In March, more than 300 young adults converged in Washington, D.C,. (and online) to learn a new strategy for making our communities safer from gun violence: violence interrupter programs. After several days of training during Spring Lobby Weekend, March 25-28, they lobbied Congress for federal funding for these community-level conflict mediation programs. Spring Lobby Weekend took place the same weekend as the Generation Lockdown: Made in America rally on Capitol Hill. The rally demanded more actions, including a federal assault weapons ban, at the federal and state levels to make schools safer.
It is appalling, yet painfully accurate, that this generation of young adults can now be referred to as Generation Lockdown after it has witnessed so much gun violence. As Spring Lobby Weekend participants lobbied Congress on March 27, another heavily armed mass shooter killed six people in a school in Nashville, TN.
There have been 131 mass shootings (those involving four or more people) so far this year in the United States, where there are 120 guns per 100 people. FCNL and our network of advocates have lobbied Congress to reduce gun violence by limiting gun ownership, possession, and use. Still, Congress has failed to pass common-sense, responsible gun control legislation.
Learning From Safe Streets Baltimore
Although the growing number of high-profile mass shootings is alarming, community-level shootings, and suicides comprise most gun violence incidents in this country. These occurrences rarely receive much publicity, both because of their frequency and the communities they impact the most.
For this reason, we are pursuing an alternative approach: violence interrupter programs.
One such program is Safe Streets Baltimore, established in 2007. It operates in 10 Baltimore neighborhoods that have long experienced structural racism, chronic disinvestment, and high rates of gun violence.
A new study by the Center for Gun Violence Solutions of Johns Hopkins University revealed that Safe Streets reduced homicides and nonfatal shootings overall from 2007 to 2022 in Baltimore. It reduced such shootings by as much as 32% in some sites.
De-Escalating Violence Before it Happens
Violence interrupters work within their communities to mediate conflict and de-escalate violence before it happens. They step in when they learn of the potential for escalation or retaliation and work to encourage cooler heads to prevail. As some violence interrupters have previously been involved in the justice system themselves, their experiences authenticate their efforts to save lives and offer opportunities for individuals at higher risk of violence.
“It’s powerful that you’re taking something that’s a stigma in our society—a criminal record—and making it an asset,” said José Santos Moreno, FCNL director of justice reform, at the start of Spring Lobby Weekend.
Violence interrupters are not law enforcement personnel, but their work often reduces the need for police intervention. This is a key to their success. Too often, politicians’ default response to increased community violence has been to pump more money into policing.
“These increases in police spending are supposed to make our communities safer, but there is little evidence that this approach meaningfully reduces crime and violence.”
“These increases in police spending are supposed to make our communities safer, but there is little evidence that this approach meaningfully reduces crime and violence,” FCNL’s Michya Cooper recently wrote.
Issues rooted in racism and white supremacy—such as underinvestment in education, housing, economic opportunity, community development, and infrastructure—underpin violence in urban communities.
Homelessness, mass criminalization, and incarceration are also realities that disproportionately affect Black and brown people in urban settings. The investments that are effective in quelling community-level violence are those that center humanity, address root causes, and minimize additional harm.
“When I am out there, I’m locked in. I know what it feels like to lose a child. I know what it feels like …. I would not give it up for anything in the world. I have a passion for people,” said Nicole Warren, a violence interrupter with Safe Streets Baltimore. It is this passion that makes violence interrupter programs successful.
As more gun violence occurs, there is growing support to end it. President Joe Biden called for support for violence interrupter programs in his State of the Union Address in February. The fact that two groups of young people lobbied Congress at the same time in Spring—one for a federal assault weapons ban and FCNL for investments in violence interrupter programs—speaks to the enormity of the problem and the solutions.