Interruptors to violence
According to research, in the United States, young Black males are disproportionately affected by gun violence. Marla Davis Bellamy, Director of Philadelphia CEASEFIRE, a Philadelphia based Community Violence Intervention program, explains how her organization works to help prevent gun violence among young Black men who are engaged in violent activity within their local communities.
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Community-driven Gun Violence solutions
“I was shot three times at the same time when I was about 17-years-old … And that day, I was supposed to be paralyzed. My left arm is still messed up to this day from being shot. I wanted to make sure I protect my life, and I wasn't gonna let anybody else shoot me ever again,” Damarr Dabney, Philadelphia CeaseFire supervisor for outreach workers, said. “And I was 17 at the time, you know, so my mindset was revenge at first. That's a lot of stuff that's going on with gun violence now. It’s a lot of revenge.”
Each day, 329 people in the United States are injured by firearm violence says Penn Medicine News. Whether it is injury or death, with every passing day, gun violence in the United States is claiming more lives and shattering families and communities. From mass shootings to more localized incidents, suicides, and the desire for revenge that can be equally as dangerous as substance addiction, the impact of firearms on American society continues to be a pressing concern and has become a public health epidemic.
Black men, age 15-34 are more likely to be affected by gun violence according to a study by The Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Violence Solutions. Gun violence is a public health issue that has been caused by a number of factors, three of the most significant being housing policies in low-income communities, lack of investment in public infrastructure, and easy access to firearms.
“I was a victim of gun violence myself,” Brandon Flood, deputy director of government affairs for CeaseFire PA, said. “So, I fall into that category [black men 15- 34 who are more likely to be affected by gun violence]. I was 22. Gun violence comes in many different forms, community violence is one area, suicide is one area, mass shootings is another.”
“Certainly from a public health standpoint, we talk about learned behavior, but also poverty, lack of employment, a number of issues in terms of incarceration rate for this population, are definitely contributing factors,” Marla Bellamy, director of Philadelphia CeaseFire, said.
CeaseFire PA is an organization started in 2002 that works to prevent gun violence in Pennsylvania by advocating for prevention legislation. While collaborating with communities and individuals who have been affected by gun violence in Pennsylvania, they hold politicians accountable for the decisions they make while in office to ensure every person in Pennsylvania can live safely. Some of their successes include helping to expand background checks for gun owners, Act 79 which helps take away firearms from abusers, and raising millions of dollars for violence prevention across Pennsylvania.
Philadelphia CeaseFire is a part of that violence prevention. This community violence intervention program, CVI, has been successfully reducing the cycle of violence in communities throughout the 22nd and 39th police districts of Philadelphia through the Cure Violence Global model. Philadelphia CeaseFire started in 2011. Within the first two years of its operation, the program contributed to a reduction in gun violence from 188 to 126 people. This program works based on the Cure Violence model and outreach workers known as credible messengers who recruit high-risk individuals and focus on home visits, as well as phone calls to help mediate violence. Community is the biggest part of CVI programs.
Philadelphia CeaseFire has credible messengers and outreach workers who work directly with nearly 15 individuals to help them through the cure violence model. Damarr Dabney is the outreach worker supervisor for Philadelphia CeaseFire.
Philadelphia CeaseFire’s approach starts with identifying an individual in need through outreach, referrals, or that person seeking out CeaseFire for help. Then credible messengers work with these individuals who can range in age from 17- 26 to have weekly phone calls, home visits, and be reliable people that they can count on for help. The main goal of credible messengers is to build trust with those affected.
“We want the people [in the community] to get them to come out and get hands-on … we need the community. They say it takes a village, you know, to raise a child, these are kids out here … and we need the village to wake up and we need the village to get on board. CeaseFire provides an opportunity to become a village with us because we want to attack it together. It's not just a one-man band,” Dabney said.
Cure Violence Global initiatives use evidence-based strategies to help prevent violence. Identifying violence and sending in “credible messengers to interrupt transmission and change community norms” around violence. In 2014 this model led to a 31 percent reduction in killings in Chicago, and in 2017 Philadelphia saw a 30 percent reduction in shootings. Also, in 2018, CVI programs in New York City that used this model saw a 63 percent reduction in shootings.
Bellamy said, “It's very much a community-driven model … people who are coming together for a common goal. One of the things that we are so concentrated on is the whole notion of coordination, engagement, and people working together … as a collective, we should work closely together to really try to address the loss of life, no matter what the causes of death.”
“When a person is first on a caseload, we got to identify what type of person he is, high risk, low risk, medium risk. We want to see the high-risk become low-risk. So we document everything, we document your goals, and we set short-term goals for you. And we accomplish those goals and we help you find the resources that you need,” Dabney said.
Gun violence disproportionately impacts communities of color due to years of systemic racial inequalities in the U.S. These communities have historically been underfunded and affected by redlining. As reported by Openscied, the lack of investment in neighborhoods over time has led to unhealthy communities where violence has become prevalent.
Redlining, a discriminatory practice of denying financial services and opportunities, including mortgages and loans, to people living in certain neighborhoods based on their race or ethnicity, has contributed to systemic disinvestment and poverty in many communities of color. This creates an environment in which gun violence is more likely to occur.
When communities are denied access to quality education, stable employment, and other resources, the conditions are such that they may turn to illegal activities to make ends meet, including gun-related crime.
Easy firearm access is another driving factor to gun violence. Amnesty International reported, “8 million new small arms and up to 15 billion rounds of ammunition” are produced every year globally. In 2020, 45,222 people in the U.S. were killed by firearms according to the CDC.
Gun laws across the U.S. are inconsistent and as a result, it is difficult to narrow down the exact numbers of guns nationwide. It is estimated that 465 million firearms have been produced in the U.S., since 1899. Thirty-three states do not require training to carry concealed firearms or permits at all. As reported by The Trace, in 2020 “emergency visits for firearm injuries were 37 percent higher than in 2019.” For children zero-14 there was a 44 percent increase. According to The Small Arms Survey, SAS, in the U.S., there are 393 million firearms, and the current population totals 326 million.
“I was around illegal guns in my early teens,” Flood said. “I think the first gun I ever purchased, I was 13, I bought a sawed-off shotgun from some older guy in my neighborhood. The prevalence of guns, the accessibility, that's part of what CeasfirePA is addressing - the issue of how accessible these guns are, especially the people who are unauthorized and shouldn't be accessing those. So I think addressing that issue of access is certainly a key point.”
Community Violence Intervention Programs, CVI, are a proven solution response when addressing the root causes of gun violence. These programs are typically run by community members to help prevent violence by offering resources to those most at risk in their community and focusing on building relationships with them.
CVI programs bring communities together to help reduce firearm violence and help support the necessary change when it comes to gun violence in high-risk communities.
“They're great tools if used properly to reduce gun violence. To meet people where they are to address some of the more underlying issues that lead to gun violence, because … it's also about some of the things that are fueling people who don't engage in criminal activity to begin with, whether it's socioeconomic status, whether that's lack of education, or lack of opportunities, or geography, you just may be in a place where employment is scarce,” Flood said.
Philadelphia CeaseFire is one of many CVI programs that use the Cure Violence approach to help their community by interrupting potentially violent situations, changing the thinking and behaviors of those most at risk, and changing the norms surrounding violence.
“We're looking for people … who know the community, know those who are deeply engaged in violent activity. We're all replicating the same [Cure Violence] model. We make 500 visits a month, three telephone calls a week, we use a community hiring panel to identify members of the community who weigh in, in terms of these individuals who are willing to serve in the capacity of credible messengers,” Bellamy said.
“Community means togetherness. Community means unity. Community means us. And once we get involved, we could do whatever together,“ Dabney said.
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Philadelphia CeaseFire is one of 200 Cure Violence sites. Marla Davis Bellamy and Damarr Dabney offer their insights on how community violence intervention programs can play a major part in curing community violence by firearms.
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