Gun violence prevention: the missing ingredient

By Pearl Benjamin | Jul 25, 2019

Mainers are not safe from gun violence. Our state may be sparsely populated and rural, but our gun death rate is higher than that of New Hampshire, Vermont, Massachusetts and New York. The suicide rate in Maine is 30 percent higher than the national average for people age 20 to 24. Maine ranks ninth in the nation in the rate of women killed by men. Our state is plagued by suicide and domestic violence, yet we have very few gun regulations in place to combat these issues. Even a Democratically-controlled legislature can’t seem to get common sense gun safety legislation passed. The people of Maine need to push legislators to put our safety first. But in order to create a wave across the country, we must take a holistic approach to the issue of gun violence and understand that every state, every city, and every community requires its own solution.

After watching with dismay as ten gun safety bills failed to pass in Augusta, I flew to Baltimore to attend the Summer Youth Institute at the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research. This was the Center’s first year holding the Institute, and I really wasn’t sure what to expect. I knew I would hear about the latest research and the most important data - it’s Johns Hopkins, after all. But would it help shed light on why nothing is changing here in my home state even after a successful blue wave election? Is there data on that, too?

I was joined in Baltimore by 50 other students from 20 states. They were an impressive group - highly experienced and well-versed activists, engaging students and unmistakably powerful young people. Parts of my activist ego melted away as I learned about the movements started, the laws written and the connections made by these kids. They were well-matched with the caliber of the Institute’s scholars, researchers and policy experts, and I won’t deny questioning whether I was deserving of my acceptance.

The program began with extensive reviews of gun violence research, data and policy. We learned how to find and make use of the most reliable data sources from the Center for Disease Control, the Uniform Crime Report and Crime Gun Trace Data. We learned about how gun availability influences violence. We learned about the statistics for gun owners in the U.S. and how almost 50 percent of all American white men own a gun and that increased homicide risks in the home are greater for women. We learned about the powers of federal, state and local government in passing gun legislation. We learned about extreme risk protection order laws and which states have adopted them. In smaller breakout sessions we learned about police-involved shootings, suicide, urban gun violence and domestic violence. We also learned about possible solutions to every issue we studied. Gun shop projects, waiting periods, permitting, child access prevention laws, and extreme risk protection orders have all been proven to reduce suicide rates. Background check laws have high levels of support, but surprisingly aren’t actually associated with reductions in gun homicide. Handgun purchaser licensing, on the other hand, is associated with lower rates of firearm homicide and suicide, and also has the support of 60 percent of all gun owners and 80 percent of gun owners who live in states with licensing laws already in place. While it was heartening to know that there are effective solutions being put in place in some parts of the country, it’s clear that our national effort to address gun violence isn’t reaching everyone it needs to. Many impacted communities are left out and the voices of those who have firsthand experience with gun violence are not being heard.

Many of the program participants were survivors of gun violence. Many had family members and friends who died by suicide. Those teens have dealt with this issue firsthand and their experiences can’t be condensed into data points. As someone without direct experience with gun violence, I felt compelled to listen to every word of every story and through that I began to understand that the root of the issue is far more complicated than just the availability of firearms. One student told his story of being born into a dangerous urban environment where his brother was shot and killed in a gang-related conflict. During a lecture, he pressed the experts. What, he asked, is being done about the inner city communities plagued by a cycle of violence that condemns many young black men to either death or a life of incarceration? Realizing the importance of the question, the Institute’s organizers shifted gears, offering a platform for urban students of color to explain their knowledge of inner city violence to the group. They described, in a way that the research and data could not, what it’s like to live in communities beset by generational poverty, gang violence and drugs. They are living in war zones, as one student put it, and owning a firearm for their own protection is a necessity. So how can we reduce conflict in these areas where young people are scared for their lives every day?

The answer is not simple. My friends of color made it very clear that the one thing low-income black communities do not need is privileged white people attempting to help at the front lines. At-risk youth are unlikely to trust strangers, especially those who don’t look like them or share their life experiences. But they do trust people like Erica Ford, a leader and organizer at LIFE Camp, Inc. Ford grew up in a black neighborhood plagued by historical trauma and made a commitment to helping her community at a young age. She spoke to our class via Skype on our second day at the Institute and explained her work with violence intervention and prevention teams. She works with a foundation that provides opportunities for at-risk youth to heal from tragedies and build their futures. Her foundation purchased a 36-foot RV complete with recording studio, punching bag and yoga room that is open for people in need of safety and freedom of expression 24 hours a day. Programs like LIFE camp have been proven to significantly reduce violence in areas like her own because they focus on survivors from the community making connections with those at risk. Authentic and local prevention groups create an atmosphere of trust among the people who need it the most, and this is what truly combats the problem.

There is no one solution to the multi-faceted problem of gun violence. Everyone impacted has an individual and valid take on the issue. Urban gun violence requires a different solution from that of suicide and police-involved shootings. Inner cities and rural areas need solutions tailored to the people who live there and making sure those people are heard is the best way to start. On our last night at the Institute, I joined a group of students holding an impromptu conference in the basement of our residence hall. We stayed up until 1 a.m., compiling ideas and creating something great. By the end of our last day, we had founded a coalition of 51 students from 21 states across the country who were ready to make a change. Although we’re not sure exactly how this movement will progress and grow, we are sure of our power. I am honored to be a part of it and to help share what I’ve learned from survivors of gun violence. Together, we will make real progress towards making this country safer for our children. The voices of survivors will influence gun policy that works. This time, they will be too loud to ignore.

Pearl Benjamin is a student at the Watershed School.

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Comments (3)
Posted by: Kendall Merriam | Jul 30, 2019 10:51

Ms. Benjamin: You and your generation are the hope for America's future. Keep doing your research and insightful writing. You WILL make a difference now and in the years to come.

_Phyllis Merriam

Posted by: Lynette Walther | Jul 26, 2019 09:28

Appreciate your intelligent commentaries.

On this issue of gun violence I ask that you and others consider that as horrific the gun violence that has marked an entire generation is, it is only a symptom of a cancer that is consuming this nation. All countries have mental illness, violent video games, gangs, drug abuse, single-parent families, multi-cultural populations, kids are bullied, bad parents, many even have widespread gun ownership. They have everything we have here that could be blamed, but not the mass murders. But more importantly, there is another thing that many of those countries have that we do not — a social safety net — health care, free college or technical school, childcare, etc. to enable everyone to pursue their goals without fear of being homeless or bankrupt or without a future. I believe it is that lack of a social safety net here that has produced a nation of angry, frustrated, mentally ill and hopeless people who take their frustration out in violence. These are not foreign terrorists, but our co-workers, classmates, neighbors and fellow Americans. Certainly common-sense gun laws that are enforced are needed here. But we could take away every gun in this country, and we'd still have these mass murders, because like foreign terrorists do where they do not have access to guns, they would use bombs, drive vans into crowds, knives… The gun violence is only a symptom of what is destroying this nation. Until we address the CAUSE of the violence, we are doomed to experience more. Ask yourself — why only here?

Posted by: Richard McKusic, Sr. | Jul 25, 2019 11:32

"This time, they will be too loud to ignore." I certainly hope you are right.  Last Saturday was talking with a local faith leader who shared some of the ways congregations are using their energy to join together quietly making a positive difference. 

Pearl, we are honored to have you as part of the solution and illuminating us with your insights.

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