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What Democrats can (realistically) do about gun violence

Gun control is likely doomed in the Senate. But there are other options.

President Joe Biden meets with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi at the White House on February 5, 2021.
Stefani Reynolds/Getty Images

This week, Democrats in the House voted for gun control bills — specifically, to expand background checks. But the legislation is doomed in the Senate, where the proposal will not get 10 Republican votes to overcome the filibuster, and perhaps not even all 50 Democratic votes needed for a simple majority.

That doesn’t mean President Joe Biden and Democrats have no hope of acting on gun violence. It does mean, though, thinking beyond gun control.

“Gun violence follows violence,” Phil Cook, a Duke University researcher who has studied gun violence for years, told me. “Any intervention that can reduce violence rates will take gun violence with it.”

It’s an especially important issue today. On top of the gun violence that’s endemic to the US, last year saw a nationwide spike in homicides and shootings, at least in major cities.

There are some evidence-based approaches policymakers could take:

1) Improve the physical spaces that people live around. In many US towns and cities, there are vacant or blighted lots. But what if these neglected spaces were cleaned, greened, and maintained?

A 2018 randomized controlled trial in PNAS found that doing this in Philadelphia reduced crime, violence, and fears of both — without displacing these problems to neighboring communities. The effects were at times huge: Gun assaults decreased by more than 29 percent in impoverished neighborhoods with restored lots.

Before and after photos of once-vacant lots during the PNAS study in Philadelphia.
Before and after photos of once-vacant lots during the PNAS study in Philadelphia.

Experts have several possible theories for why this works, from getting more people in the area (most shooters don’t want to commit crimes around witnesses) to removing a space where would-be shooters could stash guns. Whatever the explanation, it’s a promising approach.

2) Make young hands less idle. A disproportionate amount of gun violence is committed by young people, especially boys and men. One way to stop that is by occupying boys and young men with other things, like school or work.

There’s good evidence for this. A recent study published by the National Bureau of Economic Research found that New York City youth placed into summer job programs through a lottery were less likely to get caught in crimes, particularly youth with previous interaction with the criminal justice system. Another study, published in the American Economic Journal, found that keeping kids in school longer — by, say, raising the age or grade to legally drop out — likely cuts down on criminal activity.

3) Addressing drug misuse. Drugs, including (and particularly) alcohol, can contribute to violent crime, whether it’s by inhibiting people’s judgment, leading them to commit crimes to obtain money for drugs, or fueling illegal drug markets.

A 2020 report from the John Jay College of Criminal Justice highlighted several areas where policymakers could act to reduce problems with drugs. They could limit alcohol sales at a given time or place. They could raise the alcohol tax (though that would be politically contentious). They could support evidence-based addiction treatment, perhaps through public health programs like Medicaid. Overall, the idea is to limit both supply and demand.

All of the approaches above could fit into the “Build Back Better” infrastructure bill that Democrats are working on — whether as explicit infrastructure projects (in the case of greening vacant lots) or through incentives for localities or states to adopt certain policies (like discouraging zoning laws that allow excessive alcohol outlets in an area).

These are just some examples of what lawmakers could do. It doesn’t include ideas about policing; although these have some solid evidence behind them, anything that spends more on police departments is likely just as contentious as gun control.

The point is: There are many ways to act on gun violence beyond the policy solutions that typically get a lot of media attention. Whether Democrats take up those alternatives remains to be seen.