Historic spike in gun violence demands response from Newsom

Gunsmith working on an 300 Blackout AR rifle upper receiver in a vise at a gun shop in California

Gun sales and gun deaths have continued to surge since the onset of the pandemic, California’s underinvestment in violence intervention programs has become a glaring policy failure.

Even after January 2021 proved to be California’s single deadliest month for gun homicides since 2007, the governor and state legislators have still not agreed to make funding the California Violence Intervention and Prevention (CalVIP) grant program a priority.

For once, instead of leading the nation, California is trailing the federal response.

By the end of March 2021, Oakland had recorded a 314% increase in homicides compared to the same time last year.

Last month, President Biden proposed a $5 billion investment in community-based violence intervention programs. Attorney General Merrick Garland even specifically named hospital-based violence intervention programs — an approach that our organization, Youth ALIVE!, invented right here in Oakland — as an effective response for reducing gun violence.

Youth ALIVE! is a community-based organization providing violence prevention, intervention, and healing services in Oakland. We connect with almost every family in Oakland who loses a loved one to homicide. We provide services to gunshot victims at their hospital bed side and mediate conflicts on the streets. We work with youth at our high schools and those coming out of juvenile detention to put them on a track to success.

The CalVIP grant program helps fund homegrown programs like ours that build community safety without relying on law enforcement or incarceration. We understand that violence is a public health issue, and that trauma is a root cause, a direct cause, and a symptom of violence, so we focus on healing instead of punishment, even for those who perpetrate violence, to make our communities safer.

Our programs were established with the understanding that those closest to the problem should help lead the solution.

On average, Oakland experiences the equivalent of a mass shooting every two weeks.

Sherman Spears created the first hospital-based violence intervention program after becoming a gunshot victim and learning he would be a paraplegic for the rest of his life. Marilyn Washington Harris founded our homicide response program after losing her son Khadafy to gun violence. Both programs work because these leaders knew the type of support they needed when navigating their own trauma.

Violence prevention professionals often have been personally impacted by violence and/or the criminal justice system. They rely on their lived experiences and credibility within the community to be able to effectively defuse tensions on the streets and help people heal. As a result of state and local investments in community-based efforts, gun homicides in Oakland decreased by almost 50% in the decade before the pandemic. 

However, we have lost much of that progress in the last year. By the end of March 2021, Oakland had recorded a 314% increase in homicides compared to the same time last year. On average, our city experiences the equivalent of a mass shooting every two weeks. Lately, we have seen that level of violence in just one weekend. This current gun violence crisis has driven the need for our services beyond what we are resourced to provide.

Policymakers claim that we cannot afford to increase violence prevention funding. But we pay for gun homicides one way or another. Mostly in human pain. But numerous studies have been conducted on the effectiveness of violence prevention programs across California, and the body of research overwhelmingly confirms that these programs are not only life-saving, but also cost effective. Every time my coworkers mediate a conflict that was likely to result in gun violence, we see cost savings in medical bills, funeral costs, and criminal justice resources like police investigations, court proceedings, and incarceration.

We need Gov. Newsom to respond to gun violence as the emergency it is for in so many communities

Communities with CalVIP grants in 2018 saw homicides decrease nearly 3 times more than those that received no CalVIP support. Despite organizations like ours achieving remarkably similar life-saving results in cities like Sacramento, Stockton, and Los Angeles, they remain underfunded. Every year our programs promote the effectiveness of these grants. Still, every year, the state’s budget fails to recognize violence prevention as a priority.

In 2019, Assemblymember Buffy Wicks led the legislative effort to strengthen the CalVIP program and secured the largest single investment in the program’s history at $27 million. However, analyzing that level of investment per shooting still lags far behind Massachusetts. 

Given the data, given the lives saved, the state’s investment is essential, but clearly insufficient. We have reached a point where under-investment in community-based violence prevention has become a conscious policy decision to let gun violence continue.

While the state waits for congress to approve President Biden’s proposal, our community members will continue to die. We need Governor Newsom to respond to gun violence as the emergency it is for in so many communities and cities in California. Lives will be permanently lost by his inaction.

Editor’s Note: 
Gabriel Garcia is the Policy & Advocacy Manager for Youth ALIVE!, a violence prevention organization based in Oakland.

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