IACP 2023: Gun violence is a ‘sticky’ problem that requires focused, balanced, fair solutions
Thomas Abt presented evidence-informed strategies for reducing urban gun violence with people-, place- and behavior-based solutions
SAN DIEGO — The current state of gun violence in the United States and focused, balanced and fair strategies to reduce gun violence were presented to police chiefs at the International Association of Chiefs of Police conference by Thomas Abt, JD.
Abt, the founding director of the Center for the Study and Practice of Violence Reduction at the University of Maryland, College Park, has worked on criminal justice for more than 20 years with “one foot in practice, one foot in academia.” In his book, “Bleeding Out: The Devastating Consequences of Urban Violence - and a Bold New Plan for Peace in the Streets,” Abt reviewed more than 1,400 research articles and interviewed more than 50 victims, offenders, law enforcement officers and service providers and community leaders. This research led to three fundamental observations and three possible strategies. Those observations were:
- Community gun violence is concentrated in a small percentage of a community’s population, places and behaviors. Abt described this violence as “sticky” to the area and people and that targeted approaches to serious gun violence don’t lead to significant replacement and displacement, meaning the problem doesn’t shift to other offenders or different areas of the community.
- Community gun violence responds to rewards and punishments. Soft and tough approaches are supported by the research literature. Successful cities use both approaches to reduce gun violence. “Combine the sustainability of prevention with the immediacy of enforcement,” Abt said.
- Community violence thrives on injustice. Abt described how less fairness leads to more violence. “When folks don’t believe in the system that don’t use it,” Abt said.
Here are three memorable quotes from Abt’s presentation on the evidence-informed solutions for saving lives from gun violence.
- “Unless you stop the bleeding nothing else will matter. We need to treat the issue of community gun violence like we would a gunshot in the emergency room. If we don’t stop the bleeding, everything else is much, much harder.”
- “Gun violence is now the leading cause of death in for youth ages 1-19 in the United States. Causing more death that motor vehicle incidents and drug overdoses.”
- “(Gun violence} is highly retaliatory. There is a tit for tat and most people don’t remember how it began.”
Top takeaways on gun violence solutions
Abt’s presentation was packed with information for law enforcement leaders to develop and apply evidence-informed solutions to reduce gun violence in their communities. Here are three takeaways from Abt’s presentation for police leaders.
1. Triage gun violence as you would a gunshot
Gunshot treatment begins with triage. Similarly, gun violence reduction needs to begin with triage to understand the scope of the problem. Abt began the presentation by quantifying the costs in human lives and human suffering, as well as the economic impact, such as increased insurance premiums and diminished property values, of gun violence. National gun violence data only tells part of the story. Police need to understand the severity of gun violence in their community, where that violence is located and who is the perpetrators and victims of gun violence.
2. Treat gun violence with three essential principles
Because gun violence is concentrated the best strategies are focused, balanced and fair. Applying these principles, Abt says, will lead to gun violence reductions. The most effective people-based strategies do these things:
Identify and engage those most at risk.
Stabilize those people with immediate safety and security.
Treat unhealthy thinking, unsafe behavior and unaddressed trauma.
Offer educational and employment opportunities.
Punish persistent gun violence officers with swift and certain sanctions.
These steps need to be addressed sequentially and comprehensively. Skipping a step reduces effectiveness.
Abt also discussed place- and behavior-based approaches for high-risk gun violence micro-locations. The common theme was to focus on small locations and the people immediately impacted in that location and working outward. “We need to focus on a few people, in a few places, in a few behaviors to have success,” Abt said.
3. Comprehensively apply evidence-based strategies
Combining people-, behavior- and place-based approaches, rather than cherry-picking one solution, is critical to success. “To succeed, cities must all three principles of focus, balance and fairness – one or two is not sufficient,” Abt said.
A framework for gun violence reduction requires applying solutions in each of the boxes. Abt quickly shared a framework for prevention, intervention and enforcement for people, places and behaviors with some suggested actions in each cell of the framework before discussing the 10 essential actions cities can take to reduce violence now.
Here are some more resources to assist in reducing gun violence in your community.
Watch Why violence cluster in cities and how to reduce it a TED Talk by Thomas Abt.