Understanding Gun Violence is the First Step to Prevention


Gakirah Barnes, 17, was gunned down in a hail of bullets on an April afternoon in Chicago's South Side, bringing an end to a young life that had seen several lifetimes' worth of devastating violence.

It happened one week before Good Friday of this year—the beginning of a weekend plagued by five gun-related murders and 45 shootings throughout the Windy City. Much has been written about Gakirah since her execution—thought to be in retaliation for the murder of a rival gang member just two days before. (Gakirah, or “K I” as she was known to her crew, the Fly Boys, is thought to be the one who pulled the trigger.) Among the postmortems are condemnations, tributes, commentaries, and lamentations, offered by a variety of pundits eager to make a political point about this young woman's tragic life.

One thing about Gakirah's life is not in dispute: she had become defined (and confined) by an escalating pattern of gun violence.

Two years earlier, 13-year old Tyquan Tyler, a family friend whom Gakirah adopted as her baby brother, was killed by a stray bullet from a gang-related shooting. Another teenaged family friend was murdered the year before. Her father was shot to death on Easter Sunday when she was only a year old. These individual tragedies combined savagely to thrust a young life into a course of perpetuating violence that ended predictably.

Gakirah assumed the Twitter handle @tyquanassassin in what was designed to be a homage to young Tyquan, and she became heavily involved in gang activity. In her time on the streets, “Lil Snoop”—another of Gakirah's nicknames referencing a character on the TV series The Wire—is purported to have been involved in at least a dozen gang-related homicides, including the one that led to her assassination.

Some have looked at these events and deduced that a young woman's death was brought on by the utterly reckless lifestyle she championed. In this case, they might be right. But what if we undertake a more thoughtful examination of the circumstances behind the taking of black lives by other black people? What if we took a real look at the experiences of our young black people and realized that black girls are being killed, too?

According to the 2014 Kelly Report by Congresswoman Robin L. Kelly of Illinois, while black people represent only 13 percent of the nation's population, they account for 55 percent of all homicide victims.

An earlier report, titled “Black Homicide Victimization in the United States: An Analysis of 2011 Homicide Data,” published by the Violence Policy Center, found that the homicide rate for black males was eight times greater than that of white males. For black females, three times that of their white counterparts.

Perhaps more alarmingly, the report also stated: “For homicides in which the weapon used could be identified, 82 percent of black victims were shot and killed with guns.”

There is no denying that a gun violence crisis has laid siege to young black people in America's inner cities. And yet, we keep employing the same failed strategies—chiefly the “arrest as deterrence” model—to try and combat this scourge.

A new approach is needed, and it begins with a new understanding about the nature of gun violence itself.

We will not see true progress in subverting the culture of violence in our inner cities until we acknowledge that those who perpetuate the violence and those who are harmed by it are really victims of the same life traumas. A kneejerk reaction would be to dismiss any notion that somehow equates the victim of gun violence with one who pulls the trigger. But look deeper.

Gakirah Barnes didn't begin her life as a gangster with a gun in her hand. She was the product of a violent society that shaped her and ultimately led to her demise. This is true of a generation of young black people who are growing up in a culture of violence in our inner cities.

Exacerbated by generational poverty, marginalization, racism, and their own bad decisions, young black males—and increasingly young black females—have been conditioned to believe that gun violence establishes power, secures protection, attains social acceptance, and makes up for insecurities.

The result is a self-perpetuating cycle of trauma that, when exposed to it at an early age and repeatedly throughout one's life, becomes normal.

How else can you explain Shontell Brown's reaction to her daughter Gakirah's death … “At least I don't have to constantly worry about what's going to happen to her out on the street no more,” she told a TV reporter immediately after her child's murder.

Ms. Brown's warped sense of relief can be summed up in two words: normalized trauma.

With this new understanding about the underlying trauma that causes gun violence, there is a movement in America's cities to combat it with a strategy of engagement before the violence takes place.

Interrupting violence by engaging those who are deeply affected by normalized trauma—those who might shoot and those who might be shot—is not necessarily a new concept; but it is one that is gaining in both credibility and effectiveness.

This approach has its roots in the Cure Violence model first developed in Chicago in the early 2000's (also known as Operation CeaseFire) and has been replicated in cities throughout the country. At its core is the philosophy that gun violence should be studied and treated like an infectious disease.

This is a hard pill for traditional law-and-order types to swallow.

However, society has come to the realization that it is more effective and cost-efficient to treat drug addiction as a public health issue than it is to punish it.

Similarly, we must also accept that it makes more sense to prevent incidents of gun violence, provide treatment for high risk individuals, and change social norms. In other words, to treat gun violence like the public health crisis that it is.

An essential element to this disease-fighting strategy is to try and interrupt transmission: that is to stop potentially violent conflicts before they escalate. Interruption is achieved by having outreach workers on the streets who identify and mediate potentially lethal conflicts in the community, and who follow up to ensure that conflicts do not reignite.

These interrupters are trained, culturally appropriate activists who have a standing and a stake in their communities. Many are former gang members or formerly incarcerated individuals who are often better prepared than the police at recognizing and de-escalating a potentially violent situation.

Preventing retaliation is also a critical tactic in interrupting violence. Whenever a shooting happens, interrupters immediately get to work in the community and at local hospitals where gunshot victims are taken to cool down emotions and prevent retaliations.

Finally, anti-violence workers identify ongoing conflicts by talking to key people in the community about ongoing disputes, recent arrests, recent prison releases, and other situations and use mediation techniques to resolve them peacefully.

Until we recognize that gun violence begins long before the trigger is pulled, we will never stop it from destroying our communities.

Addressing its underlying causes—poverty, lack of education, discrimination, homelessness, easy access to guns, drugs, joblessness, fear and despair—is the only way to prevent another Gakirah Barnes from making headlines … at either end of a gun.

Marlon Peterson is director of community relations for the Fortune Society, a non-profit organization in New York City, whose mission is to support successful reentry from prison and promote alternatives to incarceration. He also leads Fortune's iLive program, an initiative that provides a broad array of services to those affected by gun violence directly and vicariously, including licensed mental health and drug treatment. He welcomes comments from readers.

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