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Cory Booker’s latest gun plan goes after urban violence

The bill focuses on the people at risk of gun violence, not the guns themselves.

Senator Cory Booker speaking from behind a podium bearing a sign that reads, “#Enough.”
Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) speaks during a news conference in the Capitol on gun control measures on June 16, 2016.
Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call via Getty Images

Mass shootings get most of the attention in the headlines, but the majority of America’s 14,000 gun homicides every year come from smaller-scale, everyday urban gun violence.

Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ), a presidential candidate, is now pushing to do something about that urban violence.

On Wednesday, Booker and Rep. Steven Horsford (D-NV) introduced the Break the Cycle of Violence Act, which would dedicate $90 million a year over 10 years to US cities to tackle urban gun violence. The funds could go to hospital-based intervention programs that try to help gunshot victims before they retaliate against their shooters or are victimized again, street “interrupters” and other outreach workers who intervene in local conflicts to prevent violence from spreading, and strategies that target, with police and other social services, the small segments of the population responsible for most urban violence.

These kinds of policy proposals don’t get as much attention as gun control in gun violence debates, but they can work — hand in hand with gun control, if policymakers embrace both — to significantly reduce urban violence.

In 2012, after years of struggling with gun violence, Oakland, California, adopted what is now known as the Oakland Ceasefire — detailed in a recent rigorous analysis published by the Giffords Law Center, an advocacy group that aims to reduce gun violence.

First, officials analyzed crime trends to see who was most at risk to commit gun violence. They found just 400 people — 0.1 percent of the city’s population — were at the highest risk at any given time and responsible for the majority of the city’s homicides.

Officials and community leaders then coordinated interventions for these people, hosting call-ins in which they brought in the people at highest risk for gun violence for a meeting with police, social services, faith leaders, and other community activists. After the call-in, local officials followed up with individual interventions as needed.

The idea was to convey a clear, direct message, something like: “We know who you are. We want the best for you, but we can’t and don’t approve of what you’re doing. We will crack down quickly and harshly if you continue down a path of violence. But if you agree to stop, we’ll give you an array of services — jobs, education, health care, and so on — to help you build a better, violence-free life.”

The result: While homicides increased overall in Baltimore, Chicago, St. Louis, and other major cities, Oakland’s homicide rate plummeted by almost 50 percent from 2012 to 2017. The homicide solve rate went from 29 percent in 2011, the year before Oakland Ceasefire began, to more than 70 percent in 2017 — perhaps a sign of increased community trust in the police, according to Giffords.

As criminal justice scholar Thomas Abt explained in his book Bleeding Out, the idea behind the strategy, called “focused deterrence,” is to focus on a small segment of the population with a mix of law enforcement and public health resources — simultaneously showing that there’s a way out of the cycle of violence but, if people don’t get out, there will be serious legal consequences. The strategy has also been credited with the “Boston miracle,” a 79 percent drop in violent crime in the city in the 1990s.

That’s just one of the several ideas that Booker and Horsford’s bill would fund, tackling the kind of gun violence that rarely grabs national headlines but disproportionately hurts poor and minority communities.

“Often when we talk about gun violence, the discussion focuses on deadly mass shootings, but in my neighborhood in Newark and urban cities across the country people are experiencing this on a daily basis,” Booker said in a statement. “The epidemic of everyday gun violence that is ravaging our urban communities has been overlooked for too long, even as many neighborhoods have gun injury rates similar to war zones.”

For Booker, the bill is part of a continuing focus on gun violence that has been a plank in his presidential campaign platform. He was among the first Democratic candidates to put out a comprehensive gun control plan. He followed that up with another plan to combat gun suicides in particular. And he’s called on Democrats to go bolder in addressing gun violence, telling me, “At a time with the levels of carnage in our country, we don’t need people who are defeatist in their thinking about what’s possible.”

For more on the policy proposals to address urban gun violence, read Vox’s explainer.

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