Today, President Barack Obama announced his proposals to address gun violence in America. He was flanked by children who have written to him about their desire for change in the wake of the shooting in Newtown, Conn., in which 27 people died, including 20 young pupils.
As tragic as Sandy Hook was, the 217 killings reported by the Baltimore police in 2012, sadly, are more typical of this epidemic and how it affects the daily lives of Americans, including kids. In fact, 11 of those 217 Baltimore victims were children. Many more lost their mothers or fathers, or were injured. And still others spent much of the year afraid to play outside.
The good news: In addition to the measures proposed this week by President Obama and Gov. Martin O'Malley, we have other, proven, ways to make things better — right now. Communities all over the United States can learn from strategies being pioneered in Baltimore, among other cities. These strategies are achieving results by treating shooting like another familiar epidemic in America: smoking.
Everyone knows smoking kills, but for the most part, that isn't why people quit. They quit because their parents, friends, or kids tell them they're worried they will die — or that they smell bad. They quit with the help of practical support from friends and family, and sometimes health professionals. And people quit because in America, smokers are turning into outcasts shivering in the cold for a drag, whom 58 percent of Match.com members say they would never date.
Similarly, a young man about to do a shooting is unlikely to stop because he is afraid of going to prison, getting hurt or even dying. But he might pull back when a person he knows and respects is there in time to remind him how his actions will hurt the people he loves, calm him down and help him save face.
If he decides he wants to change his life, it is much more likely to work out if there is someone he trusts and whom he can depend on for support. If his community makes it clear that this behavior is unacceptable, and has consequences for everyone, that is additional incentive.
Cure Violence, a national NGO that has been working in Baltimore since 2007, is built around these lessons, learned from campaigns designed to tackle public health problems like smoking. It gets results. An evaluation, published last year, by the New York Academy of Medicine found that the Baltimore Health Department's replication of the Cure Violence model, "Safe Streets," achieved reductions of up to 56 percent in homicides and 34 percent in nonfatal shootings in Cherry Hill between January 2009 and December 2010.
How is Cure Violence doing this? They train "interrupters" — men and women with credibility on the street and an ear to the ground — to go into potentially violent situations and defuse them. They hire outreach workers who provide support to the boys and men most likely to do violence. And they engage the whole community in "peace summits" and campaigns that help change social factors, and make resolving a conflict with violence less attractive to the rising generation.
Together, these activities create communities where a 7-year-old boy sees and learns that nonviolence can command respect. When that happens, violence goes down. We need to use examples like Safe Streets to inspire a national citizen movement to change social norms, combined with professionalized outreach to help to those who need it most.
President Obama and governors like Mr. O'Malley and New York's Andrew Cuomo have made an excellent start. However, we all need to pull together to tackle the community-based social norms that lead to violence — a response that has been shown to work in Baltimore and beyond.
Dr. Gary Slutkin is the founder of Cure Violence. Michael Feigelson is program director at the Bernard van Leer Foundation, a Dutch foundation focused on disadvantaged children.