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How We Should Address California’s Gun Violence Problem

December 2, 2021   |   Brian Malte

Special to CalMatters

Six years ago, 14 people were killed in the tragic mass shooting at the Inland Regional Center in San Bernardino. To prevent more senseless gun violence and pave a new way to work collaboratively on equitable and community-led solutions, we need to move beyond the cultural and political divides. 

For too long, efforts and resources to curb gun violence have focused on legislation and political campaigns, sidestepping and overlooking the most impacted communities.

Approximately 3,000 Californians die each year from gunfire, and we have witnessed an unprecedented surge in gun sales during the COVID-19 pandemic along with troubling increases in gun homicides and intimate partner deaths. To stop this troubling trend, we must dig deeper to address not only the root causes of violence but also the easy access to guns in Black and Brown communities, and within homes across the state. 

We see signs of progress, including more public funding for effective community gun violence interventions. Yet, these efforts are only a fraction of what needs to be done to move the needle on gun violence. We cannot solely focus our efforts on interventions to mitigate retaliatory gun violence. 

So what are the most important things we can do to achieve comprehensive and dramatic reductions in gun violence and firearm suicides in the next five years?

Better gun violence data: More timely and culturally relevant city-level data is critical so we are not guessing about where and how to address gun violence. This also includes data on the cost of gun violence to communities and data on the flow of illegal guns into communities of color.

Change the media narrative of gun violence: The public’s perception of violence is significantly influenced by journalists who decide which incidents they report (or don’t report) and how people of color are portrayed. In community violence articles, images of those accused of gun violence were overwhelmingly people of color – 90%. Through our funding, Berkeley Media Studies Group is working to change the media narrative about gun violence so communities can tell their own stories and lift up their own solutions. 

Truly put community first: Putting community solutions first means engaging with community residents to ensure that collaboration takes place upfront and that voices, solutions, and stories are heard at the onset of discussions and planning, not at the back end. 

Change government systems to address gun violence: We need to reform government systems that often ignore the plight of those in need and, at its worst, suppress and incarcerate marginalized residents. Government systems have not historically addressed the prevention of gun violence and tend to work only for the most affluent leaving out our most marginalized citizens.  

County governments have limited or no contingency planning strategies for addressing gun violence in their Emergency Operations Plans. These plans are intended to facilitate efficient response and recovery activities for issues like wildfires and homelessness, utilizing a framework of prevention, intervention, and trauma aftercare. Gun violence must be viewed similarly, as the sustained loss of life is unacceptable, and counties should adopt Emergency Operations Plans to address this, which the Hope and Heal Fund is at the forefront of developing.

The key to driving down gun violence and firearm suicides is a bottom-up approach that demands collaboration, not competition, among community residents and a government systems approach that addresses all forms of gun violence. The bottom line is this, if we only focus on the gun, we have done nothing to address the underlying causes of violence. And, if we only focus on the root causes, then we have done nothing to address the most lethal means of violence and suicide. 

We are confident that California can collectively and significantly decrease gun violence and firearm suicides. The seeds have been planted and it’s time to execute. The reimagination of gun violence prevention is in full swing. The time to act is now.

Brian Malte serves as the executive director for the Hope and Heal Fund, a California-based donor collaborative that pursues a public health, racial equity-driven approach to gun violence prevention.

Photo Credit: Takako Hatayama-Phillips