A New Way to End Gun Violence

By Jeff Deeney 07/27/12

Shooting deaths this summer are epidemic. The drug war and gun control have failed. A radical new program called CeaseFire might stop the killing.

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Chicago CeaseFire outreach workers photo via

Last week waves of gun violence crashed on a number of big cities as they sweated through an epic summer heat wave. Philly’s own spike in homicides wasn’t unforeseen: in January, violent crime was already ticking upward, primarily impacting the city’s poorest neighborhoods with the hottest drug corners; by February I’d already attended a client’s funeral while another went into hiding after rumors that he talked to cops about a murder brought retaliatory death threats.

By the spring thaw arrived it already looked look an ugly summer up ahead, and by July 20, when James Holmes strapped on a suit of body armor and a gas mask and shot up an Aurora, Colorado, movie theater with over 1,000 rounds of bullets from four different guns during a midnight showing of the new Batman in an insane gambit to achieve comic-book villain infamy, it had become clear that 2012 would go down as one of the most violent years in recent history on our streets.

Despite all the carnage already this summer, the Obama administration remains mum on changes to enforcement-oriented drug policies that some experts say "increase violence.” President Obama shows "no appetite” for advancing a gun-control agenda.

In the midst of all this madness, the Chicago CeaseFire approach to violence prevention has emerged as a promising fix for the stubborn problem of gun violence in the absence of sweeping changes to prohibition or gun laws. CeaseFire views urban gun violence that goes hand-in-hand with the drug trade as a kind of communicable disease and aims to quarantine it, preventing transmission. This “social contagion” concept of destructive learned behaviors is all the rage among public health experts in their attempts to come to terms with both violence and obesity.

CeaseFire outreach workers get to kids with guns before they pull the trigger and persuades them to talk their beefs out instead.

CeaseFire prevents the transmission of violence by using trained mediators who are former gang members with clout in violent neighborhoods to break cycles of retaliatory shootings and murders. The outreach workers gather street intelligence and use law-enforcement data to prevent future eruptions of violence, getting to kids with guns before they pull the trigger and persuading them to talk their beefs out instead. CeaseFire was credited in 2011 with decreasing murders in Chicago to a 45-year low.  The acclaimed documentary The Interrupters follows the group for a year, capturing how they work South- and West-side drug corners spreading the peace message. 

But then came 2012. This year Chicago’s homicide numbers are back through the roof. I asked Chicago CeaseFire founder Dr. Gary Slutkin, an epidemiologist who studied strategies to control HIV and TB in Africa during the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, to explain why Chicago is in the throes of a brutal convulsion of murder. Had CeaseFire stop working?

"Not everyone can do this work," says Slutkin of his Interrupters. "Our staff are quite expert now in selection and training. Remember, these are disease control workers—just like workers who fight SARS, bird flu or flu epidemics. And who in the past fought leprosy, typhoid or cholera."

Slutkin knew exactly what was happening, where it was happening, between which gangs on which corners, and why. Slutkin’s outreach worker, most of whom have done decades in jail and still carry sterling street reps despite having gone legit, are no slouches when it comes to knowing what’s happening on the city’s hottest crime corners. 

He outlined that the first wave of violence hit last year and that Chicago is now gripped by a second wave. He claims that the geography of Chicago’s recent crime waves correlates directly to neighborhoods where CeaseFire has scaled back due to funding cuts. Where CeaseFire remains fully staffed, according to Slutkin, there haven’t been new outbreaks of violence. These conclusions remain to be evaluated, but the spike in violence tends to support CeaseFire’s methods rather then raising doubts about them, because epidemic disease control relies on vigilance. When containment and eradication efforts let up, diseases return. When CeaseFire is forced to lay off street outreach professionals, gun violence flares.

Slutkin stresses that the program's stunning results have been rigorously analyzed. "Both [studies of the Ceasefire model] were independently performed and independently funded—multiyear, multimethod, very extensive."

Chicago city officials seem to agree with Slutkin; they extended $1 million in funding to the program to get it fully staffed again in those neighborhoods worst hit by violence. By contrast, Philadelphia’s fledgling CeaseFire program is on life support, struggling to scrape up enough money to keep the lights on. Mayor Michael Nutter instead focuses almost exclusively on law enforcement, touting a COPS grant—emergency money from the Department of Justice that partially funds 25 more police officers to help cities fight crime waves. Nutter says that this will “improve public safety, lower the crime rate and continue [law enforcement] policies that work. ”Nutter says this will “improve public safety, lower the crime rate and continue [law enforcement] policies that work.”

Nutter’s double-down on enforcement may succeed if he’s able to focus extra manpower on the evidence-based GunStat program. GunStat uses crime data to identify and target for arrest gun-violence hot spots, which are usually closely associated with the city’s hottest drug corners. According to police, the department works closely with the District Attorney to make sure searches are legal (whether Stop and Frisk tactics will be part of GunStat is unclear) and evidence properly handled to maximize conviction rates. Parole and probation are also looped in, allowing for continued monitoring of gun offenders in the community.

"CeaseFire Interrupters are disease control workers—like those who fight SARS or who fought cholera," says founder Slutkin.

Leading experts such as Dr. Daniel Webster of Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research and Dr. John MacDonald, who heads the University of Pennsylvania’s Department of Criminology, told me that they back GunStat for its success at getting guns off the street and reducing violent crime. They also stress a critical but often overlooked fact: GunStat redirects arrest efforts previously aimed at drug users. Arresting drug users actually increases violence by disrupting black markets and fomenting tensions among sellers forced to vie for smaller customer bases. Aiming enforcement at gun carriers on the supply side of the drug market who drive violence, rather than at nonviolent addicts on the demand side, is a significant reform in police policy.

But Philly remains behind the curve as more and more US cities experiment with combining innovative violence prevention with more traditional law enforcement. GunStat reduces gun crimes through mass arrest and incarceration. It avoids prosecuting addicts, but it remains a Drug War tactic, as most gun users targeted are caught up in hustling. Wouldn’t an alternative to incarceration that empowers communities to control their own violence through evidence-based training in street outreach and conflict mediation be a worthy piece of city social programming to complement law enforcement efforts? It’s worth serious consideration, as the gun issue remains impossible to solve through incarceration and impossible to address through the legislative process.  

The black market for guns itself remains mercurial, shifting and changing and hard for researchers to accurately quantify. It's amazing how little we know at this late stage about the illegal gun market in America.  Johns Hopkins’ Webster says that straw purchasers—legal buyers who then turn the guns over to drug dealers or stick-up artists (a federal felony)—play a role. Yet drug dealers in Baltimore (as elsewhere in the US) can also go to gun shows in nearby Virginia to take advantage of the circuit’s freewheeling, unregulated cash-and-carry policies, but according to Webster, the extent to which gun shows serve as the source for the illegal market remains unknown.

In North Philly, where former hustler–turned–CeaseFire outreach worker Terry Starks says guns are so plentiful that “getting a strap ain’t nothin’,” the weapons also find their way onto the streets via suburban and rural gun owners who target the neighborhood as a high-demand market where they can easily unload arms they no longer want. “White dudes from upstate will come right up to you on the corner like, ‘I got a nine, what’ll you gimme for it?’” says Starks. “They know they get $100, $150 for it. They already got the serial number scratched off.” 

More than a few of these gun sellers are hurting for money because they have an addiction to drugs. An addict knows exactly where he can get rid of a gun, fast. If you’re an addict who happens on a gun, why not get a better deal for it from the dope man than at a pawnshop? Going directly to gun buyers on the corner cuts out the middleman, and rather than bother with cash an addict can make an in-kind trade, guns for drugs. How much of the illegal gun market this kind of desperate transaction accounts for is yet another unknown.

Webster’s research has found that cheap weapons arriving in the community already defaced typically wind up in the hands of the youngest gun users. A teen who just wants any gun is likely not to be picky about what kind of gun it is, how well it works or if it already has a ton of bodies on it. Older gun users become more discriminating as they accrue criminal experience, developing a preference for a particular kind of gun, especially one that’s “clean.”

If you’re an addict who happens on a gun, why not get a better deal for it from the dope man than at a pawnshop? 

CeaseFire, and its epidemic approach to violence prevention, predictably has no shortage of critics. Law-enforcement types bristle at the idea of ex-cons working their murder scenes and point to instances where CeaseFire workers have been accused of returning to hustling as proof that the program is little more than a front for drug dealers. (The program has a rigorous community-board approval process for new hires and denies allegations that any members are involved in drug selling). More sympathetic critics say that the program is little more than a Band-Aid. The Achilles’ heel of the public health model of epidemic control is that for it to work, cities must add entire new lines of funding for labor-intensive programs to their budgets. Yet for alternative approaches to work would require changes in policy so sweeping as to be inconceivable in our current political climate. Addressing the root causes of violence is simply not on the national agenda.

An end to the drug war has remained elusive, even with President Obama in the White House. Should we wait for full legalization of all drugs before doing something about the violence driven by drug black markets? Additionally, some experts, such as University of Pennsylvania sociologist Randall Collins, argue that drug business isn’t even key to gang violence, and the violence would persist in the absence of drug money.

Violence in Philadelphia has certainly spilled far beyond the boundaries of the drug game, as roving stick-up crews with no connection to drug markets terrorize whole neighborhoods. Then there are nuisance bars, domestic disputes, petty grievances—drugs still fuel much of the violence, but murder has become increasingly senseless and random as it has been normalized in the city. Assault is the only resolution considered for interpersonal conflict on many blocks in Philly.

Meantime, gun control remains a political nonstarter, with urban mayors favorable to the idea hamstrung by Second Amendment warriors in state capitals. While we’re spinning wheels on the issue as a society, certain limited improvements can still be tried. Public health seeks pragmatic ways to immediately break chains of causality. Experts want to snap an epidemic today rather than spend decades seeking cures while people literally die in the streets. It’s a beneficial framework in times of political intransigence.

CeaseFire is both effective as policy and viable as politics. And we can do it right now. Had Philadelphia chosen to go full steam ahead on CeaseFire from the beginning, it’s likely that the violence raging in North Philly right now would have been contained. Instead, we have more cops, even though we know that enforcement-only interventions leaves prisons overcrowded with young black and Latino men—and cities still overwhelmed with crime problems.

This summer our cities have gone backward. In the brutal bloodbath that was the summer of 2007, it wasn’t uncommon for social workers doing fieldwork to get caught midday firefights. Those of us who worked the streets back then hoped we would never see our cities so sick again. But here we are, trapped in the latest outbreak of violence, only another feverish burst of gunfire short of 2007’s homicide numbers. This time our cities have a new set of tools in the CeaseFire program, and yet outside of Chicago and Baltimore, we have barely begun to use them. For the people living in neighborhoods flaring, who see shootings and murders creeping closer as the summer drags on, that is a tragedy.

Jeff Deeney is a Philadelphia social worker and a writer who is in recovery. His column, "Street Beat," runs regularly in the The Fix. He also writes for The Daily Beast and The Nation.

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Jeff Deeney is a social worker, freelance writer and recovering addict in Philadelphia. He is a contributor to the Atlantic and has written for the Daily Beast, The Nation, and The Marshall Project. Follow Jeff on Twitter.

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