June 23, 2016
In 2014, a week before Thanksgiving, a 56-year-old man was shot in the Crown Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn. Within hours, several of his family members gathered at the crime scene, discussing retribution. They had suffered; now, they wanted others to pay for their pain.
That’s when David Gaskin showed up. He gently probed the family, asking how they were feeling and why they might retaliate. He offered sympathy and counsel, informed by his experiences in prison and as a former gang member. And he repeatedly asked for verbal commitments that they wouldn’t strike back, at least not then. Some agreed–and he promised to follow up.
Gaskin, 34, isn’t a police officer or a psychologist; he’s an outreach worker for a nonprofit initiative, Save Our Streets (SOS). But he and others like him may well be instrumental in curbing America’s gun-violence epidemic on a local level, especially as Congress keeps declining to pass federal gun control.
The key is their unorthodox approach. Unlike cops, who arrest criminals, or coalitions, which raise money to change laws, programs like SOS–now in Oakland, Calif., New Orleans and at least 20 other major U.S. cities–approach gun violence like doctors approach disease: as a contagious bug that must be diagnosed, contained and treated. “Hurt people hurt people,” explains Yvette Simpson, who is spearheading an SOS-like initiative in Cincinnati. And at a time when the American Medical Association (AMA) is calling gun violence a public health crisis, these groups say it’s paramount to manage that pain. It just might prevent the next local shooting, or even the next Orlando.