By Washington State Department of Commerce
Shalisa Hayes is a mother with a mission.
In August 2011, she experienced the deepest pain a mother could feel — the loss of her young son who happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Billy Ray Shirley III was 17 years old. He was shot and killed leaving a party in Tacoma.
For Hayes, this wasn’t her first brush with gun violence. She had lost her father to homicide when she was a young girl. The grief from such loss can be paralyzing, but Hayes has spent the last decade in motion. Hayes led the charge for a new community center in Tacoma’s eastside neighborhood and has become a leading voice for stopping gun violence in communities often overlooked by the media and policy-makers.
“For too many years, communities of color have seen a lackluster reaction to gun violence, as opposed to one rooted in prevention,” Hayes said in an interview with the state Department of Commerce. “As someone who’s been directly impacted by gun violence on multiple occasions, and who has worked to help reduce it, we need to supply our communities with the resources necessary to help shift an ongoing harmful and deadly trend.”
Gun violence remains a persistent health and safety threat for people across the state and nation. In Washington state, a person is killed with a gun every 14 hours, nearly half of all suicides are from firearms, and more people are killed with guns than die in car accidents.
Washington state policy makers, academic researchers, public health officials and advocacy groups have devoted significant efforts to understanding and addressing gun violence related to suicide, mass shootings and domestic violence. While more needs to be done, this has led to the adoption of local and statewide prevention and safety measures such as those related to extreme risk protection orders, enhanced background checks, safe storage, and restrictions on bump stocks and so-called ghost guns (unlicensed homemade or improvised firearms).
But one aspect of gun violence has received little statewide attention in Washington — community gun violence. Sometimes called urban gun violence, community gun violence is defined as potentially lethal interpersonal violence that occurs on the street. In Washington and elsewhere, community gun violence has a dramatically disproportionate impact on low-income communities and communities of color, with young men of color being particularly vulnerable.
The newly-created Office of Firearm Safety and Violence Prevention at the Department of Commerce will lead a statewide effort to coordinate evidence-based intervention and prevention strategies to address community gun violence. The office’s work will be directed at the highest risk populations of perpetrators and victims in the highest risk communities. The office is among a handful in the nation and was formed under legislation sponsored by Sen. Manka Dhingra, D-Redmond, in 2020. It currently has an annual operating budget of $421,000.
Reducing community gun violence requires different policies and strategies than other forms of gun violence such as suicide or domestic violence. Data is crucial for helping identify which communities are at risk. The office will work with those communities to coordinate and help implement evidence-based prevention strategies.
Hayes says this office fills a void in the effort to prevent community, or urban, gun violence.
“There are many community leaders and grass root organizations who possess the knowledge and experience to properly inform the work of addressing the problems of urban gun violence and the trauma it leaves behind, but they have lacked sufficient data to prove there is a real problem, the funding to support the work they do, and the training to build on the skills they already have,” Hayes said. “This office’s mission to focus on this decade’s problem, and include the voices of those within directly impacted communities in its initiatives and grant selection process to ensure equity and inclusion, gives me hope that the community I’ve been a lifelong part of will finally get some much-needed support to reduce the bloodshed. I’m looking forward to seeing what this office can do.”
The most prominent hot spots where there are high numbers of people killed by guns appear in the Puget Sound, Yakima area and Spokane area, according to data from 2016–2019 collected by the Washington State Department of Health, Center for Health Statistics.
“Too many Washingtonians have been touched by firearm violence, including losing their lives,” said Dhingra. “The Legislature created the Office of Firearm Safety and Violence Prevention in order to collect the data to make the kind of evidence-based decisions that can shift our communities from a crisis response model to an early intervention and prevention model.”
The launch of this office comes as the country contends with an increase in gun violence during the pandemic. A closer look reveals a painful story of the effects of racism and inequity. Gun violence has a disproportionate impact on urban communities of color. For example:
• In 2016, Black and Hispanic men made up just 8% of Washington’s population, but nearly 40% of gun homicide victims.
• Black men ages 18-24 are 20 times more likely than white men the same age to be murdered with a gun.
• Of the 246 shooting victims in King County in 2018, 86% were male, 37% were under the age of 25, and 76% were people of color.
Commerce Director Lisa Brown has named Kate Kelly to lead the new office. Kelly recently led the agency’s development and release of the 2021 State Energy Strategy, an effort that included coordinating with a 27-member Advisory Committee made up of a wide range of stakeholders.
Kelly, who is an attorney, joined Commerce after serving as policy director for the Washington Attorney General’s office. Her career also includes working as a director with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency under the Obama Administration and in the Idaho Senate where she was minority leader and served on the Senate Judiciary Committee and the Governor’s Criminal Justice Commission.
“Kate brings extensive experience working with stakeholders to bring about needed changes to programs, policies and law at the federal, state and local level,” Brown said. “She is well positioned to forge statewide partnerships with law enforcement agencies, county prosecutors, researchers and public health agencies to advance firearm violence intervention and prevention strategies in our highest risk communities.”
“Gun violence of any kind is tragic for families and communities. Community gun violence is a very particular problem with very particular, well-established solutions different than the tools used to prevent and respond to other forms of gun violence,” Kelly said. “Our response needs to be community supported, evidence-based and targeted to the highest-risk places and people.”
Kelly says that while every community is different, and there’s no one-size-fits-all solution to gun violence, having a central point to provide state-level coordination, training and technical assistance will support communities in implementing proven prevention strategies. The office will also identify gaps in data collection and sharing.
As part of the effort, the office will administer a firearm violence intervention and prevention grant program. The grants will support, expand and replicate evidence-based initiatives that interrupt the cycles of violence, victimization and retaliation to reduce the incidence of firearm violence.
Once funding is provided, the grants will be competitively awarded to law enforcement agencies and to community-based organizations. The process will include a grant selection advisory committee that will include persons who have been impacted by violence, formerly incarcerated persons, and persons with direct experience in implementing evidence-based violence reduction initiatives, including initiatives that incorporate public health and community-based approaches.
The office will report to the Legislature in December 2021 on its progress and findings in analyzing data, developing strategies to prevent firearm violence, and recommendations for additional legislative policy options.
Tallying the costs of gun violence
The loss of a loved one is, in many ways, impossible to quantify. The emotional and financial toll on a family can feel indescribable. But researchers have identified that the direct and indirect costs of gun violence in Washington state are more than $3.8 billion annually, according to Giffords Law Center, with offices in Washington, D.C. and San Francisco.
In addition to the pain and suffering and lost income a family might experience, state and local governments must also absorb costs related to law enforcement, criminal justice and healthcare.