year by guns. So we should consider programs that are much easier for elected officials to pass, and have a much higher chance of success.
We owe at least that to our children, and to the officers killed and wounded in Dallas.
Nick Selby is a Texas police detective and the lead author of “In Context: Understanding Police Killings of Unarmed Civilians.” He wrote this for The Washington Post.