“When you see Trump say, ‘I want law and order and let’s send in the troops,’ or he encourages armed vigilantism, you’re further destroying that trust between the community and law enforcement and government. That’s going to lead to more violence.”
Over the past six months, the United States has seen a surge in homicides, gun violence, and political and vigilante violence. President Donald Trump has tried to deflect blame from his policies, even as the violence has occurred under his watch. The uptick also takes place during a pandemic that has significantly impacted Americans’ emotional, physical, and mental health, economic well-being, and sense of belonging.
To get a better sense of what’s driving this violence and how stop it, we spoke to Josh Horwitz, the executive director of the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence. The organization’s mission is to “make gun violence rare and abnormal” through policy development, advocacy, and community partnerships.
The below interview has been edited for length and clarity.
COURIER: Americans are dealing with various issues because of the pandemic, including job loss, economic uncertainty, and struggling with isolation and their mental health. There’s also an enormous political division in this country right now. What policies or leadership measures could have been enacted before the pandemic to prevent the rise in violence we’re seeing now, and what can we do now to mitigate it?
Josh Horwitz: Let’s start with police violence because I think that’s at the top of everybody’s mind right now. Police violence [leads to things] that have their own awful consequences that result in death and lack of trust in the community. It has all these awful effects. There’s also a very distinct effect that police violence has on gun violence: It completely betrays and destroys trust between law enforcement and the community, which is a key factor in reducing homicide. So think about what a lack of trust with law enforcement means … No one’s going to call law enforcement when there’s a problem. You don’t want to cooperate with law enforcement when there’s a problem. You’re afraid to bring them into your home. You’re afraid to call them if something’s happening.
Police violence is awful. It has terrible, rippling effects on community violence, so we need to understand those things as connected and having double tragedies every time something like that happens.
The thing that bothers me about this in many ways is, you have the primary violence that you need to deal with, but what we see right now is that the Trump administration is using the exact wrong tools to try to do something about gun violence. When you see Trump say, “I want law and order and let’s send in the troops,” or he encourages armed vigilantism, you’re further destroying that trust between the community and law enforcement and government. That’s going to lead to more violence.
Instead of sending more troops in, you should be looking at the root causes and trying to understand and using the federal government’s authority to investigate patterns and practices of law enforcement, use special masters [an officer of the court appointed by a judge to hear a case involving difficult or specialized issues]—those types of things can be very effective here. But that tool has been thrown away.
The other tool that would be important is funding for community violence interrupters. There’s an entire comprehensive program of investing in communities, reducing police violence, and procedurally just gun interdiction in Oakland, but the federal government is not interested in supporting any of that.
COVID-19 lays bare the health disparities that have existed for a long time: the lack of investment, education, and jobs are all ultimately root causes of gun violence and will increase gun violence.
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When you put all of this into context, and factor in the unbelievably easy access to guns, violence will ultimately be more lethal, and that’s another reason we’re seeing a rise right now.
Some pundits claim the US ignoring a lot of gun deaths is a precursor to leaders minimizing the deaths from COVID-19. Do you believe this is correct?
Our mission is to make gun violence rare and abnormal. One of the reasons we use the word abnormal is because we think gun violence has been normalized. It means people just ignore it and say, “Well, that’s an inevitable part of life,” when it’s not. First of all, gun violence was not always an inevitable part of American life. It’s not an inevitable part of life in other comparable countries. I think allowing yourself to be numb or normalize this is a big problem.
It seems like with the people dying now [from COVID-19], it’s kind of like “well, that’s collateral damage,” and President Trump is like “those are mostly old people.” I think that allows you to minimize two things: the pain and tragedy that occurs for the families that are involved and the need for people to feel like they need to wear masks and partake in social distancing.
When you normalize gun violence as something that just happens every day, you don’t have to make necessary investments to stop it. If you can normalize COVID-19 deaths, then you don’t have to take the necessary precautions to prevent it. It’s amazing to me we can normalize these things. It’s amazing that we can write people’s lives off as collateral damage of a broader political strategy. It’s really painful to me, and for someone who has both lost friends to gun violence and COVID-19, I can tell you that it really, really hurts. We cannot live in a country where these deaths are just considered acceptable.
The additional $600-a-week in federal unemployment benefits expired in July. A lot of people have lost health insurance during the pandemic because of layoffs. Do you think those things play a factor in the rise of violence?
Yes, I do think that but I think this only exacerbates our disinvestment—or intentional lack of investment—in Black and brown communities. It goes back to this sort of collateral damage issue: “Is this acceptable?” It shouldn’t be acceptable. We need to invest in communities and that means we need to get to the root causes of violence.
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You see with the pandemic that the primary health inequality in America comes through in really clear ways: access to health care, access to education, housing density, and things like that. Those issues maybe can get papered over when you don’t have a pandemic, but [when you do], they come to the fore—and the same thing with gun violence. If we were serious about stopping gun violence, we would invest in a whole new suite of gun violence prevention laws and invest in the communities most impacted by gun violence. We would do both of those things, and when you don’t do that, you see gun violence. When you don’t do that, you see that when you have a pandemic, we’re not prepared for it.”
In the long run, addressing the problems with gun violence that we’ve seen will require massive investments and overhauls of policy. In the short term, is there anything that can be done?
Long-term you need to invest, but there are things you can do in the short term that will make a big difference. Some of these things are creating better gun laws. This could be anything from licensing firearm purchases and owners, banning assault weapons, universal background checks, and establishing extreme risk protection orders.
Another thing we can do in the short term is getting more “violence interrupters” on the streets. You can do that in a couple of months and it’ll pay big dividends. The quickest thing we can do in the short term all comes down to investing in community violence prevention you can do quickly.
The president, however, is doing none of those things. He’s doing the exact opposite. He is sending in more troops and trying to get the militias to show up. Those things just quickly exacerbate all the problems.”
Is there anything else important to know about the issues we’ve discussed?
I think the important thing to remember is that this is all avoidable. These things don’t have to happen. It’s about having good solutions—which we do have. It’s about not normalizing things. We are making a dramatic change in states across the country. A lot of that’s been obscured in the terrible events of the last six or seven months, but we’re making big changes in the country and change is possible. We do need big systemic change in the United States, but we’re making progress in gun violence prevention.