The city of Worcester, MA contains all the ingredients which usually create the environment in which gun violence flourishes. The city’s population is 180,000, of which roughly 30% are Black and Hispanic minorities living in cramped, inner-city neighborhoods. It was a red-brick factory manufacturing center until World War II and then collapsed. It has lately experienced the beginning of a downtown renewal with medical and hi-tech sectors coming on board, it also happens to be one of America’s twenty cities experiencing the highest rate of increase in poverty over the last five years.
Here are the gun-violence numbers for the last five years: 2014 – 47; 2015 – 40; 2016 – 30; 2017 – 25; 2018 – 20. Of the five homicides committed in 2018, how many happened with the use of a gun? None. Not one.
How did this happen? How does this city now experience a gun-violence (homicide and aggravated assault) of 11 per 100,000, when the national rate is 28.5? And by the way, it was accomplished without a single dime being spent on any kind of street-corner, ‘cure violence’ type of program, without first conducting any kind of public health gun-violence research, without locking them all up and throwing away the key. Arrests in 2017 were 6,084, in 2018 arrests were 5,358.
It happened for one, simple reason, which is often forgotten or ignored in the endless discussions and debates about gun violence, namely, a coming-together of all the city’s community safety stakeholders and a decision to address the problem in multiple and coordinated ways.
What does this involve? First and foremost, this means the cops. And what the Worcester PD has done is to treat every shooting event as a homicide; in other words, maximum resources are deployed even if the victim is barely hurt. Incidentally, a shooting ‘incident’ even includes events where nobody gets hurt due to the use of ‘shot spotter’ technology in specific neighborhoods and an immediate police response when any gun goes off. The PD also carries out a major program in community policing, with continuous meetings in every neighborhood which gives everyone the opportunity to develop positive relationships with the police.
For those dopes who are arrested for carrying a gun, sentences handed down by the court are as stiff in instances where the gun is brandished even if it doesn’t go off. In other words, when guns are involved, no distinction is made between an actual and a possible assault. The police also have discretion as to who gets a gun license and they exercise this discretion with care. Finally, 2019 will mark the 18th consecutive year for the city’s gun buyback program, which notwithstanding the bad press that buybacks have received from certain gun-violence experts, is an event which helps generate community concern about the risk of guns.
The University of Massachusetts medical school is also located in Worcester and medical residents and students are afforded exposure to the gun violence issue in multiple ways. They can learn about gun violence in the community-health module which they all must take, a learning experience which includes seminars with cops and gun owners (that’s me,) as well as being encouraged to develop techniques to counsel patients about the risks of guns.
Worcester’s extraordinary achievement in dealing with gun violence isn’t rocket science. Pardon me for sounding a bit like Sarah Palin (who?) but it seems to come down to a combination of hard work, commitment by multiple stakeholding agencies and common sense. One of my good friends in Worcester, Michael Hirsh, is the pediatric surgeon at the medical center/medical school who runs the gun buyback program each year. He describes the reduction in gun violence as a white uniform, blue uniform collaboration can focus resources both in a proactive manner before the violence occurs, as well as a quick reactive response to both shooters and victims every time a gun goes off.
For all of us who lament the unending cycle of gun violence in the United States, here’s an instance of where the reverse is true.