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Philanthropy's role in gun violence prevention


Community violence and gun violence are critical public health crises in communities across the United States. With nearly 49,000 gun-related deaths in 2021, gun violence is a growing problem occurring with alarming frequency throughout the country. The number of gun deaths in 2021 spiked by 23% since 2019, and active shooter incidents are increasing in frequency over the last few years. Gun violence has an undeniable impact on undermining public health. People of color are disproportionately affected by gun violence and face health disparities that are further exacerbated by the physical and mental health issues that arise from gun violence.

While many view gun violence as an unavoidable problem, some measures can be taken to help prevent it. Gun violence prevention is essential to creating safe and secure communities for all Americans. For 30 years, The Joyce Foundation has funded gun violence prevention research to achieve a greater understanding of the nature of gun violence, its risk and protective factors, and the solutions that are most effective at gun violence prevention. Their Gun Violence Prevention and Justice Reform Program was launched to address gun violence through research and public policy solutions.

We hosted a discussion with Louisa Aviles, Senior Program Officer at The Joyce Foundation, to discuss gun violence prevention and justice reform. During our conversation, we examined the role philanthropy plays in creating community safety solutions and addressing violence interventions. Louisa spoke about her role at the foundation and reflected on how philanthropy can collaborate to reduce gun violence in local communities.

Gun violence prevention is crucial and philanthropy can play a stronger role in mitigating this critical public health issue. You can watch the event recording here.


The start of gun violence prevention

Catchafire: Can you walk us through the first 25 years of gun violence research prevention at The Joyce Foundation?

Louisa: Since 1993, The Joyce Foundation has had a gun violence prevention program. In 2019, the foundation released a report sharing their comprehensive research. The foundation spent close to $40 million on academic research for gun violence prevention, resulting in a report that covered:

  • Identifying the field and defining gun violence as a public health issue
  • Associated risk factors, trends, and causes of gun violence
  • The role gun availability plays in firearm homicide, suicide, and accidental injury
  • Gun crime patterns
  • Firearm-related behaviors
  • Interventions and solutions to gun violence

The report describes much of what we know about gun violence in the United States, and discusses ways that philanthropic investment has moved the needle for gun violence prevention.

The Joyce Foundation funds three big areas for gun violence prevention:

  1. Gun violence prevention research
  2. Justice reform: Focuses on criminal justice reform, guns, policing reform, reducing mass incarceration, and reimagining community and public safety.
  3. Violence intervention: Focuses on elevating the practices of community organizers and community-driven work that engages with people at high risk to keep them safe. We're encouraging policy makers to invest public dollars in that work. This is an under-resourced area of work, and there is tremendous room for philanthropy to do more in this space.

How has the field progressed in the last three years since then?

The last three years yielded a 45% increase in gun homicide and a 10% increase in gun suicide. The pandemic, civic uprisings, and a decline in policy legitimacy all had a profoundly disruptive effect on community safety.

But, there are still things to get excited about–there is now arguably more progress on policies for gun violence prevention than ever before.

Tell us about the foundation's research and the National Violent Death Reporting System -  why is it important to have national and state level data?

The National Violent Death Reporting System (NVDRS) is a great example of a way philanthropy not only moved the needle on understanding gun deaths, but invented it. In the early 2000's, these data did not exist, you could not find a comprehensive view of firearms and firearm-related injuries in the United States. The Joyce Foundation joined other funders to create a pilot in the early 2000's, resulting in the NVDRS that links and collects data nationwide on each violent death in the United States. It's now a tool that is used by academic researchers, law enforcement, policy makers, and public health agencies to understand gun violence and develop prevention strategies.

Gun injuries and deaths are very local and by being able to see local data from the NVDRS, policy makers can use the tool to inform local strategy. For example, two-thirds of gun deaths in Minnesota are from suicide, even accounting for the uptick in gun homicide in Minneapolis in the last few years. It's the reverse in Illinois, where the majority of gun deaths are homicides. These data affects the local policy and strategy for reducing gun suicides and homicides.

Visual dashboards from the system showing state-specific NVDRS data makes it easier to access and understand what is happening in our communities. It can be used by gun violence advocates, community organizers, and policy makers to uncover interventions and solutions.

Gun buy-backs used to be a more regular activity but we haven’t seen that many recently. Is this a viable strategy that philanthropy should be engaged in?

Research has shown that gun buy-backs don’t tend to have any impact on rates of gun violence. Gun buy-back programs recover weapons, but don’t affect gun injury or death. They have been a popular strategy for a long time, but they usually have little to do with crime guns.

There are some benefits to gun buy-backs. These initiatives often make people feel good and create positive interactions between law enforcement and communities. They also help create collaborative conversations in the community to discuss what we can do to decrease violence.

What should we know about intervention and prevention strategies for children?

Talking about the impact of gun violence on kids is understandably emotional and difficult. Gun violence became the leading cause of death for American children and adolescents in 2020.

At the same time, children aren't absorbing most of the risks related to firearm homicides. Victims of gun homicide tend to be adults in their late 20s or older. When we think about kids being victims of gun violence, we of course think about horrific tragedies like the school shootings in Newtown and Uvalde, but far more children are affected by suicides and accidents, which are much more common than active shooter situations in schools. Child access prevention laws, safe storage laws, and getting guns out of the home are more crucial from a policy perspective and more protective for young people than hardening schools.

Although gun violence has become the leading cause of death for all kids recently, guns have been the leading cause of death for Black kids for more than 20 years. In the philanthropic community, people come to this issue when a big event like Uvalde happens, but Black families have been losing their children to gun violence for a very long time.

Gun violence and the right to health

Gun violence has a profound impact on public health. It is widely accepted that reducing access to firearms is one of the most effective strategies for reducing gun violence and improving public health. For this reason, it is essential to view gun violence prevention as a public health issue and invest in evidence-based strategies that can protect communities’ health and improve community safety.

What research has been done on reframing gun violence as a public health issue? How has philanthropy supported reframing work? What strategies have been used to advance and create stories that support the reframing?

I recently attended the Grantmakers in Health conference, which held its first pre-conference special session on public health approaches to gun violence prevention. Leaders from Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, Dr. Shani Buggs from UC Davis, the Missouri Foundation, and others came together to discuss structural and societal determinants of health and firearm violence.

Philanthropy really helped define gun violence as a public health issue in the first place, in part by funding research that identified risk factors, patterns in victimization, and emerging solutions to reduce injury and death. For twenty years, federal funding to public health agencies to study gun violence was sharply curtailed, and philanthropy has helped to fill that gap.

Philanthropy has helped fund public health research for gun violence, but it can do so much more. Narrative change is hard. There is a lot of mythology about guns that needs to change, like 'having guns makes you safe.' Having guns in the home makes it objectively less safe. Philanthropy can do more to help us think through and understand strategies that reach people and make sure they have those facts.

How can philanthropy address gun violence?


"I think there is a tremendous opportunity for philanthropy to do more around community violence. We need more research…We need capacity and field-building support to help practitioners get to and stay at the scale necessary to address community violence nationwide. Even as public funding for this work continues to grow…we need philanthropy to help incubate innovation and drive the leading edge of this work forward."

Louisa Aviles
“Not Your Father’s DOJ”: The Emergence of Community Violence Intervention


What are the top three things that you wish philanthropy would do for gun violence prevention and community safety?


Everything in this field is under-resourced. The Joyce Foundation partnered with Arnold Ventures and commissioned a study to see how much funding the field needs for research. The result was $600 million over five years. Right now, public funding is $25 million a year. We spend about $1,000 per motor vehicle death studying how to prevent the death, we spend $60 on each gun violence death. That's a huge gap.


We need funding to support implementation. For example, Minnesota and Michigan recently enacted new gun violence prevention policies, but the policies won't produce an impact unless implemented in a robust way. Communities need help figuring out how to translate policies into impact on the ground.

Violence Intervention

This emerging field is badly under-resourced. There is an unprecedented amount of funding that is now available to states and cities to support community-led intervention work, but it's just a drop in the bucket compared to what the field needs.

Do you see opportunities for corporate philanthropy teams to play a proactive and helpful role in gun violence prevention? If so, what are some examples of corporations that have done this well?

Chicago’s business community has recently taken on a charge of addressing gun violence. There was a recent plan developed by the Civic Committee of the Commercial Club of Chicago, with research and input from a wide range of city stakeholders including community groups. It describes what the community needs to effectively address community gun violence, and how business can play a driving role in that. 

Beyond Chicago, national corporations have a role to play in supporting gun violence prevention. Following the mass shooting in Parkland in 2019, Levi Strauss and Co launched a gun violence prevention effort, which includes grants to nonprofit organizations working to end gun violence, and partnerships with gun violence advocacy groups to disseminate facts about gun violence through Levi's brands.

As we all learn more about how much gun violence costs communities, we learn about the lost productivity, lost tax revenue, and the costs of first responders and medical intervention.

What should philanthropy stop doing that’s getting in the way of progress?

Philanthropy is overwhelmingly focused on data and evaluation. It's important to be thinking critically about the outcome we’re seeking here, how we know if we're getting there, and focus funding on those things. Philanthropy's definition of evidence and the standard we hold our grantees to is a little challenging, especially when we think about community violence intervention strategies and the emerging field of community-involved work that's complementary to law enforcement and their community initiatives.

The field is new–it's going to produce different evidence than what we're used to. Funders need to be more flexible in the kind of grants they are offering to the community doing the work.

Stop offering restricted, one year grants. When we think about starting to support groups led by People of color and people closer to the frontlines and employing folks who come to this work from an experience of surviving community violence, it's important for us to recognize how important multi-year support is to fund staff appropriately.



"At the end of the day, public safety is a public function…Government has to be central in resourcing and managing community violence intervention strategies…But while we make our way there, there is tremendous space for philanthropy to support innovation, absorb risk, fill gaps that government isn’t filling yet, like on research and evaluation, all to the end of continuing to demonstrate for policy makers the promise of these strategies."

Louisa Aviles
“Not Your Father’s DOJ”: The Emergence of Community Violence Intervention


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