Mass shootings make dramatic headlines, but they miss the real story: communities acting to stem the menace of gun crime
The summer of 2012 has sadly been colored with several high-profile mass shootings. Friday morning, nine people were injured in a shooting at the Empire State Building in Manhattan, New York. Nineteen were shot in Chicago last night. Earlier this summer, seven were killed in a mass killing at a Sikh temple in Wisconsin; three were killed at a shooting at Texas A&M University; and a massacre in a Denver-area movie theater resulted in 12 killed and 58 injured.
These high-profile shootings, though, are only a drop in the bucket of gun-related violence in the US. There are approximately 100,000 shootings in the US every year, and nearly 9,000 of those are fatal. Homicide is, in fact, the leading cause of death among non-Hispanic black male adolescents: these are gun crime’s less visible victims.
Most gun violence receives far less media attention than the mass shootings have this summer. Friday’s shooting near the Empire State Building in the heart of the tourist zone of midtown Manhattan made headlines, but in other boroughs the toll of shootings and fatalities continued with no mayoral press conference: a 13-year-old boy was fatally shot Thursday night in Brooklyn, in the same neighborhood where a 15 year-old was arrested last week for shooting four teens in a playground; and two men were shot on Thursday over a “food vendor turf war” in the Bronx.
These individual incidents, often in poorer urban neighborhoods, are generally overshadowed by more sensational mass shootings in city centers or suburbs. In absolute numbers, however, they are the real mass shootings – forming the vast majority of fatal gun violence cases.
The finer points of the second amendment and the gun control debate are remote from these areas, and policing methods like “stop-and-frisk” have provided no lasting solution, so several communities have started organizing themselves to prevent gun violence in their neighborhoods. One such, a non-profit organization named Snug (“guns” spelled backwards), works to reduce gun violence in a 72-block section of central Harlem, in upper Manhattan. The area, which contains three housing project buildings and approximately 60 gangs, has long been a hotbed for violent crime. Snug mediates conflict among “high-risk youth”, helps young people find employment, and when necessary, intervenes in violent situations.
Most Snug employees are former gang members and ex-convicts who have reformed. Dedric “Beloved” Hammond, a Snug “violence interrupter” whose old street name was “Bad News”, admits to having dealt drugs and carried a gun in his past. “The thing that gave me a chance to change was [getting] locked up,” he says. “It started making me understand that what I thought was living wasn’t living.”
Beloved and his team call themselves “credible messengers”, since they can relate to the situations in which most Harlem teens find themselves. Being slightly older helps as well. “I show them that you can get money, dress fresh, and everything, without doing nothing illegal,” said Jamar Cooke, a Snug outreach worker.
Snug employees boast deep roots in Harlem, which breeds an immediate sense of familiarity and respect. “My cousin knew [Beloved] from back in the day,” said Antoine, a 24 year-old who grew up in the neighborhood. “People really look up to him, so if he’s telling people that gun violence ain’t cool, then [eight out of ten kids] would be like, all right, I’m gonna leave guns alone.”
Antoine believes most youth who carry guns are “naïve”, while Cooke says they do it for respect, safety, and in some cases, peer pressure. “You develop so much beef out here in the streets,” Cooke said. “Sometimes they feel safer with a gun.” Cooke and other Snug employees believe much of the “beef” in Harlem – which they say can be about anything ranging from drugs to girls – can be dissipated by strengthening social ties, educating the community about the dangers of gun violence, and giving young people something productive to do with their free time. Snug hosts basketball and movie nights, and even helps youth with job searches.
Operation Snug, which began in late 2010, is modeled after the successful CeaseFire program in Chicago. That model addresses violence as a public health issue that can be prevented using disease control methods – identifying the problem, intervening to stop its spread, and changing the norms and behavior to keep it from coming back. Similar initiatives exist in cities like Boston and Los Angeles.
“Violence is a disease,” says Rhea Morris, deputy director of nursing in the emergency department at Harlem Hospital Center. “It’s not only a clinical disease, it’s a social disease.” Morris spoke of the particular problem of retaliation associated with gun violence. Snug’s effort to interrupt potential retaliation is a critical part of what the hospital calls the “Circle of Safety”, a coalition of organizations working together to reduce injuries and eliminate gunplay in the community.
“You know,” says Maribel Ortiz, one of Snug’s two female outreach workers, “they say you did your job when you save one. But not me. Nah, I wanna save them all.”
Saving a life will never make sensational live TV news, but community initiatives like Snug may be the more important story.