At a Rose Garden ceremony last month, President Joe Biden announced the creation of the first-ever White House Office of Gun Violence Prevention. Overseen by Vice President Kamala Harris and directed by longtime Biden policy staffer Stefanie Feldman, the office will seek to coordinate the federal government’s efforts to combat gun violence, and build on partnerships with actors on the state and local level.
“It’s something that we’ve wanted for a long time… this [is] a big step forward for gun violence prevention,” said Josh Horwitz, a longtime gun reform advocate and the current co-director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Violence Solutions.
In his first years in office, Biden has sought to address gun violence through executive and legislative action, the most significant of which being last year’s Bipartisan Safer Communities Act. But Biden eventually sided with advocates on the necessity of a dedicated office, especially as a divided Congress stymied his more ambitious legislative goals, such as enacting universal background checks or an assault weapons ban.
“He wanted to accelerate the administration’s work to reduce gun violence,” Feldman said in an interview with the AmNews.
Biden, Feldman explained, has tasked the office with several main responsibilities including ensuring full implementation of the Safer Communities Act, identifying additional executive actions the President can take on gun violence, and enhancing partnerships with leading cities and states. The office also will coordinate federal government responses to communities impacted by gun violence, with a specific focus on those reeling from mass shootings or an uptick in community violence.
“I think what we’ve learned over the last several years is that there just isn’t a sufficient federal response to support these communities when they’re in need,” Feldman said. “If a hurricane devastated a community, FEMA would step in. But gun violence can also have community wide, significant impacts—mental health, physical health, economic impacts on a community—and there needs to be some sort of appropriate federal response there as well.”
To help steer these efforts, the office has hired Greg Jackson and Rob Wilcox as deputy directors. Both come from the advocacy sphere, and draw inspiration from their personal experiences with gun violence. Wilcox, who lost his cousin to gun violence, was the head of federal policy at Everytown. Jackson, a gun violence survivor, was executive director of Community Justice Action Fund, a violence prevention organization focused on gun violence in Black and brown communities.
Horwitz is encouraged by the staffing of the office.
“Stef Feldman is someone who has worked closely with Biden, and [is] thought of very highly in the advocacy community. And then the deputy directors Greg Jackson and Rob Wilcox are just a home run,” he said, noting their policy expertise and connections to advocates on the ground.
Addressing gun violence in communities of color
Jackson will draw on his prior experiences to tackle disproportionate gun violence rates in Black and brown communities: Black Americans are ten times more likely than white Americans to die by gun homicide, and gun violence often concentrates in racially segregated and under-resourced communities.
Jackson said this issue will be a major focus of the office.
“If we truly want to end this crisis of gun violence, we do have to prioritize how it’s impacting Black and brown communities. I’m excited to help lead that and ensure that [it] is central to our strategy, and I think the president is equally committed and extremely enthusiastic about centering those who are most impacted,” he said.
The office will take a public health approach, in line with Biden’s long standing stance that gun violence is a public health epidemic. That means the office will seek to invest in evidence-based solutions that respond effectively to community violence.
“The solutions are not just law and order. It is a community-wide public health response, which includes making sure that people have the services and support that they need to succeed,” Feldman explained.
One of these solutions is the increasingly popular community-based violence interventions (CVI) approach.. For example, Cure Violence is a CVI strategy that uses community members with experience of gun violence to intervene in conflicts that could turn violent, and providing mentoring and assistance to individuals at risk of engaging in violence.
Horwitz credits Jackson’s organization in part for the rise in funding for CVIs in recent years, culminating in the Safer Communities Act, which set aside $250 million over five years in funding to CVI organizations.
Jackson will now work to ensure that this money gets to people on the ground, something that has proven difficult in the past.
“I’m excited to lean in on the asset and investment side of that implementation, and ensuring that the resources that have been rolled out are prioritizing and connecting with the communities that are most impacted by violence and most in need,” Jackson said.
The office will also look to identify existing federal resources that could be put towards CVI programs. Horwitz believes this additional investment is a critical next step.
“This is a lot of money in the Safer Communities Act, but there still needs to be more resources,” he said. “We need a continuous investment in community violence intervention, hospital violence intervention, innovative programs to address the terrible toll of violence in Black and brown communities.”
The office will also seek to build connections between cities and states employing different strategies to address gun violence. For example, Jackson pointed to New York City as a model for CVI programs, given that a network of CVI organizations here that are based on the Cure Violence model receives $86 million in city funding through the Crisis Management System.
“Our hope is that we can help cities across the country build out a similar ecosystem of strategies to prevent violence. And so we’re looking to places like New York to help lead the charge. But we also recognize that there are resources that, even in places like New York City, have not gotten to the ground, or have not gotten to the communities most in need,” Jackson said.
Rahson Johnson, director for youth and community development at one CVI site, Save Our Streets Crown Heights, welcomes this approach.
“It definitely opens up the gates for more discussion, more resources, so I think the relationship building and the coordinated efforts to address this epidemic… will have a resounding impact,” he said.
Although some view the CVI approach as a promising alternative to policing in communities that have a significant distrust of law enforcement, the office still views law enforcement as an important part of addressing gun violence. Feldman said she believes police and CVI programs can work together, despite tension between the groups that stem from their strained relationship.
“It is certainly something that we hear, and I know is a real concern of many. However, I have seen law enforcement and community leaders effectively partner, and recognize that they each have an important role to play in advancing community safety,” Feldman said, adding that Biden is a proponent of community policing.
In addition to supporting intervention practices, Feldman said the office would also be looking into investing in other prevention measures, like building on the funding that the Safer Communities Act allocated to mental health services in schools.
“This office is absolutely very focused on the full suite of prevention and intervention strategies—not only community violence intervention, but mental health supports in our schools, [and] all of the socio-emotional learning work that goes on in schools. Targeted strategies to help young people who might be at risk of becoming involved in gun violence, helping them find alternatives through youth programming, jobs, after school activities. All of those are pieces of the puzzle that we believe are critical in order to save lives,” she said.
In its early days, the office has focused on building connections with organizations on the ground and across federal agencies, Feldman said. For example, they recently assisted the DOJ in rolling out $4.4 billion in funding designed to increase community safety through grants for community partners and law enforcement.
But Horwitz says to maximize its impact, the office will need a significant, dedicated source of funding. The office is currently supported through the funds Congress appropriates to the White House every year, though it’s not yet clear what that budget amounts to. But Horwitz is worried about future political opposition to such funding in Congress, which has the power to set a budget or block funding to the office.
“[The office] is going to need their own resources to fully maximize the effect. And that of course requires Congressional authorization, spending, and that’s going to be very difficult,” Horwitz said.
The office has support from Democrats, most notably from Senator Chris Murphy of Connecticut and Congressman Maxwell Frost of Florida, who introduced legislation to establish a federal office in March. But the bill failed to garner Republican support, a sign of the party’s hostility towards taking action on gun violence prevention, including CVI investments.
“Republicans often want to pull back on these programs, when what we need right now is desperately to push forward,” Horwitz said.
The office also faces outside opposition from gun lobby organizations like the National Rifle Association which criticized the office, saying it was a “puppeteering maneuver by the gun control lobby, designed to dismantle our Second Amendment rights.”
Beyond political resistance, Jackson points to the sheer scope of the issue as the biggest challenge the office faces.
“With over 130,000 people [who] have been shot or killed every year, we recognize the scale of what we’re taking on, and how much it will take to have a significant impact on reducing the impact of violence in our communities,” he said.
But, he continued, “there’s a lot of power in that, knowing that survivors have been leading the advocacy fights across the country, survivors are working in government throughout the agencies, [and] survivors are now leading the Office of Gun Violence Prevention in the White House. We think our biggest challenge could become our biggest strength once we activate and start to engage more folks in the community.”
Shannon Chaffers is a Report for America corps member and writes about gun violence for the Amsterdam News. Your donation to match our RFA grant helps keep her writing stories like this one; please consider making a tax-deductible gift of any amount today by visiting https://bit.ly/amnews1.