A review of recent political, judicial and intellectual debates related to gun violence
“If it bleeds, it leads.”
Shootings make headlines. But often lost in that daily, knee-jerk coverage is a sense of the bigger forces shaping American gun violence and our societal responses to it.
In New York City and across the country, gun violence is changing, and political leaders are trying to keep up. This is a recap of some of the most important trends and debates shaping where we go next.
Gun violence is falling. What story will we tell about it?
After a three-year, nationwide surge in gun violence, there’s a chance the U.S. is turning a corner. So far in 2023, major cities have collectively seen a roughly 12% year-over-year decline in murders, according to data gathered by crime analyst Jeff Asher — whose work is featured in this issue — including a 9% decline in New York City. As of early September, shootings in the city were down more than 25%.
That scale of decline represents hundreds of lives saved nationwide, but it doesn’t come close to bringing the murder rate back to the levels achieved in 2019. Still, the downward trend could change the tone of debates about public safety, in which some Democrats responded to rising violence with tough-on-crime policies and rhetoric that many in their party had once repudiated.
So far, attempts to explain the decline in violence are as varied and imprecise as were explanations for its earlier rise. Violence fell in some cities that hired more officers, but it also fell in cities that forged on, short-staffed. Criminal Justice Professor Jerry Ratcliffe hypothesized the trends might reflect police departments “returning to proactive work” they had dropped during the COVID-19 pandemic, and residents resuming routine activities they had forgone during the emergency. Service providers attributed it to investments in nonpolice anti-violence interventions. Columbia Law School Professor Jeff Fagan called crime data a “roller coaster” in which causal trends are “almost impossible to prove.”
Of course, murders aren’t the whole picture of gun violence in America; they aren’t even half of it. Nonfatal shootings happen daily, as do suicides — which in 2022 hit a record high, per preliminary data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, accounting for nearly 27,000 deaths.
Community investment bring New York’s leadership together
In a moment of unusual political harmony this July, Mayor Eric Adams, Gov. Kathy Hochul, Attorney General Tish James, Public Advocate Jumaane Williams and other leaders appeared together to unveil a long-awaited “Blueprint for Community Safety,” which called for nearly half a billion dollars in new spending to reduce violence in the city. Describing the initiative as his “life’s work,” Adams said “ending gun violence requires more than enforcement, more than policing.” He continued, “We must dam every river that leads to the sea of violence.”
An anti-violence effort the mayor launched earlier in his term is not turning out as promised. In June, an independent monitor released a damning assessment of the Police Department’s Neighborhood Safety Teams, which were introduced a year prior to focus on reducing shootings in high-violence precincts.
Most of the money would go to prevention programs for youth, job and skill training for young and formerly incarcerated people, trauma-informed mental health care and housing support. The blueprint also called for directing resources to neighborhoods most affected by violence, including residents of six police precincts which together accounted for 25% of citywide shootings in 2022.
In his remarks, Williams commended the group for the show of unity, and for the contrast the blueprint signaled with the predominant approach to crime, through enforcement. “The answer to public safety is not locking up as many Black and brown people as possible. It’s investing in the communities that have been disinvested for such a long time.”
Aggressive policing divides them
Meanwhile, an anti-violence effort the mayor launched earlier in his term is not turning out as promised. In June, an independent monitor released a damning assessment of the Police Department’s Neighborhood Safety Teams, which were introduced a year prior to focus on reducing shootings in high-violence precincts.
At their launch, it wasn’t clear how the teams would operate (a topic treated by Vital City at the time). Critics fretted that the teams were just a rebranding of notorious plainclothes units that had been disbanded in the summer of 2020, and would revive the unconstitutional strategy of stopping and frisking large numbers of young men of color without proper cause. Adams and then-Police Commissioner Keechant Sewell maintained that the teams would employ “precision policing,” and that diligent training and stringent supervision would eliminate the problems of the past.
The federal stop-and-frisk monitor’s team, which includes several former NYPD officers, concluded that some of those worries had been well founded. In many precincts, the Neighborhood Safety Teams are conducting too many stops unlawfully — that is, without a constitutional basis — in spite of special training they received. Oversight of the teams was also inadequate “at all levels,” the monitor wrote. And the people stopped and frisked by the teams were almost exclusively Black or Hispanic. The mayor dismissed the monitor as a “statistician” and the Police Department has continued to tout firearms seized by its officers, under the hashtag #onelessgun.
But the Neighborhood Safety Teams also appear to be focusing on low-level quality-of-life violations such as public drinking and urination: A recent report from The City found that in the first half of 2023, NYPD issued criminal summonses to five times more people for those and similar violations than they had pre-pandemic. The initiative, conducted in coordination with uniformed officers, effectively reversed legislative reforms made in 2016 that were meant to steer police toward issuing civil tickets for those offenses, which otherwise require a trip to court and can lead to a warrant and detention. Black and Hispanic people received criminal summonses at 10 times the rate of white people, when accounting for their share of the population.
The NYPD defended the approach in a statement, linking the offenses to more serious crimes: “Quality of life complaints, which are often a precursor to violence, remain a real concern to residents in all city neighborhoods.” But an authoritative report by the National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine concluded that this type of broken windows policing yields small to null impacts when it is spread diffusely across whole neighborhoods.
Beyond the borders of New York, lawmakers’ creative efforts to address gun violence show the limits of what can be accomplished without greater national unity.
A major shakeup flies under the radar
In an underscrutinized move, in late June the mayor announced he was shifting the city’s Office of Neighborhood Safety away from the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice (MOCJ), which had incubated it since its inception, to the Department of Youth and Community Development (DYCD). The decision was buried in an announcement that the administration would continue to raise the budget for the Office of Neighborhood Safety’s flagship initiative, a network of community-based violence-interrupter programs. New York City’s investments in the program have made it a national vanguard for exploring how to improve safety without involving the police.
In the announcement, the mayor’s office asserted that DYCD is “uniquely equipped” for the new responsibility given its existing portfolio of community programming. But a former senior staffer said the anti-violence programs would get lost in the bureaucracy of DYCD, which has little familiarity with their workings and none of the nimbleness necessary to navigate the fraught waters of public safety and criminal justice. The staffer also worried that shift would be perceived as a loss of status, which would materially affect operations. “NYPD barely wanted to be forthcoming with MOCJ. No way they feel compelled to respond to and coordinate with DYCD in the same way,” the staffer said.
The Biden administration nibbles at the edges
Beyond the borders of New York, lawmakers’ creative efforts to address gun violence show the limits of what can be accomplished without greater national unity. But the drumbeat of overt actions taken by the Biden administration suggests they see the issue as a political winner — particularly with young voters — as they head into an election year.
June 2023 was the one-year anniversary of the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act, the most significant piece of federal legislation passed to address gun violence in decades. To mark the occasion, its supporters compiled what evidence they could to show the law was having an impact. The Biden administration reported it had conducted more than 100,000 enhanced background checks for gun buyers under age 21, and blocked sales to more than 200 prohibited people who would not have been identified without the new law. Still, no one seemed bold enough to suggest the legislation was meaningfully altering the country’s rates of gun violence.
The administration has also ramped up oversight of the nation’s 60,000 licensed gun dealers. The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) revoked more dealers’ licenses in 2021 and 2022 than it had in previous years, according to The Wall Street Journal.
And in late August, ATF proposed a new rule that would effectively expand the number of people required to obtain dealers’ licenses, including thousands who had previously “engaged in the business of selling firearms” without complying with the required safety measures. Gun violence prevention advocates said the change would increase the number of gun sales subject to background checks. The gun industry called it “unconstitutional and unfeasible,” and seemed certain to challenge the rule in court. That’s where they’ve successfully tied up several of the administration’s earlier regulatory efforts, including rules to regulate unserialized gun parts as firearms, register guns with pistol braces and ban bump stocks.
It’s well established that when an abuser has access to a firearm, it significantly imperils his victims.
Then, in a move cheered by advocates who had long lobbied for it, the administration announced the creation of an office of gun violence prevention. In early coverage, White House sources noted that its senior staff had previously focused both on policy and on community-violence interventions, an indication that the office might be involved in continuing regulatory pushes, as well as in coordinating the hundreds of millions of federal dollars currently being directed to on-the-ground anti-violence programs nationwide.
Guns return to the highest court
Major gun cases have been once-a-decade events at the U.S. Supreme Court, but just a year after the court’s conservative majority significantly expanded firearm rights in the landmark case New York State Rifle and Pistol Association v. Bruen, the justices are turning back to the issue.
In June, the court agreed to hear the case of Zackey Rahimi, a man under a domestic violence restraining order, and thus barred from possessing firearms, who contested the constitutionality of the prohibition. New York City and a coalition of other cities and counties were among many to weigh in via an amicus brief arguing in favor of upholding the prohibition.
It’s well established that when an abuser has access to a firearm, it significantly imperils his victims, so the fact the court is reconsidering such a bedrock gun law shows how far it shifted due to the Bruen decision, which put vast tracts of American gun laws on precarious ground.
The court could use the new case to somewhat pare back the Bruen decision, for example by better establishing when public safety justifies barring someone from access to guns. Or it could further cement gun rights as unassailable, even in circumstances when prioritizing access to firearms clearly puts lives at risk.
It may be clearer which path they will take when they hear oral arguments, scheduled for November.