Silence filled the classroom as an 11-year-old student, Tijani, described escaping from a shooter in his neighborhood a year earlier. “I felt like my heart was exploding from my chest.”
I was leading a workshop for 7th graders, and as Tijani told us his story, his breathing grew faster and his hands began to shake — physical signs of trauma.
Gun violence traumatizes our youth. Adverse childhood experiences like witnessing a shooting can literally change young people’s brains and even make them more likely to harm others, thereby spreading their trauma to someone else. So, when scientists tell us gun violence moves across people and populations like a virus, they’re being quite literal.
The understanding that gun violence is a public-health issue is not new. But what is new and worth exploring is the fact that 2020 gave us the template for what it looks like when we take a public-health crisis seriously. It’s one thing to declare gun violence a grave threat to our collective well being. It’s another thing to treat it like one. The COVID-19 pandemic, in real time, is giving us the blueprint for how to address a public-health disaster. It’s time to treat gun violence like COVID-19.
Perhaps even more mind-blowing than coronavirus’ exponential growth last year was how swiftly and effectively our state and our region slowed its spread. By some metrics, Washington state and King County handled the pandemic better than anywhere else in the U.S. So, what are the lessons learned from the pandemic and how can we apply these strategies to stop the spread of gun violence?
First and foremost, our region and state’s COVID-19 response has been incredibly comprehensive, and its scope has reached far beyond medicine. Our gun-violence response must be similarly broad.
For example, just like we quickly established housing for COVID-positive individuals to isolate and quarantine, we should quickly establish optional housing for people at risk for gun violence, away from their neighborhoods, until the risk of spread declines. When people are involved in heated disputes in their neighborhoods, or live with their abusers, it is often unsafe for them to remain in place because those situations may escalate due to proximity. Having more options for distanced, temporary, safe housing could be a mitigating strategy for the spread of violence.
Similar to community vaccination clinics, we should also fully invest in community-resource centers for groups whose lives have been or could be upended by shootings. Whereas vaccination clinics inoculate people from infections, fully equipped resource centers can inoculate people from violence by providing the economic and emotional stability they need to live safe lives. In fact, in a comprehensive 2019 report, our own youth in King County recommended that a primary strategy for curbing gun violence would be having “community centers that offer after-school activities and the opportunity for youth to develop supportive relationships with each other and with trusted adults.”
Just like we transformed restaurants and gathering spaces to slow transmission of coronavirus, we should transform physical spaces most at-risk for shootings to reduce the spread of violence. We can do this by supporting community organizations like Southeast Network, Rainier Beach Action Coalition and others that activate outdoor spaces with music, better lighting, food and community members who are trained in conflict resolution.
We must also use the power of data to understand and address gun violence, as we are already doing with COVID-19. Unlike COVID-19, however, our federal government has restricted federal funding for gun-violence research. According to the American Public Health Association, Congress must allow the collection of gun-violence data to better understand its causes and develop effective solutions. Indeed, better data collection would help us understand and treat the root causes of gun violence. In King County, the map of where firearm homicides occur most often very much mirrors the map of how low-income or under-resourced an area is. This information tells us we must solve gentrification, displacement, racism and wealth inequality for any of us to truly be safe.
Lastly, COVID-19 is showing what we can accomplish when we all work together. Even though one of the first cases of coronavirus in the United States was discovered in one specific location in Kirkland, our entire county and state leapt to action. Similarly, our entire region and state need a unified, coordinated strategy to end gun violence. King County’s Zero Youth Detention program is doing incredible work to form a regional, unified public-safety effort across government, private and nonprofit sectors, but this agency needs significantly more resources to do its work meaningfully.
Many of these solutions already exist to some degree. But to eliminate gun violence, all of these strategies must be scaled-up.
We have already done the work to tackle a pandemic through responses that meet the scale of the crisis — solutions that are fully funded, data-driven, comprehensive and coordinated. If we follow our own example, we can make sure kids like my student Tijani live safe lives where they worry about homework — not escaping shooters.