Thomas Abt isn’t a household name. The former Justice Department official during the Obama era wasn’t really in a position to be one or, arguably, particularly well-known except by the wonkiest of policy wonks. After all, there comes a point when you just stop following who is in what job in the federal government.
However, because of his status as a former Obama-era official, it’s not surprising to see that he might have an opinion on gun violence.
Well, Abt took to the pages of The Guardian to share his plan, and it’s actually surprisingly interesting.
This summer, I published a book called Bleeding Out that explains how we could reduce gun violence by 50% in the US’s forty most violent cities. The plan would take eight years and could save more than 12,000 lives. It would cost about $100m a year.
Many people find it hard to believe that we can do a lot with a little on this issue. But urban violence is actually a more solvable problem than most of us realize.
In the cities that struggle with high rates of violence, shootings are concentrated among a surprisingly small set of people and places. It doesn’t concentrate in entire communities or neighborhoods. Even in the most allegedly dangerous places, the vast majority of people are not violent, and there are plenty of safe spaces.
In fact, in most cities, about 4% of city blocks account for approximately 50% of crime. In Oakland, 60% of murders happen within a social network of approximately one to two thousand high-risk individuals – about 0.3% of the city’s population. In New Orleans, a network of six hundred to seven hundred people, less than 1% of the city’s population, account for more than 50 percent of its lethal encounters.
This is, of course, fascinating. It’s also accurate.
To be honest, this is also why gun control is such a problem for so many of us on this side of the debate. If a minute handful of people are responsible for the violence, it’s just not right to punish the population as a whole. Especially since so many of this small percentage are already prohibited from buying any kind of gun in the first place.
So what does Abt propose? Based on his bio, the first thing you’d think of is gun control, but that phrase doesn’t actually appear in Abt’s op-ed. Not once, oddly enough.
Instead, Abt has a more interesting approach.
Effective strategies focus narrowly on the “hot people” or the “hot spots” driving most of the violence. They balance the threat of punishment with prevention, ie real efforts to help even the highest-risk people change their lives without going to prison. And, to be most effective, they need to be perceived as fair – they need to have support and legitimacy within the communities most affected by violence.
In the US, the strategy that has worked the best to reduce urban gun violence is “focused deterrence”, sometimes referred to as the Group Violence Initiative or Ceasefire. It does not work perfectly, and it does not work every time, but it works better, on average, than anything else out there.
The city of Oakland tried this strategy twice, failing each time, before it finally got it right beginning in 2012. They created a partnership between police, prosecutors, key community members, and key service providers. Then that partnership identified the individuals and the groups driving ongoing violence in the city. After that, they communicated directly with the highest-risk people through group “call-ins” and “custom notifications”. They let them know that they had been identified as someone likely to shoot or be shot, offered them community support and assistance, and warned them that future violence would be unacceptable and that local law enforcement would come down on them, both individually and as a group, if the shooting didn’t stop. Since 2012, research shows, the strategy has been responsible for cutting homicides almost in half.
Honestly, this is an approach we should at least consider. No, it may not be 100 percent effective, but let’s also be honest here, doing nothing isn’t really getting us the results we want either.
Further, an approach like this mixed with a removal of the barriers for owning and carrying a firearm for law-abiding citizens is bound to create a positive impact. After all, when you tell one of these “hot” people that they’re at risk of being shot and point out that there are now more law-abiding citizens with the means to shoot them if they get violent, I have to believe at least some of them will listen.
Frankly, this is something we need to discuss and seriously consider. Yes, an Obama administration official came up with it, which is going to make some skeptical and for good reason. However, it’s worth the debate. I’ve been saying for years now that the secret isn’t gun control but in cutting violence at the root. That’s what this program seems to do. It’s time to give it a try.