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Democrats are skipping out on the most important gun fight of all

Adobe/Globe Staff

IN THE DEMOCRATIC primary campaign for president, candidates are going bigger and bolder on guns than ever before. Senator Elizabeth Warren has called for a “public health approach” to preventing gun violence. Before withdrawing from the race, Representative Eric Swalwell proposed a mandatory buyback for military-style weapons. Senator Cory Booker has advocated for a national gun licensing program and tried to highlight his policies in Boston recently (before bad weather forced him to cancel).

All that said, the candidates are still failing to focus on what is simultaneously the most serious and most solvable form of such violence: shootings and killings on the streets of our cities.

Urban violence accounts for the overwhelming majority of homicides in the United States, and it disproportionately affects poor people of color. For young Latino men, homicide is the second-leading cause of death. For young African-American men, it is not just the leading cause of death; homicide accounts for more deaths than the nine other top causes combined.

Not surprisingly, addressing such violence is critically important to people of color, a key Democratic constituency. In one survey of 1,200 African Americans and Latinos, 80 percent of African Americans and 54 percent of Latinos agreed that gun violence was an “extremely serious problem,” even more so than police misconduct or mass incarceration.


Finally, while urban violence disproportionately affects poor racial minorities, the general public also pays for violence via higher taxes, increased insurance premiums, diminished economic activity, and lower property values. Credible studies estimate the total cost of a single homicide to range between $10 million and $19 million in 2017 dollars. Multiply those figures by the thousands of homicides that year and the cost to the average American was between $531 and $1,020.

Some places have it worse than others, of course. But none are immune. Massachusetts may have the lowest gun death rate in the nation, but Boston still saw a rash of 17 shootings in five days over the Fourth of July weekend.

Unlike other forms of gun violence, there is plenty of research and data on urban crime. Today we know enough to provide a strong sense of how to tackle this terrible problem.


First, because urban violence concentrates among a small number of people and places, strategies that target those concentrations tend to work best. In most medium to large cities, violent crime clusters among a few hundred individuals and a few dozen micro-locations known as “hot spots.” Less than 1 percent of a city’s population and less than 5 percent of its geography will generate the majority of its lethal or near-lethal encounters.

Next, strategies that balance punishment with support work better than either approach in isolation. No city has reduced violence only with law enforcement, or reduced it without law enforcement entirely. In a comprehensive review of over 1,400 anti-crime evaluations, my colleague Christopher Winship and I discovered that the evidence does not favor either “tough” or “soft” approaches; there are numerous examples of both that have worked.

Last, peace in the streets requires cooperation between communities and criminal justice authorities. However, when people see law enforcement as unwilling or unable to help them, they refuse to report crime, testify in court, or serve as jurors. Even worse, they are more likely to take the law into their own hands, using the “code of the street” to violently resolve disputes. By improving relationships with affected residents, police and prosecutors can solve past crimes while preventing violence in the future.

These principles — focus, balance, and fairness — are the clearest guidelines to effective anti-violence policies available. Follow them and success is likely. Disregard them and failure is almost a certainty.


In New York City and Los Angeles, leaders paired targeted policing with street outreach and services, bringing violence down dramatically. In Oakland and Detroit, police and community stakeholders successfully confronted criminals, telling them, “The shooting must stop. If you put the guns down, we will help you. If you keep shooting, we will stop you.” In Boston, organizations like Roca, Boston Uncornered, and InnerCity Weightlifting directly engage youth and young adults at the highest risk for violence, both as victims and perpetrators.

Despite the urgency of the problem and the availability of solutions, proven approaches to reduce urban violence still suffer from a lack of attention and support. Democrats are partly responsible when they support the same gun violence policies that have been around for decades, such as universal background checks, banning assault weapons, and keeping guns out of the hands of dangerous people. Although these strategies make good sense, they do little to curb the violence on the streets of our cities.

So why don’t Democratic leaders embrace a broader gun violence agenda that includes proven strategies to reduce urban violence? Here are a few reasons.

Mass shootings account for less than 1 percent of all gun deaths annually, yet they dominate the debate on gun violence and distort the search for solutions. A responsible public conversation concerning gun violence in the United States must address mass shootings but also domestic violence, suicides, and of course, urban violence.


Programs that are demonstrated to reduce urban violence do not poll well with the American public, but that is because people are not aware of these strategies — not because they disagree with them. People need to know that urban violence is not the intractable challenge they believe it to be; there are concrete ways to dramatically reduce violence that can be implemented right now.

Also, many Democratic activists are wary of police, prosecutors, and the criminal justice system generally. There are good reasons for this, but when extremists label all law enforcement as corrupt, brutal, or racist, they overlook the fact that those who bear the brunt of the system’s injustices are also the ones who need its protection most of all. In the end, peace requires communities and criminal justice authorities working with, not against, one another.

Some advocates are also concerned that an open discussion of urban violence will only reinforce racist narratives that poor people of color are predisposed to criminality. This worry is understandable, but ignoring violence does not do anyone any good, least of all those suffering from it on a daily basis. Democrats can restore peace while reaffirming that Americans do not differ in their propensity for crime and violence, only in their history and circumstances.

Finally, some worry that raising awareness of urban violence might derail progressive criminal justice reforms by prompting a return to fear-based “law and order” policies. We can reduce violence while promoting reform at the same time, however.


In fact, sustained progress toward one is unachievable without progress toward the other, as the public expects policy makers to deliver both safety and justice simultaneously.

Saving lives in urban America is everyone’s responsibility, but unfortunately some Republicans, led by President Trump, demagogue the issue, using race-based fears of crime to divide Americans. Responsible solutions, for the time being, will have to come from the other side of the aisle. Democrats should say “We have a plan for that” when it comes to urban violence.

Leaders on the left should go further than just pushing back on the destructive language and policies coming from the right. Democrats must be more than just critics; they must offer a positive vision of how to address urban violence directly, and not just through poverty reduction, gun control, or police reform. Progressives should champion federal funding for evidence-based, community-informed strategies to spread the success of these antiviolence approaches to cities around the nation.

By my calculations, $899 million in such funding — just a fraction of one percent of the federal budget — if channeled to the 40 most violent cities in the nation over a span of eight years, could save over 12,000 lives and avoid over $120 billion in direct and indirect costs, producing a return on investment of $135 per dollar spent. The strategies funded would be neither brutal nor indiscriminate and should enjoy the strong support of the communities directly affected by them.

Saving lives is not just the smart thing to do politically, it’s the right thing to do morally. We must not overlook the thousands of black and brown young men who die violently each year. We must never numb ourselves to murder, no matter who the victim might be. We should all take to the presses, airwaves, and streets, demanding that our leaders bring this unnecessary slaughter to an end. It just doesn’t have to be this way.

Thomas Abt is a senior research fellow at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government and author of “Bleeding Out: The Devastating Consequences of Urban Violence — and a Bold New Plan for Peace in the Streets.” Follow him on Twitter @Abt_Thomas.