Editor’s Note: This roundup is part of the CNN Opinion series “America’s Future Starts Now,” in which people share how they have been affected by the biggest issues facing the nation and experts offer their proposed solutions. The views expressed in these commentaries are the authors’ own. Read more opinion at CNN.
Concerns about violent crime and guns remain top of mind for American voters, polls show time and again. These issues certainly stick with Kathy Pisabaj, of Chicago, who was 19 in 2018 when she was shot by a stranger and nearly died.
“We believed that if we stayed away from gangs, we would not get hurt,” she wrote. “Gun violence continues to tear apart communities and devastate lives like mine every single day.”
We asked experts working in various fields what they think needs to be done – what can reasonably be done – so that all of us can feel a bit safer.
Ricky Aiken: ‘Real change happens when the people who need it, lead it’
I grew up in the Tamarind Avenue corridor of West Palm Beach, which is notorious for poverty, drug abuse and violent crime. It’s just a few miles from what was the “Winter White House,” or Mar-a-Lago.
Summer is typically a deadly time of year for communities like ours. Young people are out of school with nothing to do and have easy access to firearms. And when gun violence happens in our communities, it’s not outsiders tearing up our communities. It’s insiders.
In 2015, the rate of violent crime in West Palm Beach was the same as Chicago. That summer, my cousin and I were lamenting the fact that every time we turned on the news, someone we knew had been shot or someone we knew was the suspect in a shooting. We decided to try to do something about it.
I was 26 and working the graveyard shift at an emergency shelter for displaced youth. My cousin, then 28, was a maintenance worker at a local nonprofit. Together, we went on to create Inner City Innovators, a nonprofit with three initiatives.
One of them is our Hope Dealer mentoring program, which combines individual and peer-to-peer mentoring, leadership development, community service and social-emotional learning. We prioritize giving youth (13+) someone to talk to.
Our anti-violence workshops go into schools, community centers, anywhere with kids. We talk about how to reduce their chances of being victimized by gun violence.
And then through community engagement activities we walk the streets to let the community know we’re here. We respond to shootings when youth are involved, hoping to connect with families to support them and reduce retaliation.
We also do court advocacy. A lot of young men get gun charges early on, at 15 or 16. Once they’re in that kind of trouble, no traditional mentoring program accepts them. We build partnerships with public defenders and judges working with juveniles to give these young men a second chance.
Any young man in our program gets help with job placement and therapy. If he is having trouble keeping food in the house, we fill up his refrigerator.
Our goal is simple: to keep every young man in our program free and alive through age 25. Most offending starts around 13, and 25 is when they say the brain is finished developing. We want to capture and stabilize them when this demographic is known to struggle the most.
We don’t want to just keep them alive physically. We want to keep them alive spiritually and emotionally as well. We introduce them to yoga, mindfulness, out-of-the-hood experiences. When you’re born and raised in a community of constant disadvantage, you think everywhere is like that. We want to inspire them to do more.
Lack of education, poverty of community, brokenness of home – those aren’t sources of shame. Those are sources of power. I want them to use these things to make better decisions in their lives.
We give them space to be involved and space to lead. When you challenge a young person who’s been through hard times, they want to stand up and show you they’re capable.
We’ve built a culture that accepts goodness, and we’re expanding. We have a playbook we want to send to other places.
We can’t stop all shootings. But of the young men who’ve been involved in our Hope Dealer mentoring program and have firearm charges, most stay on the path we put them on and leave activities that require picking up firearms behind them.
Ricky Aiken is the founder and executive director of Inner City Innovators, a nonprofit based in West Palm Beach, Florida, that combats crime rates and gun violence by empowering and inspiring inner-city youth through mentoring programs, anti-violence workshops and community engagement. This piece was adapted from an interview with CNN’s Jessica Ravitz Cherof.
Charlie Dent: Stopping lawlessness takes political will
Earlier this year, I wrote about the alarming incidents of violent crime in Philadelphia. I recounted the city’s record-breaking homicide rate and shared how crime affected my two children.
A college classmate of my son’s was murdered during an attempted carjacking. My daughter, a physician in residency, was assaulted. In the eight months since I wrote that piece, circumstances haven’t changed.
My son’s friends, living in his former apartment, were robbed at gunpoint during a home invasion. My daughter scolded me recently for wearing an Apple Watch while walking two blocks to dinner because she feared I would be mugged.
America has a crime problem, and it weighs heavily on the minds of people who live in those high crime jurisdictions and those who care for them. Even if crime polls lower than issues like inflation or abortion among voters’ concerns, no one should underestimate the potency of crime as a political issue.
While most crime is prosecuted at the state and local levels, the political implications at the federal level are palpable. Republican congressional candidates are deploying the crime issue effectively against Democrats because it resonates with base and swing voters. As a matter of damage control, House Democrats recently passed a package of four police funding bills in an attempt to shore up support among voters who believe them to be too soft on crime or in support of defunding the police.
While these funding bills no doubt will be welcomed, they do not address the underlying issues driving up crime rates. It feels like police have been placed on the back foot. The era of proactive policing has come to an end, and violent crime has soared. A new wave of progressive district attorneys bent on criminal justice reform, in cities like San Francisco, Los Angeles and Philadelphia, have run into the hard wall of angry residents demanding public safety.
At this point, the most important thing that can be done to address the crime problem is for local district attorneys, mayors and council members to demonstrate publicly their support for law enforcement officers and allow them to do what needs to be done, with reasonable oversight and accountability, to restore order. Morale is low in too many police departments and district attorney offices throughout the country, leading to dangerously high turnover rates while leaving behind understaffed and less experienced police officers and prosecutors.
Finally, Republicans need to move more on gun safety. I give credit to Republican Sen. John Cornyn of Texas and Democratic Sen. Chris Murphy of Connecticut for their leadership on gun safety with the recent enactment of the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act. But more needs to be done. Universal firearm background checks, red flag laws, bump stock bans and raising the age for most long-gun purchases to 21 will not infringe on the rights of law-abiding gun owners.
It’s long past time to address the blatant lawlessness in communities across the country. There is no reason we can’t do it. It just takes political will.
Charlie Dent is a former Republican congressman from Pennsylvania who served as chair of the House Ethics Committee and chair of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Military Construction, Veterans Affairs and Related Agencies. He is a CNN political commentator.
Aditi Bussells: Don’t underestimate the ‘magic of local government’
We’re all tired of the state of politics in our country today. Tired of the tweets, the bickering and the polarization. And so, when people ask why I decided to run for city council as a public health researcher, I remind folks that the local level is where we can really make change and impact our community.
Like many other parts of the country, Columbia, South Carolina, has seen an uptick in gun violence over the last several years.
With our hands tied by preemption laws, which allow state laws to preempt what local governments can do, and the challenges of South Carolina’s deep red political climate, we’ve had to get creative and develop relationships across the spectrum of viewpoints around gun violence to be successful.
We started with Columbia’s “Lock it Up Campaign,” to increase safe firearm storage. We partnered with our police department and local community groups to launch a robust gun safety campaign. We handed out informational materials and gun locks to help address unintentional injuries and deaths caused by firearms. The National Crime Prevention Council reports that 89% of unintentional shooting deaths of children happen in the home, when children play with loaded guns.
The campaign was so successful, we ran out of gun locks within an hour. Our state gun armory took notice and donated another 150 locks and helped us spread the word. This campaign wasn’t going to solve the entire problem of gun violence, but it made the statement that our city will do its part. And that mattered to our citizens.
Next, I led efforts to pass the first law in South Carolina to require citizens in the city to report a lost or stolen gun within 24 hours of knowing the gun is gone, given that South Carolina is third in the country for guns stolen out of vehicles.
I engaged some of our most conservative legislators in the state house, submitted the ordinance to the state attorney general’s office in its draft stage and even talked to the NRA. This approach was a first for our city. We ended up with a law that had unanimous support and, most importantly, a law that can play a role in preventing future gun violence and keep our city safe.
This is the magic of local government. We can build momentum for change quickly and effectively. We can bring people together to have conversations about our communities. We can offer hope to our neighbors who seek a safer world, free of violence.
Aditi Bussells, who holds a PhD in public health, is the city councilwoman at-large in Columbia, South Carolina. She is the first South Asian woman to be elected to local government in the history of South Carolina.
Quinton Lucas: ‘Gun reform cannot solve our violence problem alone’
Two years ago, Kansas City lost 4-year-old LeGend Taliferro, who was shot and killed while sleeping, after a shooter opened fire on his father’s home. LeGend should still be alive, and so should the thousands of other children, particularly Black and brown youth, taken too soon by gun violence in our country.
Today, the leading cause of death of young people in America is gun violence – not cancer, not car accidents, but preventable gun tragedies.
Mayors across the country are dealing with the flood of illegal guns on our streets and lax gun regulations more than ever before. This year’s midterm election will be critical for electing those who champion common-sense gun reforms to avoid the slaughter of our babies in their school classrooms.
But gun reform cannot solve our violence problem alone. Good investment in housing and social services is essential to public safety. When people are housed and their needs are met, there’s less crime. These investments need to be embedded in candidate conversations about public safety.
In Kansas City, we continue to make historic progress in housing access. Funding from the new Kansas City Housing Trust Fund will create nearly 500 affordable housing units and a bond measure to go before voters next month, should it pass, will generate thousands of more affordable housing units. We’ve also launched Zero KC, a plan to end homelessness in our city in five years.
We’ve fought back against gun violence through municipal ordinances when our state refuses to act, making it a locally enforceable violation for domestic violence offenders and minors to carry firearms. We’ve expanded violence prevention outreach, intervening with those who may be at risk for engaging in gun violence and retaliation.
In 2020, my administration sued Jimenez Arms, a gun manufacturer that provided guns to felons, allowing illegal guns to flood our streets and causing significant harm to our community. But the US Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives conducted a deficient investigation before granting a new license to the operators of Jimenez Arms. Because of ATF’s refusal to act, we sued the agency, too, and eventually shut down Jimenez Arms, keeping their weapons of war off our streets.
While we make progress, we’re rowing against the political headwinds of our state, the US Supreme Court and the US Congress. The bipartisan gun safety bill, signed into law this summer, is a start; it provides some common sense gun violence solutions, but it should embolden us to do more and continue to act.
In this fall’s midterm elections, vote for people who care about your kids’ lives. If your candidate cannot ensure your children will be safe at school every day, or ensure you’ll be safe going to the grocery store, question whether they are the best candidate for your community.
Keeping people in our cities alive is more important than anything and is not about rhetoric. If people and kids are dying preventable deaths, we are failing.
Democratic Kansas City Mayor Quinton Lucas, elected in 2019, is chairman of the US Conference of Mayors Criminal and Social Justice Committee and is co-chair of Everytown for Gun Safety’s Mayors Against Illegal Guns.
Zirui Song: Reducing firearm injuries is good for health – and business
As members of the public, we tend to hear about gun violence through the tragedy of innocent lives lost. But those shot who survive are often quickly forgotten.
It is easy to think that survivors will be OK. But though they may be fortunate, in many ways they are not OK.
Survivors of gun violence face not only the pain of the physical injury, but a 51% increase in mental health disorders and 85% increase in substance use disorders. The former includes depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder and more. The latter includes alcohol and drug misuse, sometimes addiction to the very opioids used to treat the pain of the gunshot wound.
These effects persist at least a year after injury. While the world has moved on – at times to the next mass shooting – survivors are still learning how to walk again, battling demons to go outside again and suffering through their personal, slow-moving tragedies out of the public eye. This is the quiet base of the proverbial iceberg – not the tip that captivates attention.
And its ripple effects are profound.
Loved ones are not unscathed. Family members of survivors, despite not being shot themselves, also experience a 12% increase in mental health disorders in the year following the survivor’s injury.
Community members are not unscathed. Trauma, anguish and survivor guilt await.
Society is not unscathed. Every nonfatal firearm injury costs employers and insurers $30,000 in direct medical spending in the first year. This pays for emergency rooms, hospitals, doctor visits, procedures, imaging and tests, among other services. Ultimately, this comes out of everyone’s taxes or wages, with the victims paying 4% of it out-of-pocket themselves. So whether in health or economic terms, we all share in the pain of gun violence.
With somewhere around 85,000 survivors of firearm injuries each year – a number our nation is not sure about due to a shortage of data – society thus pays an estimated $2.5 billion for direct medical care in the first year alone. Imagine the other societal needs that $2.5 billion could help address.
But even that severely undercounts the economic toll. Employers lose an estimated $535 million in revenue and productivity each year, with the rate of employees and dependents getting shot rising four-fold from 2007 to 2020. Add that to quality-of-life costs to victims and families, police and criminal justice costs, and health care spending, gun violence as a whole is estimated to cost the US $557 billion each year, or roughly 2.6% of the nation’s economy.
So while the health case for reducing gun violence has long been with us as people die and get hurt, and the moral case weighs heavily as guns are now the leading cause of death among kids and adolescents in our country, the business case is growing more obvious.
This was echoed in a letter from CEOs for Gun Safety to US senators, which was publicized in June, urging lawmakers to pass gun safety legislation. Hundreds of company executives signed the letter, calling gun violence a “public health crisis” that “[o]n top of the human toll” has a “profound economic impact.” Moreover, they stated, “Communities that experience gun violence struggle to attract investment, create jobs, and see economic growth.”
The voice of the business community is important for public health. Indeed, the private sector has been a partner in public health before, from addressing the tobacco epidemic, to combating the opioid epidemic, to expanding health insurance.
Increasingly, preventing firearm injuries is not only good for health, but good for business. And, ultimately, the business case may rest not on minimizing the cost side of their ledger, but rather on an alignment of values with consumers that drives the revenue side.
Shoppers, notably young people, are increasingly devoting their dollars to businesses that resonate with their values. As the sheer number of people affected by gun violence grows and their demand for change mounts, companies that do something about it may be better off than those that do not.
Dr. Zirui Song is an associate professor of health care policy and medicine at Harvard Medical School and Massachusetts General Hospital.
Charmaine McGuffey: Bring back concealed carry license requirements
For 35 years, I’ve worn a uniform for Ohio’s Hamilton County Sheriff’s Office. I started as a young officer and moved up the ranks. Over the years, I’ve worked as a self-defense instructor, trained officers on firearm safety and ran the corrections training academy for the Sheriff’s Office.
Law enforcement officers must complete countless hours of firearm training prior to being certified – and even we are less accurate in a crisis situation. I’m 95% accurate on a good day, when I’m stationary in front of a target. But introduce loud noises, sirens, the darkness of night, lots of people and someone running at me, my skill level – despite all my training – will go down. And the likelihood that I, or any trained officer, will hit something we don’t intend to hit goes up. This has been known in law enforcement for decades.
Training creates an awareness of your immense responsibility in carrying a firearm. To carry a weapon with no training makes us all less safe.
That’s part of the reason I spoke out last year against Ohio SB215, which was signed into law and went into effect in June. The bill removed the concealed carry license requirement which mandates eight hours of training and background checks. It also eliminated the requirement of citizens to announce to a deputy that they have a concealed weapon if stopped.
By removing these requirements, law enforcement officers are more in danger – and so is everyone else.
Today, the state of Ohio allows virtually anyone 21 years of age or older to conceal carry a firearm without a license that requires a background check to determine any criminal records. I, as the Sheriff of Hamilton County, now have no oversight over who carries a concealed weapon. Prior to this bill being passed, I rescinded last year some 200 concealed carry permits from those charged with crimes such as domestic violence or assault. Now, I can’t do that, and those 200 people can conceal carry without the benefit of law enforcement oversight.
To those politicians who claim to be all about law and order – and pro-police – I want to say, “Really? How are you sticking by this?”
The bipartisan gun safety bill that was signed into law this summer is an absolute band-aid. It doesn’t address my concerns about the safety of law enforcement officers, citizens and children. It’s a way that politicians can placate the various sides on this issue, but it doesn’t go nearly far enough. It’s a way of saying, “Here’s a little something we agree on,” but I think we agree on a lot more than that. Most importantly, in a poll of Ohio residents, 90% were in favor of background checks for anyone purchasing a weapon. This bill does not include that basic element.
Ohio residents should have the opportunity to vote on age limits and strict background checks for anyone who is purchasing a firearm and for those who conceal carry.
What we’re now concerned with is our own training, how to work around this flawed legislation and how to keep ourselves safe. We’re going to keep an accounting of what goes wrong, point out what could have been prevented and pay attention. We’ll continue to fight to rescind this law, and we’ll continue to offer and encourage licenses and training.
All of us, as citizens of this great nation, have a responsibility to help prevent gun violence. I’ll continue to speak out and advocate for sensible gun legislation. Anyone who has an avenue to talk to lawmakers needs to talk to them, too.
Sheriff Charmaine McGuffey is a lifelong Cincinnatian, a 35-year veteran of the Hamilton County Sheriff’s Office and the first woman elected to serve in her position.