Can We Curb Gun Violence by Treating It Like a Disease?
In 2014, a week before Thanksgiving, a 56-year-old man was shot in the Crown Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn. Within hours, several of his family members gathered at the crime scene, discussing retribution. They had suffered; now, they wanted others to pay for their pain. That’s when David Gaskin showed up. He gently probed the family, asking how they were feeling and why they might retaliate. He offered sympathy and counsel, informed by his experiences in prison and as a former gang member. And he repeatedly asked for verbal commitments that they wouldn’t strike back, at least not then. Some agreed–and he promised to follow up. Gaskin, 34, isn’t a police officer or a psychologist; he’s an outreach worker for a nonprofit initiative, Save Our Streets (SOS). But he and others like him may well be instrumental in curbing America’s gun-violence epidemic on a local level, especially as Congress keeps declining to pass federal gun control.
The key is their unorthodox approach. Unlike cops, who arrest criminals, or coalitions, which raise money to change laws, programs like SOS–now in Oakland, Calif., New Orleans and at least 20 other major U.S. cities–approach gun violence like doctors approach disease: as a contagious bug that must be diagnosed, contained and treated. “Hurt people hurt people”.
There are drawbacks to the cure-violence approach, though. For one thing, its efficacy is limited by the fact that Congress hasn’t funded gun-violence research since 1996, thanks in part to pressure from the National Rifle Association. “We’re just sticking our heads in the sand,” says Andrew Gurman, president of the AMA, of the gridlock. Chicago police have also criticized CeaseFire staff for not sharing information or involving them enough in the process, and said some outreach workers were getting into trouble. That led Mayor Rahm Emanuel to slash the program’s budget in 2013.
More From TIME Magazine: