Understanding the root causes of gun violence: changing the narrative

Gun violence in Black communities is often portrayed as something inevitable, instead of highlighting the underlying social issues that lead to the violence in the first place.

July 26, 2023 12:07 am

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By Rachelle Hunley

Despite the thoughts and prayers frequently offered for victims of violence following mass shootings, all too often, when “everyday” gun violence occurs in Black and Latino communities, politicians, the general public and the media ignore it or blame victims for their own pain. 

When it comes to the national debate on gun violence, the daily realities of community violence do not quite fit the mold to which our electeds, media outlets and pundits are accustomed. The media is in search of a picture-perfect victim, and politicians need a reason to blame a political party. Gun violence narratives have emphasized the importance of better legislation to solve our problems. 

Even gun violence prevention advocates often offer blanket solutions that fail to address the unique ways that systemic racism and gun violence combine to devastate Black communities. While legislation and prevention efforts are helpful, they alone cannot eliminate the violence most communities experience daily.

The root causes of gun violence are rarely addressed because violence’s impacts on communities of color are not considered part of the broader gun violence debate. These communities are often ignored, and their stories are not heard. Without the proper resources, media coverage, or political representation needed to draw attention to these issues, it is difficult for the public to be aware of the experiences in these communities and to act to create meaningful change.

We must act together to end gun violence in our community

In 2022 there were 90 homicides and 256 non-fatal shootings here in Richmond. Among children in the United States, gun violence is the leading cause of death, with Black children being 2.4 times more likely than white children to die from it. Additionally, gun violence in Black communities is often portrayed as something inevitable, instead of highlighting the underlying social issues that lead to the violence in the first place. Community violence in Richmond is not met with the same empathy as other forms of interpersonal and intentional violence. Survivors are not humanized nor are they treated with compassion.

Systemic racism and bias play a role in the prevalence and severity of gun violence. Unconstitutional policing in healthcare settings, discrimination against survivors who are perceived as perpetrators and the absence of victim safety policies highlight these issues. As an example, when a gunshot victim presents to the hospital, the police are notified, given that a violent crime has occurred. Many victims are considered involved in the shooting during questioning or are placed in cuffs for warrants unrelated to the crime during their treatment. The criminalization and blaming of victims have led to a lack of trust in the medical and legal systems, leading to increased mortality. Shooting and homicide rates directly result from this lack of trust, making it challenging to break the cycle of violence. 

The question becomes, where do we go from here? Among Virginia’s 38 independent cities, Richmond leads in gun-related homicides and is second among all Virginia localities per capita. Innovative solutions are needed to improve institutional services, enhance access to resources and empower the community to participate in bringing about positive changes. It is time we elevate the effort needed to prevent this devastation. 

We can only accomplish this by amplifying the voices of those affected by this issue. Those closest to the harm are closest to the solutions and should be the closest to power. Programs developed by professionals who have never set foot in our most impacted communities will not work. We must ensure that those most affected by this issue are given the tools and resources to drive the development of our preventative measures.

Advocates, survivors and city leadership have worked hard to develop a comprehensive response to Richmond’s gun violence. Through a shared, community-focused vision, they have worked together on designing, planning, and implementing a gun violence prevention and intervention framework. The framework has begun to produce success. There were 39 nonfatal shootings in Richmond during the first quarter of 2023, down from 50 in the first quarter of 2022.

Additionally, the Virginia Community Violence Coalition has worked to secure a state commitment to addressing gun-related violence in Richmond. In addition to championing prevention strategies, the coalition has ensured that funding goes to community-based organizations to increase capacity and to localities most affected by violence. Richmond is estimated to have received at least $2.7 million from the coalition’s advocacy efforts.

However, additional support is still needed. Virginia legislators have an opportunity to start moving in the right direction by approving a $20 million investment in the Firearm Violence Intervention Program (FVIP), which will help expand community-based solutions. Unless we invest in our most impacted neighborhoods and broaden the conversation to include the root causes of violence, we’ll keep having empty conversations and little progress.

Rachelle Hunley, Director of the Crime Gun Initiative, has extensive experience implementing evidence-based policies and programs developed in collaboration with various stakeholders, from law enforcement to community organizations. Her experience includes developing and leading programs for gun violence survivors. Previously, she served as Co-Chair of the Inspire Workgroup, spearheaded Richmond’s Gun Violence Prevention Framework in collaboration with the City of Richmond, and provided technical assistance to hospitals around the Commonwealth to establish hospital-based violence prevention programs.

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