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August 09, 2023

Can new efforts help reduce gun violence?

Assistant District Attorney Amber Goodwin of Austin, Texas, promised her audience at the 2023 ABA Annual Meeting in Denver that she would get to the good news, but first she reported some devastating facts about gun violence in America:

  • 100,000-plus people are killed or injured every year
  • Since 2019, homicides have increased 35%
  • Gun violence is the No. 1 cause of death for all youth and Black men
  • Gun violence costs our economy $557 billion each year.

Then she detailed what was behind the violence:

  • The cycle of trauma, including injury or loss from violence, exposure to gun violence, family and peers impacted by violence and low homicide closure rates
  • The increased risk factors, including access to firearms, broken family or social support, the failing criminal justice system and lack of access to mental and health supports
  • The root causes, including poor living conditions, lack of economic opportunity, education disparities, mass incarceration and poor overall wellness.

Finally, as promised, Goodwin, who was a panelist on the Aug. 5 program, “Gun Safety Policy in 2023: Where Does It Stand and Where is It Going?” spoke about new approaches to tackling gun violence that show promise. She called them “a public health approach to a public health crisis.”

Austin is taking a three-pronged approach to ending gun violence in the community by working to break the cycle of violence through intervention; combat the risk factors; and address the root causes.

Each of the panelists stressed the importance of using evidence-based violence prevention models.

“We’ve become really good at incarcerating people,” said Judge Juan G. Hoyos of the 4th Judicial District Court of Minnesota, but he cited a promising alternative sentencing option for individuals convicted of misdemeanor weapons offenses in Minneapolis called Pathways to a New Beginning, which started in May 2017.

The program’s goal is to reduce recidivism by addressing the risk factors and needs of individuals who are carrying unlicensed weapons by offering needs-based, trauma-informed programming through a community-based provider.

To be eligible for the program, a person needs to have been charged with a gross misdemeanor weapons offense; have no prior gun convictions; no prior violent felony convictions or crimes of violence; no prior convictions for a nonviolent felony offense within the last five years; no prior domestic assault or domestic assault-related convictions; no prior non-domestic assault convictions within the past five years; and not currently on any form of active supervised probation.

After a diagnostic and risk assessment, an individualized service plan takes a cognitive behavioral approach designed to alter thinking patterns to bring about change in a person’s life.

Some of the topics addressed in the plan might include difficulty of admitting to problem behavior; denial and resistance to change; identifying issues and thinking that lead to crime; and understanding the effects of crime to one’s family, community and oneself.

The model includes elements of managing strong emotions and is designed to assist participants in making rational decisions as they are presented with various situations in their daily lives.

In addition, the program helps identify trauma symptoms, decrease negative thoughts and develop healthy coping skills with a focus on re-establishing safety and empowerment of the participants.

After one year of completing the program, qualifying graduates can request that records associated with their offense be expunged.

Hoyos said that the results have been “exceptional.”

Illinois Attorney General Kwame Raoul said he’s often asked what citizens can do to help reduce gun violence. His response? “Get to know the shooter.” He said shooters didn’t come out of the womb with a gun, so how can we disrupt the cycle? Raoul lauded the efforts of Chicago Cred, which offers “wraparound services” to bring about change.

Other programs showing evidence-based outcomes cited by the panel include:

Safe Streets in Baltimore, which mediated more than 2,300 conflicts in 2020, and in June 2021, the Cherry Hill neighborhood celebrated more than one year without a homicide.

READI Chicago has found that men who participated in the program have 79% fewer arrests for shootings and homicides.

Stephen Cobb of Cozen O’Connor in Washington, D.C., moderated the program, which was sponsored by the ABA Section of State & Local Government Law and co-sponsored by the ABA Standing Committee on Gun Violence.