Monday afternoon, President Obama will deliver his first speech on a tour promoting his plan to reduce gun violence in Minneapolis, Minnesota. The choice of location is anything but accidental: Minneapolis has, in recent years, developed a progressive, highly effective approach to gun violence prevention that has seen firearm crime plummet.
As in most places in the United States, violent crime in Minneapolis peaked in Minneapolis in the mid-90s — 1995, to be precise, two years after the national peak. Minneapolis’ murder rate was bad even for the early-90s crime epidemic, earning the city the name “Murderapolis.” So it was particularly worrisome that, while most of the country was enjoying a “steady and spectacular decline” in violent crime from the mid-90s going forward, Minneapolis’ firearm crime rate began to tick back up around 2000. By 2006, homicide was “the leading cause of death for young people in the city.” The kids were mostly being killed by guns.
In 2006, Mayor R.T. Rybak (who’s still in office today) and the city council voted to designate youth violence as a “public health” problem rather than simply an issue for law enforcement, an approach pioneered in Boston in the 90s. The public health approach suggests that youth violence is caused principally by a surrounding environment — lack of adult support, economic incentives to join gangs, easy access to guns — rather than “bad kids” who need to be locked away. The point is to identify the environmental causes in the same way one might identify, say, pollution as a cause of lung disease, and then develop appropriate treatments.
Rybak and the council created a “steering committee” that would attempt to align Minneapolis police, public health, and social work problems in a joint effort to address the public health roots of the crime problem. The end result was a document titled “Blueprint for Action: Preventing Youth Violence in Minneapolis,” which laid out four principles and 34 concrete recommendations based on them for addressing the youth violence problem. The principles were 1) ensuring all youth have access to trusted adults through things like city-funded mentoring programs, 2) help incentivize youth who are “at-risk” for committing violence through things like city job programs, 3) help reorient kids who’ve already committed violence through steps like orienting probation around reintegrating youth into the community rather than surveillance, and 4) working against the broader culture of violence by, among other things, “seeking stronger penalties for people who sell and distribute illegal guns.”
And it worked. Jon Roesler, an epidemiologist at the Minnesota Department of Public Health who studies deaths from gun violence, told ThinkProgress that “If there’s one thing [that caused youth gun violence to decline] –- and of course, there’s never one thing –- but if there’s one thing, it’d be [the Blueprint].” Violence did, indeed, decline: here’s a chart of hospitalizations for “assaultive” gun wounds in Minneapolis:
Minneapolis’s crime statistics show evidence of progress. Juvenile-related violent crime citywide declined 29 percent from 2007 to 2008, and 37 percent from 2006 to 2008. Four of the five targeted, high-violence Minneapolis neighborhoods identified in the Blueprint for Action reported even more significant drops. Violent crime in the Folwell, McKinley, Hawthorne, and Jordan neighborhoods declined 39 percent from 2007 to 2008 and 43 percent from 2006 to 2008. The percentage of Minneapolis crime committed by juveniles decreased from 42 percent to 25 percent, and the average population in youth detention for the county has decreased from 100 to 58 in that same period.
So what can be learned from Minneapolis? First, law enforcement needn’t be about arresting kids to matter. Integrating the police with mentoring and social welfare programs appears to more successfully reduce youth gun violence while at the same time throwing less kids in jail.
Second, data matters. Pooling police, public health, and school data about youth (gun) violence allowed Minneapolis to develop a program tailored to its specific needs. Federal laws currently sharply restrict data collection and pooling for the purposes of gun violence prevention.
Third, there’s no substitute for smart gun regulations. Though crime has decreased, Gretchen Musicant, one of the driving forces behind the blueprint, told ThinkProgress that “access to guns” was still a problem in part because state preemption laws (as in most states) prevent a wide swath of firearm regulation at the city level. But Mayor Rybak is thinking creatively about that too — he’s planning to use the city’s leverage a gun purchaser (for police) to punish gun companies that lobby against more regulation.
He may be just in time — the state legislature is gearing up for a bruising fight over gun law reform that’ll kick off right after Obama’s speech.