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Gun violence is a public health crisis — treat it that way, advocates say

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Communities should look at gun violence through the lens of public health, not the criminal justice system, Marcus McAllister and other panelists argued Sept. 19 at the sixth annual Patachou Foundation Speakers Forum at Newfields.

McAllister is an international trainer for Cure Violence Global, formerly CeaseFire. He was the keynote speaker and told those in attendance about how the Cure Violence model — which uses violence interrupters who have a natural connection to the communities they’re working in — saved his life and is helping reduce violence in the neighborhoods where the model is deployed.

“Can you imagine the police going into the neighborhood asking, ‘Anybody been disrespected?’” he laughed.

Gun violence is like a disease, he said. If someone close to you has a cold and sneezes, there’s a chance you’ll catch that cold. It’s the same thing with gun violence: If that’s what you see happening around you, you’re more likely to replicate that behavior.

Shonna Majors, director of community violence reduction for the city of Indianapolis, and Lisa Harris, CEO and medical director at Eskenazi Health, joined McAllister to answer questions about what their respective agencies are doing to stop gun violence and how they’re approaching the issue as a public health crisis.

Harris pointed out that food insecurity is a stronger predictor of many diseases, including gun violence, than even poverty. That’s because growing up without reliable access to healthy food can affect brain development, which can eventually have a negative impact on social relationships and mental health.

Harris said at one time about 30% of people who went to the Eskenazi trauma unit with a gunshot wound were back for the same thing within two years. That’s down to less than 5% today, she said.

That dip could be in part thanks to Majors, who has used real neighborhood people — as opposed to government bureaucrats or the police — to interrupt violence. 

Majors said it “made my skin crawl” to work with Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department and city government officials when she started a little over a year ago because she understood those weren’t the people neighborhoods would respond to. So she added those natural mediators — called Peacemakers — to do a lot of the groundwork.

Majors was accidentally shot in the back when she was 16 years old, and the bullet is still next to her spine.

“That was the only time in my life I was happy to be thick,” she joked, “because the doctor said if I wasn’t, I would be dead.”

McAllister said he experienced the trauma of gun violence when he and his brother had to go to the police station when was 9 years old. He learned he was one of the last people to see his father’s friend, an “uncle figure,” before he was murdered.

All three said the most important thing for people to do now is talk to elected officials and give them ideas about how to end gun violence. They said it’s also important to hold people like them accountable.

“Locally and across the country,” Harris said, “this needs to be an issue that’s top of mind because this is an issue that’s becoming existential.”

Contact staff writer Tyler Fenwick at 317-762-7853. Follow him on Twitter @Ty_Fenwick.

Marcus McAllister, an international trainer for Cure Violence Global, gave a speech and was part of a panel for the sixth annual Patachou Foundation Speakers Forum at Newfields Sept. 19. McAllister, who was incarcerated for more than 10 years, discussed methods to reduce gun violence in communities. The program also included a panel discussion. (Photo/Jerome Brewster)


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