On a drizzly afternoon in January 2013, almost a month after the school shooting in Newtown, Connecticut, that left 20 first-graders dead, more than a dozen religious leaders assembled in Washington, D.C.
They had been invited by the Obama administration to talk about what the country should do to address gun violence. Vice President Joe Biden had been meeting with victims and advocates all day, and he arrived so late that some in the room wondered whether he would come at all. When he finally walked in, the clergy started sharing their advice, full of pain, some of it personal. “The incidents of Newtown are very tragic,” Michael McBride, a 37-year-old pastor from Berkeley, California, recalled telling Biden. “But any meaningful conversation about addressing gun violence has to include urban gun violence.”
McBride supported universal background checks. He supported an assault weapons ban. But he also wanted something else: a national push to save the lives of black men. In 2012, 90 people were killed in shootings like the ones in Newtown and Aurora, Colorado. That same year, nearly 6,000 black men were murdered with guns.
Many people viewed inner-city shootings as an intractable problem. But for two years, McBride had been spreading awareness about Ceasefire, a nearly two-decades-old strategy that had upended how police departments dealt with gang violence. Under Ceasefire, police teamed up with community leaders to identify the young men most at risk of shooting someone or being shot, talked to them directly about the risks they faced, offered them support, and promised a tough crackdown on the groups that continued shooting. In Boston, the city that developed Ceasefire, the average monthly number of youth homicides dropped by 63 percent in the two years after it was launched. The U.S. Department of Justice’s “what works” website for crime policy had a green check mark next to Ceasefire, labeling it “effective” — the highest rating and one few programs received.
McBride wanted President Obama to make Ceasefire and similar programs part of his post-Newtown push to reduce gun violence. He had brought a short memo to give to White House staffers, outlining a plan to devote $500 million over five years to scaling such programs nationwide. His pitch to Biden that day was even simpler: Don’t ignore that black children are dying too.
In response, the vice president agreed urban violence was very important, McBride said. But it was clear that “there was not a lot of appetite for that conversation by folks in the meeting,” McBride recalled.
Later, other ministers who worked with McBride would get an even blunter assessment from a White House staffer: There was no political will in the country to address inner-city violence.
When McBride spoke to administration staffers again about dramatically increasing money for programs like Ceasefire, he said, “People were kind of looking at me like, ‘Are you crazy?’ No, I’m not crazy. This is your own recommendation. You should do it!”
Mass shootings, unsurprisingly, drive the national debate on gun violence. But as horrific as these massacres are, by most counts they represent less than 1 percent of all gun homicides. America’s high rate of gun murders isn’t caused by events like Sandy Hook or the shootings this fall at a community college in Oregon. It’s fueled by a relentless drumbeat of deaths of black men.
Gun control advocates and politicians frequently cite the statistic that more than 30 Americans are murdered with guns every day. What’s rarely mentioned is that roughly 15 of the 30 are black men.
Avoiding that fact has consequences. Twenty years of government-funded research has shown there are several promising strategies to prevent murders of black men, including Ceasefire. They don’t require passing new gun laws, or an epic fight with the National Rifle Association. What they need — and often struggle to get — is political support and a bit of money.
A week after McBride and the other faith leaders met with Biden, Obama announced his national gun violence agenda. He called for universal background checks, which experts say could prevent some shootings. Other key elements of his plan — a ban on assault weapons and funding to put police officers in schools — were unlikely to save a significant number of lives.
At the press conference where Obama announced the plan, a diverse group of four children sat on the podium with him: two girls and two boys who had written letters begging the president to do something about gun violence. “Hinna, a third-grader — you can go ahead and wave, Hinna—that’s you — Hinna wrote, I feel terrible for the parents who lost their children. I love my country, and I want everybody to be happy and safe,” the president said.
Obama went over the litany of school shootings — Columbine, Virginia Tech, Newtown — and made a brief nod to the deaths of “kids on street corners in Chicago.” But his plan included no money for the urban violence strategies his Justice Department described as effective. His platform didn’t refer to them at all.
McBride, who was in the audience, said he was not surprised. He supported the president’s other proposals, and, when it came to urban violence, he had “realistic expectations.” In his fight to save the lives of black men, McBride has kept running up against the same assumption: that “urban violence is a problem with black folk. It’s not a problem for this country to solve.”
Gun violence in America is largely a story of race and geography. Almost two-thirds of America’s more than 30,000 annual gun deaths are suicides, most of them committed by white men. In 2009, the gun homicide rate for white Americans was 2 per 100,000 — about seven times as high as the rate for residents of Denmark, but a fraction of the rate for black Americans. In 2009, black Americans faced a gun homicide rate of nearly 15 per 100,000. That’s higher than the gun homicide rate in Mexico.
To liberals, gun violence among African-Americans is rooted in economic disadvantage and inequality, as well as America’s gun culture and lax gun laws. Conservatives, meanwhile, often focus on black “culture.” “The problem is not our gun laws,” a member of the Wall Street Journal editorial board wrote last year about Chicago’s murder rate. “Nor is it our drug laws, or racist cops, prosecutors and judges. The problem is black criminality, which is a function of black pathology, which ultimately stems from the breakdown of the black family.”
Lost in the debate is that even in high-crime cities, the risk of gun violence is mostly concentrated among a small number of men. In Oakland, for instance, crime experts working with the police department a few years ago found that about 1,000 active members of a few dozen street groups drove most homicides. That’s .3 percent of Oakland’s population. And even within this subgroup, risk fluctuated according to feuds and other beefs. In practical terms, the experts found that over a given stretch of several months only about 50 to 100 men are at the highest risk of shooting someone or getting shot.
Most of these men have criminal records. But it’s not drug deals or turf wars that drives most of the shootings.
Instead, the violence often starts with what seems to outsiders like trivial stuff — “a fight over a girlfriend, a couple of words, a dispute over a dice game,” said Vaughn Crandall, a senior strategist at the California Partnership for Safe Communities, which did the homicide analysis for Oakland.
Somebody gets shot. These are men who do not trust the police to keep them safe, so “they take matters into their own hands,” he said. It’s long-running feuds, Crandall said, that drive most murders in Oakland.
Men involved in these conflicts may want a safer life, but it’s hard for them to put their guns down. “The challenge is that there is no graceful way to bow out of the game,” said Reygan Harmon, the director of Oakland Police Department’s violence reduction program.
These insights led a group of Boston police, black ministers and academics to try a new approach in 1996. Since group dynamics were driving the violence, they decided to hold the groups accountable. The plan was simple: Identify the small groups of young men most likely to shoot or be shot. Call them in to meet face-to-face with police brass, former gang members, clergy and social workers. Explain to the invitees that they were at high risk of dying. Promise an immediate crackdown on every member of the next group that put a body on the ground — and immediate assistance for everyone who wanted help turning their lives around. Then follow up on those promises.
The results of Operation Ceasefire were dramatic. Soon after Boston held its first meeting — known as a call-in — on May 15, 1996, homicides of young men plummeted along with reports of shots fired.
The Rev. Jeff Brown, one of the ministers who worked on the project, remembers people were outside more, barbecuing in the park. At Halloween, kids were able to trick-or-treat on the streets again.
The team behind the effort quickly started getting calls from other cities — even other countries — about how to replicate what became known as the Boston Miracle. With the support of the Justice Department under Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, many cities tried the strategy and some got dramatic results. Stockton saw a 42 percent reduction in monthly gun homicides over several years. Indianapolis experienced a 34 percent drop in monthly homicides. Lowell, Massachusetts, saw gun assaults fall by 44 percent.
A 2012 review of the existing research evidence found that seven of eight cities that had rigorously implemented Ceasefire and similar strategies had seen reductions in violence.
Other cities have tried Ceasefire, or half-tried it, and then abandoned it. The strategy requires resources, political buy-in, and ongoing trust between unlikely partners. The effort in Boston had “black and Latin and Cape Verdean clergy working with white Irish Catholic cops in a city that had a history of race relations leading up to that point that was abysmal,” Brown said. “It was really a shift in behavior, in the way we did business.”
These partnerships can be fragile. Boston’s own Ceasefire effort fell apart in 2000, researchers said. There was infighting and the police official who led it got another assignment. In subsequent years, homicides of young men crept up again.
An endless number of variables can affect crime, making it hard to know how much a particular effort works. Daniel Webster, director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research, noted that the current research only evaluates the short-term effects of the program, so it’s still unclear how well it works over the long term.
Still, Webster said, if you’re interested in reducing shootings among young black men, the Boston Ceasefire model is one of the strategies that has shown “the most consistent positive response.”
Jim Bueerman — head of the Police Foundation, which focuses on crime research — said that while the evidence is only “highly suggestive,” Ceasefire is still worth doing.
“It’s going to be a long time before you get the perfect evidence,” said Bueerman, a former police chief of Redlands, California. “When you come across a strategy like Ceasefire that appears to be working, you owe it to people to try it in your local community.”
Part of what seems to make Ceasefire effective is that it treats the men it targets as both dangerous and also in need of help. Such initiatives, however, fit into no political camp and thus have few powerful champions.
“It has no natural constituency,” said Thomas Abt, a Harvard Kennedy School researcher who has worked on crime policy at the Justice Department. “To vastly oversimplify, progressives want more prevention and conservatives want more enforcement. Focused deterrence” — what academics call Ceasefire and similar approaches — “challenges the orthodoxy on both sides. It makes everybody uncomfortable.”
Ceasefire has often been greeted with skepticism in the neighborhoods it’s supposed to help, where residents have reason to distrust the police. To buy into Ceasefire, McBride had to weigh the data against his own experience. In 1999, as a college student studying theology, McBride was stopped as he drove home by two white San Jose police officers. He said they forced him to get out of his car, groped him, and made him lie on the ground while threatening him.
It didn’t matter that he was a youth pastor, that he was involved in local politics, that he had just helped to get San Jose’s new mayor elected. That night, he was just another black man lying on the ground. (The police chief at the time told ProPublica that while the officers and McBride gave conflicting accounts, he decided to launch a study of racial profiling during traffic stops, one of the nation’s first.)
When McBride moved to Berkeley in 2005, fresh out of divinity school at Duke University, he thought he would focus his social justice work on education — mentoring young people struggling to graduate from high school.
Then a few of the young people he was mentoring were murdered. One was Larry Spencer, a charismatic 19 year old — funny, popular, “someone that everyone just really loved,” McBride said. Spencer was shot to death outside a liquor store in nearby Oakland. It was the city’s 39th gun homicide in a year that left 110 dead.
Hundreds of mourners attended Spencer’s funeral, McBride said. McBride asked the congregation how many had attended a funeral before. Everyone raised their hands. How many had been to two funerals? Three? Four? He continued to count upward. “I got as high as 10,” he recalled. “Half of the young people started to cry and still had their hands in the air.”
Oakland had tried Ceasefire on and off for years but struggled to make it work. “There wasn’t a true commitment to the strategy,” said Lt. LeRonne Armstrong, who managed the city’s program in the mid-2000s while working in the criminal investigations unit. “We did not have the political support.”
McBride and others pushed city leaders and pastors to embrace the strategy.
Many of them were skeptical, but McBride thought working with the police was crucial. “We realized that in order for us to do any of this work, we were going to have to be in some relation with the police department. We pay taxes. We’re paying for the police department, whether we like it or not,” he said.
In 2012, Oakland recommitted itself to Ceasefire. It hired a full-time manager for the program, using both city dollars and part of a 2013 Justice Department grant. The city also dedicated funds to work with a team of experts who had helped other cities implement Ceasefire. The experts helped Oakland do a detailed data analysis homing in on the men who needed to be called in. There were only 20 guys at the first relaunched call-in — “but they were 20 of the right guys,” said Armstrong.
Murders dropped from 126 in 2012 to 90 in 2013, according to police department data. Last year, Oakland had 80 murders.
McBride traveled across the country as part of a national campaign to reduce urban violence using Ceasefire. Every city had its own challenges. Money was one of them. Ceasefire was not particularly expensive, but hiring outreach workers and providing social services to the men involved required a little support, as did hiring outside consultants. Outside funding also made it easier for city leaders to move ahead with a different approach to gun violence.
The Obama administration has several grant programs aimed at helping urban neighborhoods reduce violence, but the demand for grants far outstrips funding. For one 2012 grant, the Justice Department received over 140 applications and had money for just 15.
“It is a brutal process to apply for these grants. Most of them don’t get funded, and I think that’s a bit of a tragedy,” said Bueerman, the head of the Police Foundation. “You have agencies that are highly willing to do the work. You don’t have to sell them on the efficacy of the strategy. You just have to empower it through a relatively small amount of money to help them get the program started.”
The Obama administration has consistently asked for more money than Congress has authorized. In 2012, the White House requested $74 million for five grants for Ceasefire and similar programs. It got $30 million.
Advocates of Ceasefire have tried to press Congress for more money. Some legislators “really like these programs,” one former Hill staffer said, but not enough to take on an uphill battle for additional funding. “I think the one sort of antidote to that was if you had massive political pressure from some organization or group that felt really strongly about something and could get people riled up about it,” the staffer said. “Honestly speaking, if we are talking about urban violence, there is less of that.”
The national groups that spend the most money and do the most advocacy related to gun violence have concentrated almost exclusively on passing stricter gun control laws. Dan Gross, the president of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, said he’s “very supportive,” of strategies like Ceasefire, but “it’s not our lane.”
A spokeswoman for Michael Bloomberg’s Everytown for Gun Safety said much the same. “We’re focused on what we know, which is how to improve the laws,” said Erika Soto Lamb.
Declines in violent crime over the last two decades have made it harder to galvanize support for gun violence prevention. The number of Americans murdered by guns peaked in 1993, then dropped sharply until 2000 for reasons that are still not fully understood. Since then, the number of Americans killed in gun homicides has remained remarkably consistent, about 11,000 to 12,000 a year.
Another constant: About half of those killed this way are black men, though they make up just 6 percent of the U.S. population. In 2001, when George W. Bush took office, 5,279 black men were murdered with firearms, according to estimates from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In 2012, it was 5,947.
These deaths are concentrated in poor, segregated neighborhoods that have little political clout.
“I think that people in those communities are perceived as not sufficiently important because they don’t vote, they don’t have economic power,” said Timothy Heaphy, a former U.S. attorney who has spent much of his career focused on urban violence. “I think there’s some racism involved. I don’t think we care about African-American lives as much as we care about white lives.”
The few congressional efforts to advance gun legislation in recent years have been prompted by mass shootings, violence that is seemingly random and thus where everyone can feel at risk.
“Congress has only moved in response to galvanizing tragedy, and galvanizing tragedy tends to not involve urban, run-of-the-mill murder,” said Matt Bennett, a gun policy expert at Third Way, a centrist think-tank. “The narrative about the need for gun violence prevention generally is driven by these black swan events, and those often involve white people,” he added. “It is horrific and tragic, but that’s the fact.”
When Adam Lanza shot his way into the Sandy Hook Elementary School with a military-style rifle and handguns in December 2012, it wasn’t clear if any laws would have stopped him. Lanza had taken the guns from his mother, who had purchased them legally.
Obama and gun control advocates made universal background checks the focus of their push. It wasn’t a policy that was relevant to Newtown, but they saw it as the most likely way to reduce everyday gun violence and save lives. Most researchers agree that a better background check system could help curtail both urban gun violence and mass shootings, though there’s no hard data to indicate how much.
There was less evidence proving that the other elements of the president’s plan would reduce gun violence. Though the public quickly focused on one weapon Lanza used, a Bushmaster XM15-E2S, experts knew the assault weapons ban hadn’t saved many lives. The effects of a renewed ban “are likely be small at best, and perhaps too small for reliable measurement,” a report funded by the Justice Department concluded.
A former senior White House official agreed. While a ban on high capacity magazines could help some, the official told ProPublica, the assault weapons ban “does nothing.” Though Obama endorsed it as part of the post-Newtown package, “we did the bare minimum,” the official said. “We would have pushed a lot harder if we had believed in it.”
Some gun control advocates who worked with the administration on gun legislation said they saw the endorsement of the assault weapons ban as a bargaining chip. “It’s all a dance, it’s a kabuki thing, and right from the beginning the White House understood that they weren’t going to get a ban done,” said Bennett, the gun policy expert. “They had to talk about it. It would have been insane not to. Every news report after Sandy Hook had this horrible looking AR-15, and noted that it had been a banned weapon that now wasn’t.”
Adding police at schools has popular appeal, but classroom homicides are exceedingly rare.
“Any given school can expect to experience a student homicide about once every 6,000 years,” said Dewey Cornell, a University of Virginia professor who studies school safety.
“Children are in far more danger outside of schools than in schools. If we had to take officers out of the community to put them in schools, then actually children will be less safe rather than more safe.”
Two former administration staffers who worked on the gun violence platform said the $150 million proposal for cops and counselors in schools — which “may have been a bit outsized,” one said — was driven by Vice President Biden’s history of championing federal grants for hiring cops.
It also seemed like “something that people might be willing to, you know, give us money for,” a former senior White House official said.
The staffers said they could not remember why funding to support strategies like Ceasefire was not included in the plan. “Look, if it was some deliberate conversation not to do it, I would remember,” the former senior official said.
Though Justice Department grants for community violence prevention weren’t part of the post-Sandy Hook platform, a staffer said “we were watching the fiscal year 2014 budget process and making sure we were continuing to push for those resources at DOJ.” Bruce Reed, Biden’s chief of staff at the time, said budget concerns likely kept funding for innovative local efforts out of the package.
“We didn’t want to turn this into an appropriations bill, because that would be … ” he said, shrugging. “That would cost us whatever Republicans we had hoped for.”
“The appropriations climate was, if possible, more divisive than the gun debate,” Reed added later. “We were always between shutdowns.”
Webster, the Johns Hopkins gun violence researcher, said that it would have been “more justifiable” to devote federal dollars to supporting Ceasefire and similar programs than it was to put the money toward school security. “I don’t know of any evidence that putting police in schools makes them safe, and I do know of evidence that having police in schools leads to more kids being arrested,” he said.
Two weeks after Obama unveiled his plan, McBride and dozens of other clergy members, many of them from cities struggling with high rates of gun violence, met again with staffers from Vice President Biden’s task force.
The mood at the January 29 meeting was tense. Many of the attendees, including McBride, felt the president’s agenda had left out black Americans.
“The policy people working for Biden worked with the reality of Congress,” said Teny Gross, one of the original Boston Miracle outreach workers who now leads the Institute for Nonviolence Chicago. “What they were proposing to us was very limited and was not going to help the inner city.”
Gross said he “blew a gasket.” The clergy members in the room were pleading for help. “We bury hundreds of kids every year in the inner city,” Gross recalled them telling the administration representative. “Some of the solutions need to apply to us.”
A staffer said that the political will of the country was not focused on urban violence, several ministers who attended the meeting recalled.
“What was said to us by the White House was, there’s really no support nationally to address the issue of urban violence,” said the Rev. Charles Harrison, a pastor from Indianapolis. “The support was to address the issue of gun violence that affected suburban areas — schools where white kids were killed.”
The Rev. Jeff Brown, from Boston, was angered by the administration’s calculated approach. “When you say something like that and you represent the President of the United States, and the first African-American President of the United States, you know, that’s hugely disappointing,” he said.
Former administration officials said they thought it was tragic that the everyday killings of black children did not get more political attention. “I totally agree with their frustrations,” a former official said. “At the same time, when the nation listens, you’ve got to speak, and you don’t get to pick when the nation listens.”
It would turn out there was also little political will to realize the administration’s gun-violence proposals. Measures to expand background checks and ban assault weapons died on April 17, 2013 when they couldn’t muster the votes necessary to advance in the Senate.
In his 2014 budget recommendations around the same time, Obama again asked for more money for local grant programs to combat urban gun violence. He recommended tripling the funding for a Justice Department grant that helped cities adopt Ceasefire from $8 million to $25 million. Overall, he requested $79 million for grants to support similar initiatives. Obama had asked for almost twice that much to put more cops and psychologists in schools.
Congress slashed Obama’s requests across the board. Instead of approving $150 million to help schools hire cops and psychologists, it created a $75 million school safety research program.
It also rejected his proposed increases for Ceasefire and similar programs. Instead, Congress took many of the small grants and made them even smaller. One program was cut from $8 million to $5.5 million. Another shrank from $2 million to $1 million.
In all, Congress spent $31 million on five urban violence-related grants — less than half of what it approved for research on how to make schools safer.
There have been increasing concerns about rising murder rates over the past year in cities across the country. Some have blamed the increases on the “Ferguson Effect,” — the theory that increased scrutiny of cops has made them reluctant to do their jobs — although there is “no data” to support this claim, as Attorney General Loretta Lynch said recently. It’s not clear how much murders have increased nationwide. Each city has its own trend. Some have seen an uptick only in comparison to the historic lows they had last year. In other cities, violence is truly spiking. Baltimore recently recorded its 300th homicide this year, the most since 1999.
In Indianapolis, where homicides are set to increase for the third straight year, more federal funding might have made a difference. In early 2012, Indianapolis applied for a Justice Department grant to help implement Ceasefire, requesting $1.5 million over three years. But just four of more than roughly 60 cities that applied received funding. Indianapolis was not among them.
“Absolutely, there’s no doubt in my mind, if we had been awarded the grant we would have had the financial carryover to move the program forward,” said Shoshanna Spector, the executive director of IndyCAN, a local faith-based advocacy group that pushed for Ceasefire.
Douglas Hairston, who works on private-public partnerships at the Indianapolis mayor’s office, said the city is currently doing “60 to 70 percent” of the Ceasefire strategy.
“Federal funds would have helped,” he said. “We know that we could do more, and we’re striving to find ways to do it.”
Earlier this year, Indianapolis Police Chief Rick Hite said the city was doing the strategy “with modifications” and that the city is always using the “tenets of Ceasefire.”
There have been 133 murders so far this year in Indianapolis, according to police department data, up from 96 in 2012.
In Baltimore, Ceasefire appears to have struggled. The program’s manager resigned in March, the Baltimore Sun reported. Webster, the researcher evaluating the effort, told the paper he questioned whether the rollout of Ceasefire in the Western District was “being done on the cheap and being done in a way that is not even resembling the program model.”
Other cities have seen more success. New Orleans and Kansas City both saw drops in violence that researchers have credited to their new Ceasefire programs. Chicago has been rolling out call-ins to an increasing number of police districts. Gary, Indiana, and Birmingham, Alabama, both launched new Ceasefire programs this year. Cities have often paid for the programs using money from a variety of sources: federal dollars, local governments, and, increasingly local foundations.
Obama has launched an initiative to support young men and boys of color. One of the stated goals of My Brother’s Keeper, which was launched last year, is reducing violence. The initiative is backed by more than $500 million in corporate and philanthropic commitments. But most of that money has been devoted to mentoring and education programs.
Organizers said they would reduce violence, too, albeit indirectly. “I would challenge this notion that violence reduction resources or targeting is only to be looked at through the lens of reducing violence per se,” Broderick Johnson, the chair of the My Brother’s Keeper Task Force, told ProPublica. “It is just as important to look at it in terms of opportunities for young people to stay in school or get jobs or to get second chances.”
Last year, the Justice Department also launched a modest effort called the Violence Reduction Network, which provides cities with training and advice from former police chiefs and other crime-fighting experts. Many of the needs the network meets are basic: It helped Wilmington, Delaware police create a homicide unit. Wilmington, with 70,000 mostly black residents, has a higher murder rate than Chicago.
Running the network is inexpensive. It costs about $250,000 per city annually. But once again, it’s not meeting the greater need. The program is targeted at the roughly four-dozen cities with the nation’s highest violent crime rate. The government is only working with 10 of them.
The White House did not comment on questions about the administration’s overall response to urban violence. The Justice Department offered the following statement: “In addition to focusing on violent crime reduction in cities, the department also responded to one of the worst mass shootings in our nation’s history in Newtown by identifying funding for school resource officers to help keep kids safe in schools and to assist the many victims of this heinous crime.”
Biden’s office also offered a statement: “Whether it’s by banning assault weapons, incentivizing local police to create better relationships with residents of America’s cities, or finding alternatives to jail, including diversionary programs like drug courts, the Vice President has worked to support any viable solutions to reduce gun violence in our cities.”
When Jeff Brown was at the White House recently for an initiative on extremism, he ran into Biden.
“The vice president walked up to me and said, ‘Reverend Brown, good to see you,'” Brown said. Biden said he remembered meeting Brown back in the ’90s, when he visited Boston to hear more about Operation Ceasefire and the Boston Miracle.
“I hope we can bring back some of what we did in Boston,” Brown said he told the vice president.
“I hope so, too,” Biden replied.
Brown laughed at the memory. “You’re the vice president — can’t you do something about it?”