Gun violence in California needs a public health response

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State and local officials are still calling on law enforcement to prevent gun violence. Community leaders believe gun violence should be treated as a public health crisis and integrated with prevention strategies that address social factors in the most vulnerable areas.

Guest comment written by

Brian Malte

Brian Malte is the Executive Director of the Hope and Heal Fund and a nationally recognized leader in gun violence prevention. He helped pass many of California’s most effective gun laws.

Chet P Hewitt

Chet P. Hewitt is CEO of The Center and President and CEO of the Sierra Health Foundation.

An African proverb says, “In the moment of crisis the wise build bridges and the foolish build dams.” As gun violence rises across the country, police budgets have risen like dams in the name of prevention and disruption.

To reduce violence in California, research shows we need to invest in our communities instead. We must build bridges—to employment opportunities, to healing, to mental health services, to a sense of shared security—to real gun violence prevention.

How will California react after another horrific mass shooting – this time in Monterey Park?

Every three minutes someone is killed by a gun in California. And gunshot injuries are the leading cause of death for California youth ages 19 and under, and youth under 24 nationwide.

This is a public health crisis.

While gun homicides in California have increased in recent years, fueled by a surge in gun sales and reduced community connections and outreach due to COVID, this surge in violence is reversible.

Public funding of prevention, disruption, and intervention efforts is critical to reducing gun violence. However, it is most effective when it takes a public health approach that integrates community expertise and leadership. This model is a proven, clear path to equitable safety and health.

To California’s credit, initiatives such as the California Violence Intervention and Prevention Grant Program or CalVIP have increased public funding to combat gun violence. In 2022, the state provided a record $156 million to the program. This funding supports important initiatives to reduce violence in the highest-risk communities.

However, CalVIP funding is managed by the California Board of State and Community Corrections, an agency that oversees law enforcement, and not by public health officials. Unfortunately, as we’ve seen in cities like Stockton and Sacramento, where leaders have chosen to sidestep the public health model, allowing law enforcement that kind of discretion can be deeply contrary to both best practice and the intent of prevention funding to grant

Law enforcement is primarily concerned with intervention through law enforcement. When law enforcement is used as a preventive force, it is often expressed in increased police or probationary presence, criminalization, and/or prosecution. These practices often have little to do with the prevention or follow-up of trauma.

The anchoring of community work in criminal prosecution combines intervention and prevention. This approach ignores the social and economic causes of gun violence and the effects of street violence, interpersonal violence and suicide. Preventing gun violence requires exceptional expertise and an understanding that violence stems from chronic conditions of historical oppression, poverty and racism.

Trusted and trained organizations with cultural knowledge embedded in communities – in a different light – are best prepared to lead prevention efforts. That trust and approach must also extend to the agencies that fund and enable this work.

So how do we create opportunity in communities and ensure intelligent funding for effective gun violence prevention?

  • Treat gun violence as a chronic problem and use a public health (social determinants of health) approach that is rooted in affected communities.
  • Demand prevention efforts at the state and local levels are led by agencies with a public health and health equity perspective.
  • Remove barriers for communities to access public funding, so the people most affected can lead the effort.
  • Shift policies and budgets to recognize that law enforcement is focused on investigative and prosecuting tactics—not prevention.
  • Recognize that strategies to reduce violence need to clearly define and understand prevention, intervention and follow-up.
  • Ensure that facilities that enable community-based funding and gun violence prevention strategies are housed in public health and not with law enforcement (for example, the Los Angeles County Bureau of Violence Prevention is part of the Public Health Department).

These approaches would set a strong precedent. California would have the appropriate tools, eventually funded at the scale of the problem, to lead effective, community-owned efforts to prevent and disrupt violence.

There is no future in funding paradigms that favor law enforcement response to public health issues. There is one in well-funded communities – and it is a safe and just future. The Californians deserve it.


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