In the United States, a single calendar week has not passed in President Barack Obama's second term without a mass shooting incident. With a gridlocked Congress that refuses to fund any research on the causes of gun violence or the benefits of gun control, reducing America's incidents of gun violence may require some creative thinking.
While there may not be any clear way forward for gun control, despite Obama's continued insistence on the importance of the issue, there are several actionable ways to lower rates of gun violence in America, many of which Congress and several 2016 presidential candidates have addressed in some way.
1. Access to alcohol and drug treatment and rehab
Several studies have found the single greatest indicator of a person's risk of committing an act of violence is substance abuse. In a 2013 analysis published in Homicide Studies, researchers found "48% of homicide offenders were reportedly under the influence of alcohol at the time of the offense." Other research has found chronic alcohol abuse elevates the risk of homicide, suicide and violent death. Those with five or more symptoms of alcohol abuse or dependence have been shown to be between about 1 to 4 times more likely to commit a criminal offense.
Just 11% of the 22.7 million Americans living with drug or alcohol dependency received treatment in 2013, according to USA Today. A 2015 report from Community Catalyst states "people from all walks of life struggle with substance use disorders," however "access to treatment options is limited by income."
While some low-cost rehabilitation options charge only $7,500 per month, some high-end luxury programs can run a recovering addict as much as $120,000 per month. Health insurance covers the many steps of recovery — assessment, detox, outpatient and inpatient treatment — to varying degrees.
Hillary Clinton has said the federal government should improve drug treatment access, laying out a plan in September to spend $10 billion to combat addiction. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) has said that "we are unprepared for the epidemic in terms of our mental health capacity to treat people who need treatment." Republican presidential candidate Carly Fiorina shared the story of losing her child to drug addiction at the second GOP debate, though did so to argue against marijuana decriminalization.
Unfortunately, the lack of access to treatment and rehab often means people with alcohol or drug abuse problems end up in prison, where their problems can become exacerbated.
2. Prison reform
For those who are shuffled in the U.S. prison system — the largest prison system in the world — the result is a process of dehumanization that often leads people to feelings of trauma. Prison is no longer about rehab. In fact, many nonviolent offenders emerge from prison more violent after being subjected to an inhumane culture of violence.
"The experience of being locked in a cage has a psychological effect upon everyone made to endure it," Mika'il DeVeaux, executive director of Citizens Against Recidivism, wrote in the Harvard Civil Rights-Civil Liberties Law Review. "No one leaves unscarred."
The main culprit of the problem is "mandatory minimum" sentencing for drug offenders, which require "automatic, minimum prison terms" for certain crimes, especially drug crimes. Drugs traditionally associated with the black community also have harsher sentences. Congress sets these mandatory minimums, not state governments. A recent deal in the Senate on criminal justice reform legislation did not go as far as some advocates had hoped in addressing mandatory minimums.
According to the Department of Justice, among nonviolent offenders released, "about 1 in 5 were rearrested for a violent crime within three years of discharge."
"Someone whose only crime is using a drug does not necessarily have any criminal tendencies, but when they come out of prison and can't find a job because of their record, many turn to crime," wrote former Los Angeles Police Department Deputy Chief Stephen Downing in a 2014 op-ed in the Huffington Post. "Almost two-thirds will reoffend within three years, clearly indicating that our current form of punishment is not a deterrent."
3. Curbing the school-to-prison pipeline
Though the National Rifle Association has responded to recent school shootings by suggesting armed police officers be stationed in every school, students of color stand to suffer from this move. Increased police presence in schools disproportionately affects students of color and fuels the school-to-prison pipeline:
While black children make up 16% of children in schools nationwide, they make up 31% of in-school arrests. Citing a Brown University study, Think Progress wrote, "Young offenders who were incarcerated were a staggering 67% more likely to be in jail (again) by the age of 25 than similar young offenders who didn't go to prison. Moreover, a similar pattern held true for serious crimes. [The researchers] found that incarcerated youths were more likely to commit 'homicide, violent crime, property crime and drug crimes' than those that didn't serve time."
Congress held the first hearing on ending the school-to-prison pipeline in 2012, though few, if any, action items have been proposed since then. Presidential hopeful Sanders proposed a government job opportunity program to curb the pipeline, while other candidates have largely avoided the issue.
4. Addressing structural racism and investing in young black men
After the shooting in Charleston, South Carolina, many journalists and even Clinton were commenting on the way institutional racism influenced gun violence in America. However, one need not look to Charleston for evidence that America's gun epidemic is fueled by racial inequality.
Between 2000 and 2010, 53,850 black men lost their lives to gun violence in America, according to the Center for Law and Social Policy. Eighty-five percent of these homicide victims were under age 40. The center projects another 68,000 will lose their lives to gun violence by 2025 if no progress is made to address gun violence.
Though the majority of America's poor are white, poor whites do not live in areas of concentrated poverty like their black counterparts, according to CLASP. People who lives in areas with concentrated poverty are more likely to experience violence and to be the victims of violence.
Most black male homicides in America occur in areas with high rates of concentrated poverty:
"Communities of concentrated disadvantage have long lacked the infrastructure and resources to make them viable places to live, work or raise a family," CLASP reports. "The stress of poverty and absence of opportunities for a solid education and economic self sufficiency makes growing up in these neighborhoods difficult for young people, in particular young black males."
5. Correcting income inequality
The U.S. may have some of the worst problems with income inequality in the world. Cross-analyzing data from the United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime and the U.N. Human Development Index, CityLab's Richard Florida and his colleague Charlotta Mellander mapped a clear link between income inequality and homicidal violence.
But why? Elizabeth Stoker wrote about several studies linking income inequality and homicides for The Week.
"[S]ince much of the violent crime we see among young men appears to be the result of the hopelessness and frustration brought on by the lack of status available to men at the bottom, strides can be made toward reducing the impetus for those crimes simply by raising the bottom up and reducing the gap between the worst and best off," she writes. "A policy as simple as a universal basic income could accomplish that neatly."
Both Clinton and Sanders have commented on the idea of a universal basic income and a minimum wage. Clinton gave a tepid response to a Facebook chat question, while Sanders advocates a $15 minimum wage, though that still may not be enough.
6. Addressing gender inequality and "macho" culture
We know that gun violence can be deadly for American women, but even more than specific instances of violence, a culture of gender inequality can be indicative of a culture of violence. Florida and Mellander show that countries with higher gender inequality — worse rates of education attainment, political representation and reproductive health — have higher rates of homicides, as well.
Florida, writing for the Atlantic, also points to the regional American "cultures of honor" as inculcators of higher rates of violence. These are cultures in which people "place an extraordinary value on personal reputation, family and property." In his book Culture of Honor, Richard E. Nisbett wrote that "southerners, as compared to northerners, are more inclined to favor violence when it is for protection of property, or as a response to an insult, or as a means of socializing children." Three of the five states in the U.S. with the worst records of gun violence are in the South.
Sanders has spoken out against attacks on women's health, equal pay for equal work and 12-week paid family leave. Clinton called equal rights for women and girls the "great unfinished business of the 21st century."
Gun ownership is a problem in the United States, but gun ownership does not happen in a vacuum. The root causes of violence — inequality, poverty and trauma — are also the root causes of gun violence. Taking these steps to make America less violent will also ultimately allow us to confront gun violence — without having to wait for Congress to move on gun control.
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