Detroit organizers say new legislation largely aimed at thwarting mass shootings won’t solve gun violence in a city where firearms are easy to obtain illegally.
Gov. Gretchen Whitmer signed two gun reform measures into law Thursday inside Michigan State University’s Spartan Stadium, a location that reflects how a deadly shooting on the East Lansing campus two months ago reignited calls for policy changes that had stalled following a separate mass shooting in 2021 at Oxford High School in Oakland County.
Detroit organizers weighed in Thursday during a visit to the BridgeDetroit newsroom for a conversation on gun violence, saying background checks and safe storage laws are unlikely to prevent firearms from falling into the wrong hands in urban cities like Detroit. Instead, they’re pushing for more investment in solutions that focus on the root causes of violence.
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“It’s really important for us to name why many Black people don’t buy into the legislative measures that are being pushed in Lansing,” said Alia Harvey-Quinn, director of the collective action group Force Detroit. “It’s because of the degree of saturation of guns. This stuff is not going to impact our neighborhoods. Community violence intervention will impact Detroit, but red flag laws, needing a screening to buy a gun … we’re not buying guns in establishments.”
Hours after BridgeDetroit’s anti-violence roundtable, three teens and a person in their 20s were shot late Thursday on Detroit’s west side. Detroit Police Chief James White described the incident as a “shootout.” White said 30 shots were fired and police recovered four firearms from a residence. Police say 11 people between the ages of 7 and 20 caught in the crossfire.
“This is getting ridiculous,” White said at the scene Thursday night. “This level of violence is unacceptable. Too many guns, too many people putting them in the wrong hands.”
Violent crime in the city fell in 2022, but Detroit recorded 309 homicides and 959 non-fatal shootings. Detroit police reports do not distinguish gun deaths specifically. The Detroit Police Department reported 64 homicides so far this year and 169 non-fatal shootings.
Gun violence became the leading cause of death for kids and teens in the United States in 2021, surpassing automobile accidents, drug overdoses and cancer. Young Black males represent 2% of the total U.S. population but accounted for approximately 38% of all gun homicide deaths in 2020, according to CDC data.
Laws signed by Whitmer this week require background checks for rifle and shotgun purchases and for adults to lock up firearms in a home where minors are present. The legislation also sets new penalties for gun owners if unsecured firearms are used by minors to kill themselves or others.
“When I was growing up, we got guns by breaking into people’s houses,” said Yusef Shakur, co-director of the Michigan Roundtable For Diversity and Inclusion. “It’s not hard to get a gun.”
Detroit is embarking on a new initiative to support the community groups that have performed street-level violence prevention work for years.
Non-profit and community-based organizations had until Friday to submit applications for city contracts to fund anti-gun violence strategies. Up to five organizations will receive funding over the next two years to target areas of neighborhoods that endure high levels of violence. The city set aside $10 million in federal pandemic relief funds for the program, which was unveiled by Mayor Mike Duggan during his State of the City address.
Dubbed “ShotStopper,” the program was created based on debate around the best use of government funding to deter gun violence. The name is a play on ShotSpotter, an audio surveillance company Detroit hired to report gunshot sounds to police. A $7 million contract approved last year was criticized by activists who said the money should be invested in people instead of technology.
ShotSpotter Inc. rebranded itself as SoundThinking in April. The name change occurred less than a week after the election of a new mayor in Chicago, who has vowed to end the city’s contract with ShotSpotter over concerns about its accuracy. The technology has also been linked to the police killing of a 13-year-old boy by the new Chicago mayor and Detroit activists.
Teferi Brent, an organizer with violence prevention groups including Dignity 4 Detroit, argued ShotSpotter alerts react to shootings instead of preventing violence. He told Duggan the city needs “shot stoppers” instead.
“The argument we were making to the (police) chief and the mayor is that you don’t need to invest in more surveillance tools to identify gunshots, because that’s too late,” Brent said. “You need to invest in the brothers and sisters in the community who are doing work to try to prevent the gunshots.”
Duggan described the new program as an experiment during his March address.
“I don’t know if it’s going to work, but we’re going to try to do this by holding these (community violence prevention) groups accountable for their own theory,” Duggan said in March. “What happens if you get the police and the courts and the community activists working together? Can we change the hearts, can we diffuse the anger in some of these neighborhoods? This is what we’re going to try.”
Harvey-Quinn described the application process for ShotStopper as “extensive and prohibitive.” She said most grassroots groups won’t qualify. Organizations must show a minimum of two years of experience in violence prevention work and “sufficient” organizational capacity, according to the city’s eligibility rules and organizations applying for fiduciary services must show five years of experience managing federal funds.
The city intends for the program to operate from summer 2023 through July 31, 2025. It’s unclear how long the program will continue – or whether it will expand to cover larger parts of the city – which is why organizers say tracking measurements of success will be key. Performance will be measured by tracking reductions in homicides and nonfatal shootings.
“(ShotStoppers) is not enough to meaningfully cover the City of Detroit, but it is enough to examine the results of a deep investment and what can come out of it,” Harvey-Quinn said. “If implemented properly, these strategies can reliably reduce violence predictably by up to 30%. Nobody can get on a microphone and say ‘we’re shutting this down’ if we actually (prove that). All we have to do is make sure that our work has efficacy.”
Bishop Herman Starks, a criminal justice organizer, said the $10 million program is a fraction of what is needed to fund prevention efforts and support for victims of gun violence.
“If there was a true intent that was actually allowing us to do the work we would not be talking about a drop in the bucket of resources that bring wraparound services,” Starks said.
Activists who spoke with BridgeDetroit said more support is needed for “credible messengers” who are embedded in communities experiencing violence. That includes formerly violent people who can speak to their peers and build relationships with people who aren’t easily reached.
“We need to figure out how to get in the streets. Who are the right people that are actually transformed and still in the circles that are highly violent?,” Harvey-Quinn said. “That’s how you can stop violence before it happens. I would suggest that there are many, many people on the ground who can get into certain communities.
“Wraparound services gain credibility when they come from peers,” she added. “If we just offer a bunch of counselors, our beloved thugs ain’t coming.”
Shakur, a longtime activist and author who joined a gang in his teens, said violence prevention efforts need to consider the poverty young Detroiters are growing up in. Without mentors and a focus on providing education and employment opportunities, Shakur said, young people will see crime as a job opportunity.
“We always start at the physical violence while neglecting the economic and political violence has perpetuated across multiple generations,” Shakur said. “Very poverty stricken areas are producing violence at a high level because of the violence that’s been heaped upon as a result of disinvestment for years.”
Last month, Whitmer approved $10.8 million in funding for a statewide community violence intervention Program. The funding includes $8 million for community grants, $2 million for initiatives to prevent misuse of firearms and $800,000 to create a state Office of Community Violence Intervention Services.
The creation of an office focused on violence prevention is also a recommendation of a City Council gun violence task force led by Council Member Fred Durhal. Several Detroiters expressed support for funding the violence prevention office during recent budget hearings, though it was not included in the budget approved by council this week.
Democrats hold a majority of the Michigan House and Senate and are poised to adopt more legislation aimed at curbing gun violence. The state House advanced a “red flag” law allowing judges to order the confiscation of firearms from people who pose a risk of using their guns to harm themselves or others.
Meanwhile, gun violence is taking a heavy toll on communities. Faith leaders like Church of the Messiah Pastor Barry Randolph in the city’s Islandview neighborhood said he’s witnessed too many parents who are forced to bury their children.
“We’ve have a funeral Saturday for a 92-year-old woman, and I’ve never buried anybody that old. It’s mostly children,” Randolph told BridgeDetroit on Thursday. “That’s crazy to say. When we stop and think about how the leading cause of death of our children is firearms, it’s a scary thing.”
Could “automobile accidents” be updated to “automobile crashes”?
It is known that these crashes that cause loss of life aren’t mere accidental situations. It is the result of systemic design choices which permits regular and dangerous driving activity that causes a loss of life.
Change the culture change the outcome! It starts at home, church, families. It is not ok to kill your fellow man. Thou shall not Kill. Folks carry guns because all the other folks carry guns. Stop this madness!
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