When Pastor Michael McBride visited the White House in January 2013 for one of Vice President Joe Biden’s gun violence task force meetings, he said he was one of just two Black people in the room.
McBride, the national director of Faith in Action’s LIVE FREE gun violence prevention campaign, recalls the heavy anguish that day as faith leaders proposed ideas for preventing yet another mass shooting in America after the Sandy Hook massacre left 20 children and six adults dead the month prior. When it was McBride’s turn to have the floor, he spoke about the gun deaths of Black and brown Americans — killings largely ignored in the national conversation about gun violence.
McBride called on Biden to unite the country around the “shared pain of gun violence.” He told the vice president he had the opportunity to create a winning political coalition by addressing gun violence in urban communities across the country.
But Biden’s response was one McBride had heard many times before — one he calls deeply painful.
“While there was a compassionate acknowledgment of the issue, there was not the political will to place this work front and center in the gun violence conversation. And I think that too often … there was always a lot of calculus around, is this politically viable?” McBride said. “And so for someone like myself and so many others who were burying Black children and Black family members regularly, that has never been a good answer.”
The response from Biden that day stands in contrast to how he talks about gun violence now. As president, Biden has promised billions of dollars in funding for community violence intervention, or CVI, programs that have been shown to break cycles of violence by connecting high-risk individuals to wraparound social services. His White House has proposed a multipronged response to a recent spike in violent crime in cities across the country.
This summer, the White House announced a 15-jurisdiction CVI collaborative, a group of mayors, law enforcement, CVI experts and philanthropic leaders who are working over the next 18 months to improve their jurisdictions’ CVI infrastructure and add to the body of evidence supporting these programs.
The Departments of Treasury and Education announced this summer that two buckets of American Rescue Plan funding — $350 billion in flexible state and local funding and $122 billion in school funding — could be used for CVI initiatives. States and localities have committed at least $1 billion of the funding toward CVI so far, according to an estimate from the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence. The number continues to grow.
Biden proposed an additional $5 billion in CVI funding this spring in his Build Back Better agenda — an amount of money that was unattainable years ago as activists like McBride failed to secure figures closer to $600 million.
McBride credits it not necessarily with some epiphany Biden has had, but with the grunt work of activists and government officials. In particular, he pointed to the Fund Peace coalition, a group of organizations looking to solve violence, which has worked closely with the White House’s Domestic Policy Council to construct the CVI investment in the president’s social spending plan. The White House has stayed in frequent contact with members of the coalition, McBride said, often holding meetings led by DPC Director Susan Rice, Cedric Richmond, director of the White House Office of Public Engagement, and sometimes even Biden.
But beyond committed personnel, there was a policy concept that McBride and others say could very well change the course of gun violence in a nation plagued by it.
Breaking the cycle of violence
Community violence intervention is about breaking the cycle of violence. The term, now widely used in the gun violence prevention world, was coined by activists on the ground who saw their work as a community-driven effort. The universal term gained popularity in the last few years, with Giffords changing phrases like urban gun violence prevention to community violence intervention in 2019.
These programs provide individuals with trauma-informed care and connect people to social services like counseling, education programs and employment opportunities.
When Erica Ford, the founder of LIFE Camp, Inc., one of the nation’s top community violence intervention programs, talks about the impact she’s seen CVI have in her own community, she tells the story of a current staff member. The young man lost three friends to gun violence in one day. She remembers his pained voice on the other end of the phone line, telling her he wanted to “kill the world.”
Ford and other team members pulled up to his house in their 35-foot recreational vehicle they call the “peace mobile,” and she told him and his mother they wouldn’t leave until he came outside.
“And we didn’t. And we were able to bring him in and begin the process of healing for him, transformation for him and developing the leadership skills to impact his friends,” said Ford, another member of Biden’s 2013 task force. “So transforming his life was able to save at least 300 lives between the last two years that he’s been part of our organization.”
From Ford’s perspective, the idea of tackling the root causes of gun violence in urban communities wasn’t on Biden’s radar eight years ago. It wasn’t on Washington’s radar.
“Their intentionality wasn’t to address the killings of Black and brown children, because that wasn’t something that could get you votes. That wasn’t something that could get you campaign dollars. That wasn’t something that can electrify your constituents,” said Ford, who has played a major role in the Fund Peace coalition’s push for CVI funding in Biden’s infrastructure package.
After Sandy Hook, the vice president was tapped by President Barack Obama to run point on gun policy overhauls. It was the centerpiece of the administration’s response to the shooting, and it came after Obama had left the issue of gun control nearly untouched from the start of his presidency.
Biden’s gun control task force met 22 times in the early days after Sandy Hook. Most of the meetings were held in the same week, spanning multiple hours, as Biden jotted down ideas in his notebook he would present to Obama in mid-January, according to a 2013 report from The Washington Post. The task force was about bringing together multiple interest groups to build a diverse coalition to lobby Congress, with Biden meeting with faith leaders, gun violence survivors and even the National Rifle Association.
Obama accepted all 19 executive action recommendations from Biden, and four more were added before the president presented them publicly. The executive actions included moves like improving the federal background check system, active shooter training for law enforcement and school officials, asking the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to research causes and prevention of gun violence, and nominating a director of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.
But the vice president was also criticized for moving too slowly on putting together his legislative proposals. When Congress finally got around to considering bills to expand background checks, ban certain assault rifles and limit the size of magazines, momentum to act had faded. None of the measures cleared the 60 votes needed to beat back a filibuster in the Senate.
‘Sometimes the stars align’
McBride’s pitch for CVI didn’t make the cut in 2013, nor had the work drawn national attention in the years before as activists saw these programs benefit their communities. Even top gun violence prevention groups weren’t yet promoting CVI, McBride said, further fueling the education gap in Washington.
That began to change after the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence’s Robyn Thomas met McBride at a training seminar in 2012.
Coming from two different sides of the fight — Thomas, a policy expert and constitutional lawyer, and McBride, an activist who had seen this work in action — McBride talked about how important it was for these programs to have money behind them, giving people a tangible alternative to picking up a gun.
After meeting with McBride, Thomas spent the next few years creating a team at the law center to learn and write about why CVI works. The group, which later merged with Giffords, used its platform to educate legislators at the local, state and federal level.
“These programs work, they bring the sort of really thoughtful, intentional resources to the right people,” said Thomas, the executive director of Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence.
This was the kind of educational transformation activists and leaders in Black communities wanted to see in Washington. It just took about eight years for it to happen.
Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), who has made gun control one of his top priorities, has been witness to Biden’s breakthroughs and failures on gun control. He was there when the Senate defeated those post-Sandy Hook legislative efforts. Murphy is there now as Biden’s current gun control priorities drag.
Murphy told POLITICO in June that he doesn’t blame Biden for the gun control stalemate. Though the senator is holding out hope that he can get some Republicans on board with his current push for background check legislation, he knows getting anything done will be a challenge with what he calls the “Byzantine Senate rules” — aka the filibuster.
As Murphy continues his own gun control fight in Congress, he’s been a top supporter of the Biden administration’s focus on CVI. In August, when urging the passage of the Build Back Better budget resolution, Murphy argued the need for more federal dollars to fund community violence intervention programs.
“If you take a look at what drives violence and exposure to violence in this country, the number one correlative factor is income,” he said. “The poorer you are, the more likely you are to be the victim of violence. By investing in communities that have high rates of violence and not coincidentally, high rates of poverty, you are reducing violence in this nation.”
Another advocate, Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), has seen CVI at work in his own state. He praised the White House’s “expansion” of its gun control response.
“Gun violence, we need to address it from every angle and keep pushing. We will push on all fronts … but this focus on community-based interventions has to be part of the overall strategy,” Van Hollen told POLITICO.
Even some Republicans in Congress have been open to the idea of CVI, as long as it was kept out of the traditional infrastructure bill and not framed as anti-gun, according to a report from Bloomberg Law.
This transformation is the result of years of advocacy work, but it’s also about who’s at the table, said Anthony Smith, executive director of Cities United, a national network focused on eliminating violence in cities related to African American men and boys. Biden has advisers like Rice and Richmond, two leaders who have been advocates for CVI, in his ear. His Cabinet has former mayors like Marty Walsh and Pete Buttigieg, who have seen CVI at work in their communities.
“They all had to be educated by their community members too and pushed,” Smith said. “And sometimes the stars align.”
This work is a silver lining in the Biden administration’s gun control agenda. But the possibility of turbo-charging it with a $5 billion infusion remains in limbo without a finalized deal on Biden’s social spending framework. The framework released last week mentions an investment in community violence interventions, and House Democrats released new text Tuesday for the Build Back Better bill, which included the full $5 billion in CVI funding. Even if the House votes on the bill this week, the text will once again be up for negotiation in the Senate, potentially facing more changes and cuts.
A White House official told POLITICO last week that the president is committed to supporting this work, though the official wouldn’t say whether the $5 billion will be cut down or nixed all together, with negotiations still in flux. The official emphasized that the administration has funded CVI through other means like the American Rescue Plan.
The official added that while CVI is key to the White House’s approach, the administration has addressed community violence in other ways, like when the Justice Department announced its zero-tolerance policy to revoke federal licenses from firearms dealers who willfully violate gun laws.
Still, activists see this CVI-specific pot of money as a big deal in advancing their mission. And it appears the White House does as well.
Cities and states haven’t always been successful in distributing funds from the American Rescue Plan for other domestic programs. POLITICO reported on Thursday that Richmond spent part of his day promoting the $5 billion, and he pointed out a key difference in the Build Back Better framework.
“With the ARP money, mayors will oversee those programs and they’ll choose the investment. But this is important to us so we’re going to run it out of our shop in terms of the federal government making sure that people get access to the funding,” Richmond, who seemed assured CVI would be funded in the social spending legislation, said on a call Thursday hosted by Everytown for Gun Safety.
Ford is holding on to hope that Democrats will make the $5 billion a priority when it comes to pushing a deal across the finish line. If it doesn’t happen now while the party has control of both chambers and the White House, she said, there may not be another chance any time soon.
“Those who know what this means to so many people, they have to win,” Ford said. “Because I don’t know when this could happen again. Then what happens to a whole generation of people?”
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