When it comes to reducing gun violence, it becomes nearly impossible to separate policy from politics and to isolate illegal gun users from legal ones. The recent move by Cook County, Ill., to charge a surtax of $25 on gun purchases, considered a radical step, is expected to do little to curb the escalating murder rate in the Chicago area. (Indeed, even its supporters concede that the tax is more about raising revenue to help defray medical costs stemming from shootings than about discouraging gun ownership.) Buyback programs have taken illegal guns off the street but have done little to stem the flow of illicit weapons in the first place. Buyers routinely evade ownership restrictions through the use of straw purchases—third parties who purchase weapons on behalf of another. And it is axiomatic that any sort of national gun control (even a restriction on the kind of assault weapons used in mass shootings, such as the one last summer in Aurora, Colo.) is a nonstarter in Congress among Democrats and Republicans alike.
But an increasing body of research argues that politics itself, in the Aristotelian sense, could make for good policy—and that looking to Washington for help isn’t the correct instinct. Study after study has found a strong correlation between the level of civil engagement in a community—what researchers term “social capital”—and the homicide rate. In a sense, the research is telling us what we already see with our own eyes. Homicides (by gun or otherwise) are more prevalent in areas that lack strong, cohesive bonds, whether woven through government outreach, church, kids’ sports teams, farmers’ markets, bowling leagues, or what have you. Put another way, where residents don’t feel a sense of community, they don’t feel protected. In that vacuum, gun ownership rises—and with it, the possibility of escalation. “People who feel less connected to their neighbors, their neighborhood, and their society have fewer restraints on their behavior,” says political scientist Daniel Aldrich of Purdue University. “So in communities that are fragmented and lack trust, we see more crime.”
That’s part of the reason that Chicago, under Mayor Rahm Emanuel, has agreed to pay $1 million to the antiviolence program CeaseFire to mediate gang conflicts in its most war-torn districts. An initiative of the Chicago Project for Violence Prevention, CeaseFire uses felons and former gang members to deal directly with gangs, providing an element of trust on the street that the beleaguered police can’t offer.
Trust is one thing, but researchers Blaine Robbins and David Pettinicchio of the University of Washington say that inspiring citizens to become politically active could make the greatest difference in reducing violence. Their research shows a strong negative correlation between social activism and homicide rates worldwide, even more than the link between crime and income inequality. “Being involved matters,” Pettinicchio says.
The concept isn’t new, he adds. It was espoused almost 200 years ago by Alexis de Tocqueville, who argued that a willingness to engage politically also means a willingness to contribute to the common good. However, the challenges in places like Chicago are evident. Not only does a culture of violence need to be rewired but a culture of civil alienation has to be ended. Sounds like what the city could use is a decent community organizer.