The US is investing millions to stop gun deaths. Is it going to the right communities?

·4 min read

We know what feeds gun violence: Poverty, food and housing insecurity, exposure to shootings and more. So why aren't we getting resources to the people who need them most?

Gun deaths in the U.S. reached all-time highs amid the COVID-19 pandemic, and firearms are now the leading cause of death among children and teens. In response, more cities are investing federal dollars in local programs to curtail shootings.

But a new report finds many are failing to address the root causes in the most affected communities.

The report: Community Justice Action Fund, a left-leaning nonprofit led by people of color, compiled what it calls a "first-of-its-kind" index and scorecard to assess how cities allocate funding to violence prevention programs. The report focused on the 50 U.S. cities with the highest rates of shootings in the U.S. last year.

Why this matters: The Biden administration claims to have secured at least $300 million for community violence prevention and intervention programs – such as job programs and substance use and mental health services – through the 2021 American Rescue Plan Act and 2022 Bipartisan Safer Communities Act. In late July, President Joe Biden announced his "Safer America Plan" would contribute $5 billion more to such interventions over 10 years.

So how are your taxpayer dollars being used? Here's what to know about the spending and where it's going awry:

MORE ON GUN VIOLENCE: The NRA helped make it hard to study gun violence for decades. Now the floodgates are open.

How cities are investing in gun violence prevention

Outreach-based violence intervention: More than half of the cities (64%) in the report have invested in this specific model of gun violence prevention, also known as street violence intervention. These programs rely on "credible messengers" who mediate conflicts in their communities and connect people with services.

Mental health crisis responders: Nearly half (42%) of the cities have invested in mental health crisis response programs that send unarmed first responders who have mental health expertise. Most programs are pilot projects where mental health professionals co-responder to 911 calls involving behavioral or mental health crises, the report found.

Offices of violence prevention: Less than half of the cities (38%) have invested in a "comprehensive" public health approach to violence prevention, and less than half (21 cities) have offices of violence prevention, the report found.

MORE: A look at the effort to expand mental health workers' role in policing

Most gun violence programs don't reach affected communities

While most cities direct funding to programs and strategies that aim to address the root causes of violence (such as in the areas of housing and food security, employment, education, health and firearm regulation), the report found most programs do not prioritize communities that experience the highest levels of violence.

For example:

  • A small fraction of the cities (6%) funded housing and food assistance programs that specifically targeted neighborhoods most impacted by violence.

  • 10% of the cities funded organizations that provide long-term trauma-informed behavioral and mental health care for people most at risk of violence.

  • About a quarter of the cities invested in workforce development programs for people known to be at high risk for engaging in or experiencing violence.

"We also found that none of the 50 rated cities have a discernible strategy to address the dearth of trauma care facilities in or near communities that experience the highest levels of gun violence," the report states.

'Engaging those closest to the pain' of violent shootings

Greg Jackson, a gun violence survivor and executive director of Community Justice Action Fund, said it's essential that cities narrowly tailor programs and services to the people and communities that most need the resources.

"The cities that have been most impactful over the years have had that surgical approach of pouring resources and engaging those closest to the pain of violence," Jackson said.

Cities should also focus on removing barriers to entry, Jackson said. For example, the report notes many existing services are inaccessible to at-risk people who lack permanent housing due to application and other administrative requirements.

Breaking the cycle of gun violence?

The inaugural 54-page report establishes a benchmark that cities can build on in the coming years, said Fatimah Loren Dreier, executive director of the Health Alliance for Violence Intervention, which signed on to the report.

"During COVID, violence has spiked in many cities, and (residents) want to see that cities are doing everything they can to break those cycles of violence," Loren Dreier said. "This tool gives them a very clear understanding of whether or not their cities are beginning to fund this work."

While the report did not examine the effectiveness of specific programs, future reports may include evaluations, Jackson said. "We want to really hold cities accountable to prioritize the communities impacted and not just kind of check a box," he said.

"There's more that needs to be done, and it's not always more police and harsher sentencing," Jackson added.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Gun violence prevention is failing. Why the US can't curb shootings.