Gun violence has become a national epidemic, especially affecting underserved urban communities. The rate of gun homicide and injury in urban areas has reached a crisis point with certain socioeconomic and racial groups impacted to a greater extent. There are numerous causes to the issue, and various policy and institutional approaches have been implemented over the years for better or worse with addressing the foundation of the problem. Gun violence in urban communities can be reduced by focusing on breaking the cycle of violence and poverty through implementation of socially focused, community-oriented strategies aimed at the core population in urbanized areas.
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Background and Definitions
It is important to begin with defining gun violence. It is an act of violence and crime committed with the use of a gun, including firearms and small guns. It often includes gun-related violence such as robbery and assault with the use of a gun. Gun violence can result in homicide, crime, suicide, injury, and associated trauma (American Psychological Association, n.d). In this paper urban communities are referred to as areas of high-density populations, most commonly located in the inner city of large metropolises, with populations of over 1 million inhabitants. Often a city will have various areas and neighborhoods which differ in their structure and socioeconomic development. In the context of the paper, the focus will be primarily on low-income residential urban areas where violence is perpetuated due to reasons discussed below.
Gun violence commonly affects urban communities very disproportionally in comparison to sub-urban or rural neighborhoods. Although public health officials state that gun violence has no boundaries virtually, urban neighborhoods are more at risk due to factors of poverty and illegal gun possession. In turn, this leads to higher rates of homicide and crime by violent individuals in possession of illegal firearms. Police departments understand this and attempt to combat illegal gun possession as one of its primary tactics, but are limited by factors of safety, avoiding perpetuating more violence, and acting in a legal and respectful manner to these neighborhoods, which are often communities of color and minorities (John Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, n.d.).
In the past decade, over 1.2 million people in America have experienced gun violence with millions being witnesses. Most Americans personally know a victim of gun violence, impacting personal lives. Approximately 36,000 gun deaths occur in the United States annually, with the peak year in 2017 being 39,773 deaths. Gun deaths have increased by as much as 16% since 2014. Americans are also 25 times more likely to experience gun violence than citizens of other developed countries. Gun homicides disproportionately impact urban areas, which houses a quarter of the total national population and communities of color.
For every individual killed, up to 6 more are injured in a gun assault. Gun homicides are also up 30% from 2014 to date (Giffords Law Center, n.d.). Approximately 20% of all homicides occur in the 25 largest cities in the United States, and 81% occur in urban areas. Disparities are exacerbated in the geographical neighborhoods of large cities. For example, Philadelphia’s safest and affluent neighborhood which is 85% white saw no gun deaths for the year 2014, but its most violent district which is 95% black saw 189 shooting victims and 40 deaths. African Americans are on average 8 times more likely to experience gun violence than other white Americans (Mitchell & Bromfield, 2019).
The places where populations grow up and live can have long-lasting effects on well-being and behavior. In recent decades, greater evidence suggests that social factors such as poverty, crime, joblessness, lack of social connections, and weak formal institutions contribute to a person’s health and psychological prospects. In the United States, historically, communities that are marginalized based on these social inequities also experience negative treatment due to race and ethnicity. This includes by government institutions where racial minorities are prejudiced against beginning with the school systems and ending with the justice system often demonstrating disparate treatment.
Shared experiences within communities also influences perception of appropriate behavior. Committing delinquent behavior, particularly by youth, is more prevalent in communities in urban areas of concentrated disadvantage where norms are accepting of delinquency. In inner city communities affected by gun violence, there is often a tense relationship with law enforcement, as populations feel targeted and abandoned by the justice system (Campie, 2016).
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Cycle of Violence and Urban Poverty
Urban gun violence is directly associated with neighborhoods affected by social disorder such as lower social cohesion and collective efficacy. Furthermore, physical deterioration of infrastructure and urban landscapes (i.e. abandoned buildings), in combination with a lack of economic development such as closed businesses create a derogatory environment. In theory, a lack of informal social control leads to toleration violence and crime, which results in a poorer quality of life for all residents. In turn, this further exacerbates the issue of social cohesion that can effectively address the behaviors.
It becomes a “cyclical perpetuation of violence, neighborhood stigma, and socioeconomic inequities” (Santilli et al., 2017, p. 374). Exposure and participation in gun violence is clearly associated with social class that depends on education and employment, both of which are lacking in urban communities leading to poverty. This cycle negatively affects communities as residents react in fear by either engaging in violence themselves by joining gangs for protection or obtaining illegal firearms or choose a path of avoidance. People begin to fear attending schools, public events, or health facilities, resulting in these services not fully functioning in urban communities and populations not receiving critical services that can contribute to economic and social development.
Strategies for Improvement
Any solutions to the issue of urban gun violence should begin with recognition of key factors. First, that gun violence does not consist of episodic mass shootings, but it is a chronic persistent event which affects small clusters of people in urban communities. Second, violent crime can respond to positive and negative incentives. While deterrence can work, it is important to provide alternatives and reconciliation for those who are considered criminals. Finally, gun violence often occurs in areas where law enforcement is seen as illegitimate, particularly neighborhoods of color where racially motivated prejudice and killings have occurred by police. However, strategies should not attempt to blanket entire neighborhoods, races, or police departments as the root of the problem (Abt, 2019).
A strong regulation of firearms and strategic gun violence reduction initiatives are effective strategies for mitigating this issue. It is a complex factor that will require political, social, and economic participation from stakeholders. The key is to create a safe environment where there is an adequate control of illegal possession and use of firearms (Amnesty International, n.d.). There must be concrete commitment from political leaders and funding available to address the issue. There should be a balanced approach that is not limited to law enforcement but includes residents of urban communities in order for the efforts to be recognized as legitimate.
Pacifying shooters is the first step, using both legal means but also offering steps such as conflict mediation and cognitive behavioral therapy to address trauma which often affects shooters. Focus of policy should avoid legal gun ownership, non-violent gangs, or even drug use – offering alternatives to incarceration and reducing grounds of conflict between individuals and gangs. Funding should be distributed equally between enforcement and prevention initiatives.
Despite the frequency of occurring violence in urban communities, it is often portrayed in the media as a way of life rather than a social problem that needs addressing. Unanimously most research on gun violence suggests that the majority occurs in impoverished neighborhoods of color, communities where extreme poverty and lacking social or government support has driven people to crime. It is a consequence of decades of marginalization that has led to disparities in available community resources, public and social services, and fundamental economic development, which in turn results in disparities in gun violence statistics.
Urban gun violence can be considered the linchpin of concentrated poverty, which holds other conditions of inequality such as unemployment, poor education, and homelessness. Poverty in cities will remain as long as urban gun violence exists as a neighborhood that is not safe, will never be able to prosper. Therefore, as established, urban gun violence is a persistent cycle of urban poverty and crime, which combined with other negative social factors creates significant barriers to development and resolution. Proper recognition of underlying factors and policy focused on building communities and reconciliation can address the problem in the long-term.
Abt, T. (2019). We can’t end inequality until we stop urban gun violence. Web.
American Psychological Association. (n.d.). Gun violence: Prediction, prevention, and policy. Web.
Amnesty International. (n.d.). Gun violence – key facts. Web.
Campie, P. E. (2016). Root causes of urban gun violence. Web.
Giffords Law Centers. (n.d.). Gun violence statistics. Web.
John Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. (n.d.). Urban gun violence. Web.
Mitchell, Y. T., & Bromfield, T. L. (2019). Gun violence and the minority experience. Web.
Santilli, A., O’Connor Duffany, K., Carroll-Scott, A., Thomas, J., Greene, A., Arora, A., … Ickovics, J. (2017). Bridging the response to mass shootings and urban violence: exposure to violence in New Haven, Connecticut. American Journal of Public Health, 107(3), 374-379. Web.
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