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Effective Interventions

Andrew L. Goddard column: As firearm deaths surge in Va., a call for better data

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Mass Shootings

Recent Virginia Department of Health data shows the largest ever year-over-year surge in firearm-related deaths in the commonwealth. Total deaths rose from 1,036 in 2019 to 1,195 in 2020, a 15% increase.

Although suicides still constitute more than 60% of all gun-related deaths, homicides rose by 29%, suicides by 6% and accidental deaths doubled in 2020. Firearm deaths among school-age children (5 to 17 years old) jumped from 41 in 2019 to 64 in 2020 (an increase of 56%), representing 5% of all firearm deaths.

Legislators in the 2022 General Assembly session should focus on responding to these alarming statistics. However, most of the bills introduced thus far concentrate on attempts to repeal advances in Virginia gun violence prevention laws that were passed in the 2020 and 2021 sessions. These laws have not had the opportunity to reduce deaths: The earliest any of them came into effect was July 2020, and new 2021 laws had no chance to impact 2020 VDH data.

A few bills that do address trying to prevent gun deaths focus on just two areas of concern — our schools and gang violence. Reports and data indicate these approaches might not provide the best answers Virginians need.

While gun violence in schools regularly makes the news and grabs our attention, it is important to know that nationwide, only 1.2% of firearm deaths for school-age children take place in schools, while 98.8% occur in homes or elsewhere. Although any death in school is unacceptable, the data indicates our schools — though not entirely safe from gun violence — nevertheless are among the safest places for children to be. Should we focus our legislation only on trying to make our schools even safer, if at the same time, we do nothing to make our children safer in places where they are at the greatest risk?

These school-related bills often concentrate on the school resource officer program, where active-duty police are placed in schools to respond to violent threats. How successful are these programs?

A recent study published by the Chicago Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights, titled “What the Research Shows: The Impact of School Resource Officers,” examines the impact of SROs in schools nationwide over the last 40 years. The report’s primary conclusion was, “There is no clear evidence that the use of school resource officers (SROs) or guards in schools is effective in preventing school violence.” The report goes on to conclude that: “Students feel less safe, and more fearful, at schools with SROs”; “The presence of SROs leads to more expulsions and suspension — particularly for Black students”; and “Schools with SROs criminalize and arrest youth for minor misbehavior.”

The second approach in proposed new legislation is on the serious problem of gang violence. Bills are being introduced to fund a Virginia version of Project Ceasefire, a program used for many years to reduce gang-related deaths in high crime areas of major cities around the country. This program trains ex-offenders and ex-gang members to work with existing gang members and others to try to defuse tensions, and avoid the endless cycle of violence and retaliation that occurs in high crime areas.

Though difficult to evaluate, the best results available indicate that some cities have experienced a 12% reduction in gang-related shootings. How would that program impact the 1,195 firearm-related deaths in Virginia in 2020? Unfortunately, not much. Firearm homicides only constitute 38% of our gun-related deaths (remember suicides and accidents), of which only 20% are gang-related. Project Ceasefire’s best result of a 12% reduction in gang-related deaths would translate into 11 fewer firearm deaths overall, or a 1% reduction.

What then is the way forward to reduce our escalating deaths from firearms? Lawmakers need to focus new legislation driven by a better understanding of the data behind our yearly firearm-related deaths. That’s the idea behind the newly proposed Virginia Center for Firearm Violence Intervention and Prevention, which would gather and analyze disparate sources of data, and develop recommendations our legislators could use for more effective future lawmaking . Legislation has been proposed to create this center and funding was included in the budget, but it remains to be seen whether the legislation or the funding will survive to the end of the session.

Firearm deaths are increasing yearly. For many years, they have exceeded deaths from automobile accidents, which continue to trend downward due to well-researched and effective interventions that make our vehicles and roads safer. It is time that we place as much importance on researching effective interventions to ensure that our right to bear arms does not come with such a burdensome price in lives lost or destroyed.

Andrew L. Goddard is legislative director of the Virginia Center for Public Safety. Contact him at: goddardsinrichmond@yahoo.com

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