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How Grant Makers Can Fight Gun Violence — Now and Over the Long Haul


3/6/2018

By Nina Vinik, Director, Gun Violence Prevention & Justice Reform

This article originally appeared in the Chronicle of Philanthropy on March 5, 2018.

Each year, some 7,000 minors are injured or killed by guns. No other country in the world experiences anything close to this. No other country accepts the slaughter of children in classrooms and on the streets as an acceptable price to pay for its citizens' right to own guns.

This is a singularly American phenomenon. Around the world, nations have rates of bullying, mental illness, and nonlethal violence comparable to ours. But our rates of lethal violence are exponentially higher than in other developed countries. Why the disparity?

Because we are overrun with guns and have weak gun laws, making firearms easily available to those who shouldn’t have them.

The Parkland shooting seems to have lit a fire in many corners of our society. Students from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, and from across the country, are standing up and making their voices heard. Corporations have broken ties with the National Rifle Association, which has opposed common-sense gun restrictions. This suggests a wave of attention and activism to reduce the violence and holds the promise of real change.

Now it’s time for philanthropy to step up. For too long, foundations and other donors steered clear of this public-health and public-safety crisis. Some were shying away from the political controversy; others feared the gun lobby. There are signs this may be starting to change, but there is much more grant makers can do if we care about reducing the violence and giving our children a safer future.

The good news is that we know how to solve this problem:

Back advocacy for stronger gun laws. Tougher laws would make it harder for people at risk of violence to gain access to guns. We should support efforts to strengthen background checks of gun buyers; limit access to military-style assault weapons; expand the use of Extreme Risk Protection Orders, a legal mechanism to temporarily disarm gun owners believed by police or family members pose a danger to themselves or others; and improve oversight of the firearms industry. In the absence of congressional action, states have stepped up to strengthen their gun laws, and research indicates these laws make a difference. The more these measures spread across the country, the harder it will be for Congress to sit on its hands. Advocates, policy experts, and grass-roots organizers have been under-resourced for decades. More grant money and other support would spur further progress.

Focus on the needs of the cities. Urban America needs philanthropic funds for programs that help those at the highest risk of being shot or engaging in gun violence. This is doable, because gun violence affects a small minority of residents in our cities. Job training, cognitive behavioral therapy, street outreach, and community-based anti-violence programs are proven to reduce violence and build safer communities.

Make gun owners part of the solution. Polls show that gun owners support common-sense gun laws, but their voices are not being heard. One issue to rally around is safe storage of firearms at home. Recent research found that only about a third of gun-owning parents stored their firearms unloaded and locked, even when they had children with depression or other risk factors. Guns in the home are a known risk factor for suicide and domestic violence. We must sound the alarm on this issue and support education campaigns to engage gun owners and nonowners alike.

Invest in research. We know a lot about what works, but we still need to expand the body of evidence about best practices to reduce gun violence. Restrictions imposed by Congress on federal funding for research on preventing gun violence have held back the field, especially compared with other public-health issues. In the absence of government funding, foundations should support these important studies.

Public Wants Change

While research on prevention has been stymied, we know a lot about what people think about gun issues.

Recent polls show that a majority of Americans, including gun owners, support change. But don’t be fooled by the suggestion that we should arm teachers. The idea that more guns will keep us safer is false, and teachers don’t support it.

Similarly, we’ve heard that the problem is mental illness, not guns. As a society we absolutely should restore funding for community mental-health services and improve access to care. But that won’t solve our gun-violence problem. In fact, people with mental illness are more likely to be victims of gun violence than offenders.

It is painfully obvious that children who are afraid to go to school cannot learn. This does not apply only to schools that have suffered mass shootings. Researchers have shown that academic performance suffers after a shooting incident near a school. Until we stop the virtually unfettered proliferation of guns in our country, our kids will continue to experience fear and trauma that keeps them from realizing their full potential.

Here are three ways foundations and other donors can move quickly to support efforts to prevent gun violence:

  • Support the young people who are standing up to demand change. Learn about the March for Our Lives, planned for March 24 in Washington, D.C., and across the country.
  • Learn more about the issue from experienced donors. The Fund for a Safer Future is a national collaborative of grant makers committed to reducing gun violence through effective public policies.
  • Foundations can support local and state efforts to prevent gun violence. For example, the Partnership for Safe and Peaceful Communities is addressing Chicago’s gun-violence crisis. And in California, the Hope and Heal Fund works on the issue at the state level.

Philanthropy can no longer sit on the sidelines. It’s time to choose: our kids, or our guns.