Gun violence in America is a public health crisis that is worsening with pandemic-like speed. So says Steve Ballmer, the billionaire philanthropist whose nonprofit is devising a new remedy to address it.
Even with COVID-19 lockdowns, deaths caused by gun violence in America jumped 30% from 2019 to 2020, the year the pandemic struck, according to the independent research group Gun Violence Archive, which tracks incidents in the United States. In 2021, the number of such deaths rose an additional 7% over the record-breaking totals, reaching nearly 21,000 deaths.
“Those are just huge numbers, and 42% of the total are young Black men under the age of 35,” Ballmer told The Associated Press. “It’s just not about the people who are shot — either murdered or just shot. It’s about what that does to entire communities, the entire neighborhoods in which the shootings occur.”
To help those communities, the Ballmer Group donated $18 million to the Health Alliance for Violence Intervention, the Community Based Public Safety Collective, Cities United and the National Institute for Criminal Justice Reform to jointly establish community-based solutions to gun violence.
“This is a first-of-its-kind commitment at this level, addressing the problem of community violence in cities through a collective national technical assistance effort,” said Fatimah Loren Dreier, executive director of the Health Alliance for Violence Intervention. “With this significant donation, we are able to scale our collective work supporting cities and enact a strategy that involves significant infrastructure.”
With their donations through the Ballmer Group, Ballmer noted that he and his wife, Connie, usually focus on economic mobility. But he said they have come to recognize that gun violence itself hinders economic gains because it scars entire communities, psychologically as well as physically.
“We focus on the concept that everybody should have an opportunity to achieve what they want to achieve economically,” said Ballmer, former Microsoft CEO and current chairman of the Los Angeles Clippers basketball team. “That is certainly not the case today. If you look at that data, it is particularly stark for African American males. It’s just not right. It’s not fair.”
Ballmer said he became interested in a community-wide approach to the issue after seeing data that demonstrated the importance of preventing gun violence from spreading throughout a community.
Dreier, of the Health Alliance for Violence Intervention, said the Ballmer Group's donation will help the entire “community violence intervention ecosystem” in the cities that these four organizations operate in together. It’s an ecosystem that has grown for years, yet not in any closely coordinated way.
“Gun violence is the leading cause of death for African Americans and Latinos, ages 15 to 34,” Dreier said. “This is critical for folks to understand. This pandemic of violence has been raging in communities of color for many decades.”
Dreier’s group focuses on supporting shooting victims while they’re recovering in a hospital and encouraging them and their relatives to help break the cycle of violence. The COVID-19 pandemic made matters worse.
“What we saw across the country in city after city is a significant spike in violence due to the pandemic,” she said, noting that over the past two years, some cities have suffered a spike in gun violence of as much as 20%.
Where groups have been able to work together, community violence intervention has shown some success.
In Oakland, gun violence has declined by 50%, Dreier said. Declines have also been reported in other cities, including Newark, New Jersey. According to New Jersey State Police statistics, violent crimes dropped in Newark from 3,200 in 2015 to fewer than 1,500 in 2020, the last full year of available statistics.
“These are cities that have deployed something really, really powerful,” Dreier said. “The idea is that we can learn through their data-driven strategies and apply it to new places.”
The Ballmer Group’s donation, she said, will support a community violence intervention ecosystem in 12 cities over the next five years.
“In most neighborhoods that are economically disadvantaged, most of the people are peaceful and support one another,” she said. “But we’re able to identify those who are at very high risk for being caught in the cycle of violence. We’re able to support them with intense case management, help them meet their core needs and we are able to take them out of that cycle and help drive down violence.”