While the impetus for recent public debate on gun-related deaths emerged from December’s tragic shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., it is important to note that deadly gun violence targeting children and youth is a daily occurrence in this country – including California. While the Newtown tragedy happened in a school, young people are far more commonly and far more frequently shot in neighborhood streets and alleys, in parks, and in their own homes and yards.
When we hear or read media stories about yet another tragic incident of gun violence, it can seem as if this crisis is intractable and the consequences inevitable: grieving families, lost potential, fear and resignation.
However, the experience in California over the past two decades shows that, in fact, gun violence is preventable and that a public health approach— one grounded in data that addresses root causes— can effectively lower rates of gun deaths. While guns still take the lives of far too many young people in California today, we can take some comfort in knowing that not too long ago the problem was far worse.
I would like to briefly recap The California Wellness Foundation’s 20-plus years of experience in funding programs to prevent violence against youth. In 1992, when TCWF’s Board and staff were beginning to develop grantmaking goals and strategies for what was then a new foundation, California led the nation in the number of homicides. Murder was the leading cause of death among California’s youth ages 20 to 24, and the second leading cause of death for teenagers. Too often, firearm violence among gang members and other troubled youths was seen as inevitable. At the time, however, the violence was usually addressed only after the fact— in arrest records, the courts, prisons, trauma centers and coroners’ morgues. It was seen as a matter for the justice system to address.
Instead of accepting that violence was inevitable, California Wellness began an aggressive campaign to change public perception and, working with grantees and supporters, to demonstrate that the level of violence among the state’s youth could be decreased. The Foundation’s Board and staff drew from successful public health strategies aimed at reducing deaths from smoking and automobile accidents. And they were also guided by new research from both the U.S. surgeon general and the Centers for Disease Control, which provided formal recognition of the public health approach to violence prevention.
Barely six months in existence, the Foundation’s Board of Directors launched a bold, 10-year initiative in 1992, dedicated to preventing violence among youth by using this public health approach. No California foundation had made a commitment of this magnitude before. By the time the Violence Prevention Initiative (VPI) ended, the number of youth killed annually by gun violence was about half of what it was when TCWF launched the initiative. And the numbers have remained consistently lower in the years since.
Our grantmaking in violence prevention has continued beyond the life of the initiative. Today, 21 years and $121 million in grants later –– our focus continues to be on a comprehensive approach that includes funding such programs as mentoring, gang intervention, re-entry for previously incarcerated youth, community-based and after-school programming. This is combined with the funding of research and data-tracking that informs policymakers and opinion leaders. While it is difficult to measure precisely to what extent the reduction in gun deaths was attributable to the work of grantees, the compelling fact remains that the paths of thousands of young Californians have been shifted, and thousands of lives have been saved.
As we are all aware, measures to regulate firearms are being discussed across the country in too-often divisive debate. Not enough attention, however, is being given to the broader public health approach. TCWF's new edition of Grantee magazine looks back at the success achieved by TCWF and its grantees in employing this approach. And it looks at the violence prevention efforts being undertaken now by some of our grantees and significant challenges for the future. We also have expanded our Calwellness website to highlight violence prevention resources. The takeaway lessons shown by the work of our grantees are these: Violence against youth is still an urgent public health issue; it can be prevented; and foundations and grantees can play a role in reducing the likelihood that youth fall prey to violence.
Diana M. Bontá, R.N., Dr.P.H.
President and CEO
The California Wellness Foundation