Beyond Banning the Ghost Gun, We Need Our Leaders to Fund Violence Prevention

President Joe Biden recently delivered a speech promising to tackle “phantom guns,” untraceable, self-assembled firearms. They are often assembled with parts purchased online and may include hardware from different models. Certainly, there are too many phantom guns in black and brown communities due to the reckless profiteering of gun manufacturers and corporations.

Let’s be clear, the administration is right to go after phantom guns. Our organization, LIVE FREE, commends President Biden and Assistant Attorney General Lisa Monaco for their work to ban companies from selling DIY kits to assemble a weapon without a serial number. Though action on ghost guns is long overdue, elected officials must not ‘ghost’ black and brown communities before summer by failing to use US bailout dollars to scale up community violence intervention strategies.

In too many cities across the country, the conversation about safety is taking an increasingly “tough on crime” turn. We don’t have to make the unequal and costly trade-off of justice for safety, or healing for safety. Thanks to the advocacy of Fund Peace, American Rescue Plan dollars can be used to scale up community responses to violence.

However, mayors and police chiefs are instead using the lion’s share of these resources to expand already bloated law enforcement departments, even though a more efficient and less harmful approach is easily at hand. If elected leaders do not invest consistently in community violence intervention strategies, we will see renewed outbreaks of violence, mass incarceration, separated families and struggling communities.

And let’s be clear, the Biden administration has signaled to state and local elected officials that bailout funds can be used to expand the public safety tool belt in cities across the country. This U.S. Treasury Department Guidelines clearly spells out the expanded uses of the US bailout to include things like summer jobs, housing, and community violence response. The lack of imagination of local and state legislators – and the muscular memory of criminalization – are obstacles to public safety in 2022.

Yes, many of our communities are afraid. All are calling for safer and more secure communities. But we need visionary leadership in this time of crisis, not reactionary solutions from a failed 25-year-old playbook on tackling crime and criminalization.

Across the country, there has been widespread coverage of “rising crime,” which ignores the effects of a devastating pandemic or persistent unemployment. The crime narrative creates a convenient pretext for local and state policymakers to turn their backs on much-needed reforms. Yet the safety of our loved ones is of the utmost importance. Everyone wants to live in communities where they are safe from harm. And that’s why government intervention has to be targeted, and it has to be precise. Policymakers cannot seek short-term solutions to long-term problems. Nor can they revert to approaches that barely solve one problem while creating a multitude of others.

Focusing on “rising crime” will lead policy makers to abandon criminal legal reforms and throw the baby out with the bathwater. We know that returning to a tough-on-crime approach will not keep communities safe. Building safety means investing in the people and groups closest to the pain. We cannot expect that, in the wake of a deadly and traumatic global pandemic, communities will not need deeper support. The federal government knew that states and local jurisdictions were suffering. They passed a COVID-19 relief bill for this very reason.

Unfortunately, too many state and local governments are using COVID-19 relief funds to invest in police alone. For example, The Guardian reported that several major cities in California spent a significant portion of American Rescue Plan Act federal funds on policing, even though the bill was passed to address job loss, homelessness, and food insecurity caused by COVID-19. The police cannot feed starving children; nor can they fight homelessness. Law enforcement responds to crime. Their expanded coffers do not lead to a reduction in crime.

It is imperative that local and state governments direct funding toward proven gun violence reduction and prevention strategies. If gun violence prevention programs do not fund credible messengers, clergy outreach, bedside intervention, stipends for people seeking to leave the gang lifestyle, restorative justice and violence intervention programs not affiliated with the police, they lack vision. If policymakers aren’t working to address the issues that drive people to turn to violence, they aren’t doing the kind of work that would lead to short- or long-term reductions in crime.

Moreover, if the approach is to embrace the victims of violence without also seeking to understand and connect with the perpetrators, we are missing the mark. We must also recognize that these groups — victims and perpetrators — often overlap. We cannot allow elected officials to stand in the way of progress by refusing to engage or half-heartedly engaging in community gun violence reduction strategies.

Currently, many municipalities direct federal funding toward anything but proven strategies to reduce gun violence and mass incarceration. As the Biden administration works with community groups, we hope it moves away from encouraging additional funding for police departments. Instead, federal and local lawmakers should act in the best interests of black and brown communities and fund peace.

It’s time for our communities to come together and create an ecosystem where people can live free from gun violence and mass incarceration. Policing was never designed to address systemic issues of hurting people. Responding to pain by enforcing a criminal code, as the police are trained to do, is ineffective.

We cannot continue to allow policy makers to erase blacks and browns.