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New Centers for Disease Control report shows U.S. officials still won’t address gun violence

Poverty and its effects are a serious public health hazard, but the nation’s top health agency, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), has failed to confront politicians with this reality. The CDC’s recently released report, Elevated Rates of Urban Firearm Violence and Opportunities for Prevention – Wilmington, Delaware, shows once again that American officials will not forcefully confront epidemic gun violence.

Figures 1-4. Gun homicide and poverty levels in Wilmington, DE and Alameda County, CA

Sources: CDC, 2014; Census, 2015. Note: Gun murder rates are calculated per 100,000 population.

The CDC report analyzed Wilmington, Delaware – chosen because it suffered an unusually large increase in gun murders – though, as Alameda County, California’s pattern in the above charts shows, practically any urban area could have been chosen. The CDC report simply recycles the notion of “prevention” typically applied to social problems: do not inoculate, but rather treat the disease after it is already well advanced.

Strangely, the CDC does not utilize its own detailed data pinpointing gun violence for New Castle County (the county of which Wilmington constitutes most of the population). For example, CDC data on gun homicide victimization draw clear racial and socioeconomic lines in Wilmington – the same patterns found in any urban area:

Yet, the CDC report’s solution to Wilmington’s high gun violence rate nowhere mentions reducing the staggering levels of poverty and related disadvantage found among young African Americans, despite their obvious relevance (see Figures 1-2). Instead, the report blames males age 15-29 for gun violence and presents a scoring system to predict risk for that group (determined primarily by having already suffered a gun or stabbing injury in a crime, and secondarily, receiving public assistance, and unemployment) – both of which amount to circular ways of measuring poverty.

Not only are the enormous discrepancies by race (white youths and adults have poverty and gun violence levels comparable to Canada’s; African Americans, comparable to war-torn societies) omitted from the 16-page report, poverty and disadvantage are only mentioned at the bottom of page 15. Rather, the report’s “solution” amounts to letting youths grow up for 10, 12, or 15 years in debilitating poverty until their conditions have advanced to “the highest risk of violent crime involvement” – enough to produce shootings and stabbings. Then, local agencies would step in with “comprehensive wraparound services,” including “peer/outreach mentorship, medical care or counseling, education support, economic assistance, or other services.”

Services are important to those already at high risk, but preventing risk means changing environments. Unfortunately, a number of interests display biases similar to the CDC’s. Interests are coalescing around “wraparound services” as the main or only solution to poverty, crime, and violence involving young people. This campaign, coupled with the disparagement of “government solutions” (i.e., social insurance on a European or Canadian level sufficient to prevent poverty), is particularly worrisome. No cities are more advanced in offering comprehensive services than San Francisco and Oakland, yet the same concentration of violence in the poorest populations found in Wilmington and other cities persists here as well (see Alameda County’s gun violence and poverty levels shown in Figures 3-4).

It seems like the next juvenile justice battle lines are being drawn: established interests less committed to economic justice than to seeking more funding for local services they control, versus a more amorphous group that supports (and often, as in the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice’s case, provides) services but realizes that, without major social investments to reduce poverty and disadvantage, we will see no larger, long-term reductions in violence. The CDC has made it clear that it is on the side of the established interests even as the enormous disparities in urban gun violence epidemic continue.

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