What is ‘Community Violence Intervention’ and Why Does Biden Keep Calling it ‘Gun Control’?
Community violence intervention programs could reduce shootings, but gun control groups are getting in the way.
Buried among the buyback programs and registration schemes in President Biden’s gun control agenda is a little-discussed item that has nothing to do with firearms: $900 million for “Group Violence Intervention” and “Hospital-Based Violence Intervention” programs.
It’s unclear why violence intervention has been wrapped up in President Biden’s gun control agenda or been touted by gun control organizations more broadly. Community violence intervention (CVI) programs don’t restrict gun ownership. Instead, they intervene in the lives of the small percentage of individuals who commit violent crimes and discourage them from committing those crimes in the future.
Lee Daniel, for example, is a “violence interrupter” working with a CVI program in Chicago called Cure Violence. As he explains on the Cure Violence website, his job entails working with opposing gangs to mediate conflict.
In one series of incidents, he networked with representatives from two rival gangs and discovered that the neighborhood’s escalating violence was being spurred by T-shirts featuring images of opposing gang members with the letters “RIP.” He got both groups together and mediated the conflict.
“That was a successful mediation. The conflict was resolved, and a couple of those guys went on to college,” he said.
Daniel’s work didn’t require gun confiscation, and yet these programs have been wrapped into the larger “gun control” agenda. Gun control groups Everytown for Gun Safety and Giffords include CVI pages on their websites, and the White House included $5 billion for these programs in the American Jobs Plan.
The connection to gun control isn’t always welcome. According to the founder of one of the nation’s top CVI organizations, the political divisiveness of the gun issue has caused problems for CVI programs, and Biden, et al., may be doing more harm than good by linking the two issues.
The absence of gun control in CVI programs could be a feature, not a bug, however. The data are promising, and with the recent mass shootings in Atlanta, Boulder, and Indianapolis adding fuel to gun rights debates, these initiatives could provide a welcome point of common ground between the feuding sides and, more importantly, help reduce the number of gun-related deaths in the United States.
What is Community Violence Intervention?
Community violence intervention is an umbrella term used to lump together non-profit and government-affiliated programs that use a variety of strategies to curb violence in urban areas. Everytown, for instance, includes “street outreach,” “Group Violence Intervention,” and “Hospital-Based Violence Intervention programs” within the broad “Violence Intervention Program” category on its website.
Charles Lehman of the Manhattan Institute calls most of what you’ll find on the Everytown page “largely meaningless verbiage” to combine programs that don’t have much in common. This rhetorical sloppiness has historically discouraged conservatives from getting on board (more on that below), but generally speaking, CVIs unite around the assumption that a small percentage of the population is responsible for a larger percentage of violent crime.
“It appears to be an 80-20 proposition,” Lehman said. “You can get disproportionately large returns if you target the subset of a community most prone to offending with a combination of carrots and sticks, i.e., the threat of swift and certain incarceration if they offend, but also promises of social services if they don’t.”
Oakland’s Ceasefire program exemplifies this approach, but not all organizations work with law enforcement to threaten potential violent offenders. Cure Violence (which was formerly associated with Ceasefire) hires and trains “violence interrupters” to connect with those most likely to commit violent crime.
Dr. Gary Slutkin pioneered the Cure Violence model in the late 1990s after his experience working on epidemics with the World Health Organization, and he believes we should treat gun-related violence as an epidemic as well.
“I saw the clustering on the map; I saw the waves. I quickly learned that the greatest predictor of violence was a previous violent event. It was behaving like exactly any other epidemic. So, I decided to try out the way we handle any other epidemic, which is health workers hired from the same group,” Dr. Slutkin told me.
Cure Violence works with local community groups to implement systems and train workers who can intervene in potentially violent situations. These workers always come from the target area “micro-community” (i.e., the neighborhood) and have the respect and trust of the community members likely to commit crime. The workers intervene to “lower the temperature” of conflicts and model non-violent behaviors to other neighborhood residents.
Ultimately, Slutkin says, Cure Violence CVIs operate on the assumption that changing behavior requires the validation of a person’s community.
“People are helped…by being supported, by being cooled down, and by seeing that they’re OK to do the new behaviors and that their friends will accept and give them acknowledgment for the new behaviors,” he explained. “Seeing your friends and approval by your friends are the main modulators of these things.”
Are CVI Programs Effective?
Unlike most forms of gun control, which have not been shown to significantly reduce violent crime, CVIs of the Ceasefire and Cure Violence variety have seen success in cities across the country. They don’t work every time in every neighborhood, but they’ve successfully reduced gun-related violence in portions of historically violent cities like Oakland, Chicago, Los Angeles, and New York.
Oakland is among the more famous examples. In 2012, the city experienced 126 homicides and 561 nonfatal shootings. After implementing Ceasefire’s program that year, the city saw homicides drop by 54 percent and nonfatal shootings by 49 percent between 2012 and 2018.
Of course, Ceasefire can’t be credited entirely with this drop. Lehman pointed to Anthony Braga’s 2019 analysis of Ceasefire’s impact on Oakland, which found that the program can be credited with a 20 percent reduction in shootings.
Certain neighborhoods in Chicago experienced similar reductions when the Cure Violence model was implemented between 2004 and 2007. The program was adopted by seven communities, and independent researchers at the Department of Justice credited Cure Violence with reducing shootings in three of those communities by 23 to 35 percent. Two communities saw a decline that was likely unrelated to the program, but one additional community saw a 16 percent reduction in shootings that researchers said was “probably” due to Cure Violence.
In New York, a 2017 study found gun injury rates fell by 50 percent in areas served by Cure Violence programs while the comparison areas only saw a 5 percent decline over the same time period (but did not see a statistically significant drop in shooting victimizations). Another Cure Violence neighborhood experienced a 37 percent decline in gun injuries and a 63 percent reduction in shooting victimizations compared with 29 percent and 17 percent reductions in the comparison area.
When asked about the overall positive impact of CVIs, Lehman described them as working “sometimes, and to some extent.”
“Targeted intervention is hard, and talking people out of offending is harder. But in its best form, there’s a lot of sense to targeting likely offenders and deterring them face to face, so it doesn’t hurt to do if you can do it. It’s not a panacea, but it’s certainly a useful tool in the public safety arsenal,” he said.
Slutkin was more bullish on the efficacy of programs like Cure Violence. “The data’s been there for a very, very long time,” he said, and the Cure Violence website lists seven evaluations that have shown some amount of reduction in gun-related crime attributable to Cure Violence initiatives.
If nothing else, CVIs appear to be far more effective than many of President Biden’s proposed gun control strategies. The mass shootings that drive much of the gun control debate in the U.S. account for only a fractional percentage of the gun-related deaths—and the controversial policies proposed to address those shootings will have almost no impact on the kinds of violence that account for 175 times more homicides than mass shootings.
“I think it makes much more sense to target criminal offenders than gun owners,” Lehman argued. “There are several hundred million guns in the United States, and something like 40 percent of households have at least one of them. Yet most of those guns are not used to commit violent crimes. Policies which target guns writ-large tend to sweep up law-abiding gun owners unnecessarily. Targeting criminals targets crimes; targeting gun owners is a really inefficient way to do the same thing.”
Certain gun control policies may have some effect, but a limited supply of time, resources, and political will calls for effective policies that are both efficient and enjoy broad support. CVI programs like Ceasefire and Cure Violence might fit that bill.
Strange Bedfellows and a Potential Alliance
CVI programs have this positive impact in jurisdictions with and without strict gun control laws, Slutkin told me. In this way, CVIs are a strange agenda item for gun control groups and a potential policy plank for gun rights organizations.
“It’s been a real problem,” Slutkin said when I asked him about the close association between CVIs and gun control.
“People get guns if they want guns,” he continued. “The same is true for drugs. The same is true for many things. I’m not saying [gun control] isn’t worth doing, one way or another. But [Cure Violence] is separate. It’s separate. This is about behavior change. This is about making decisions not to do the shooting. This is about making your life go into a different course.”
If Slutkin’s stance sounds familiar, there’s a reason: The National Rifle Association has held for years that “guns don’t kill people; people kill people” and that criminals will get guns if they want them. CVI programs operate under (or, at least, are friendly to) those very assumptions, and the massive constituencies of pro-gun organizations could be a boon for CVIs that often struggle to support themselves.
Gun rights groups, however, are also hesitant to tie their cart to programs that appear to be in bed with Everytown, et al.
I spoke with Gun Owners of America (GOA) and the National Shooting Sports Foundation (NSSF) about CVIs, and both expressed openness to the targeted nature of CVI intervention but communicated clear distrust of the gun control groups promoting them.
GOA’s Mike Hammond agreed with the 80-20 proposition and admitted that “there are ways you can construct this where it would be okay” from GOA’s perspective. GOA prides itself on not compromising with any form of gun control, so Hammond’s openness to CVI theory is significant. But he doesn’t trust the gun control groups who most vocally support CVI’s, and he certainly doesn’t trust the Biden administration.
“I don’t imagine the people who Joe Biden is going to give money to, and the priorities which his administration is going to set, are going to help things at all,” he said, referring to the taxpayer funds Biden has promised to CVIs. “I look at it with real skepticism.”
Mark Oliva of the NSSF voiced a similar sentiment.
“The National Shooting Sports Foundation has remained committed to sitting at the table and discussing options to reduce the criminal and negligent misuse of firearms,” he said when asked about CVI programs. “[But] the starting point cannot be limiting law-abiding citizens’ ability to own and purchase firearms. Limiting access to firearms is a stated goal of gun control groups with programs aimed at reducing ‘community violence.’”
The National Rifle Association published a blog post in 2018 praising programs like Cure Violence and Ceasefire as ways to reduce gun violence without “attacking gun owners.” But they still declined to comment for this article, as did the gun control groups Everytown and Giffords. (Distrust of the other side of the political aisle goes both ways, apparently.)
Conservatives more broadly are suspicious of CVI programs for a different reason. Progressives have offered CVIs as an alternative to police and sometimes push for police budgets to be redirected towards CVI programs. As an alternative to gun control, conservative gun owners might support CVI initiatives; as an alternative to police, the odds of support are virtually zero.
Still, Slutkin said police officers and law enforcement officials have expressed support for Cure Violence. Violence interrupters lower the temperature of potentially explosive situations, and he said police have requested Cure Violence workers to intervene in specific situations and areas of a city.
And even though CVI and gun rights supporters often come from opposite sides of the aisle, their mindset about firearms aligns more naturally with one another than with the gun control groups.
“You could even say it makes their case,” Slutkin said, referring to gun rights groups. He emphasized that he isn’t against gun control, but that his programs can be successful with or without those measures. “This intervention is able to reduce shootings and killings on its own,” he said.
Despite the philosophical alliances between CVIs and gun rights groups, however, the gun control lobby has cornered the market on this promising urban intervention. Until both sides can come together—or unless CVI organizations can separate themselves from the gun issue—community violence intervention programs are unlikely to receive support from pro-gun America or conservatives more generally.
Jordan Sillars is a freelance writer covering the outdoors, firearms, and conservation, and a Ph.D. candidate in the English department at Baylor University, where he studies the intersection of literature and the environment.