Research Spotlight: Investigating community gun violence with Mary Berenstein

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Mary Berenstein is a professor of sociology at the University of Connecticut. Berenstein’s research, which focuses on collaboration within social movements, has earned her two research grants for 2020.  

The grants focus on Berenstein’s work with the gun violence movement in particular. Specifically, she is interested in how groups work together across lines of racial difference.  

“So in other words, how do activists in urban areas who may be racially oppressed work to combat what has been termed community gun violence? Activists in more suburban areas often focus more on issues of mass shooting or sometimes suicide prevention. How do these groups work together?” Berenstein explained.  

Community gun violence is sometimes overlooked due to lower fatality rates, said Berenstein. Since suicide makes up around 60% of gun-related fatalities and homicide around 37%, those numbers are more quick to draw attention.  

Community gun violence is sometimes overlooked due to lower fatality rates, said Berenstein.

“But those numbers don’t count the over 100,000 people who are injured by guns every year and survive their injuries. If we also take that into consideration, we really have to center the problem of community gun violence,” Berenstein said. 

Community gun violence, as it turns out, is a very multifaceted issue that has its roots in historical systems of oppression.  

“What you really have is a history of systemic oppression and poverty. If you couple that with an increasingly polarized class structure over time, what we see is increasing mass incarceration of black and brown people, along with economic precarity,” Berenstein said. “When you have communities that are effectively cut off from adequate housing, education, economic programs, that fosters a gray economy, and also violence.”  

Berenstein explained that some of the gun violence experienced by suburban populations may be different from community gun violence for those reasons.  

“There are really different arms of the gun violence prevention movement. There are groups that are very focused on changing laws and policies, which are very important,” Berenstein said.  

Berenstein listed some examples of policies including thorough background checks, extremist protection orders and police accountability laws. 

The other side of the gun violence movement is community-based programs. Berenstein gave the example of violence interrupters. 

“There’s all kinds of work being done on the ground that’s not unrelated to policy, but it’s a different kind of activism from lobbying. It’s related, but a different approach,”

“What [violence interrupters] do is they may be on the street and hear there’s a conflict between two groups, and they work to intervene and to prevent that. The other thing that violence interrupters do is connect those most at risk for gun violence with the kinds of services they need,” Berenstein said.  

These services can be things like conflict mediation, mental health services, support for families affected by gun violence and economic support. One such group of violence interrupters is the Compass Peacebuilders of Hartford.  

“There’s all kinds of work being done on the ground that’s not unrelated to policy, but it’s a different kind of activism from lobbying. It’s related, but a different approach,” Berenstein said. 

According to Berenstein, we as a society need to be looking closer at gun violence, which she qualified as a public health epidemic.  

“We really need to look at what the root causes of gun violence are, and how we can reduce gun violence in a way that does not exacerbate mass incarceration, in a way that’s more preventative, in a way that addresses more structural inequality. And we need to look at how we can address violence in other communities, such as suicide,” Berenstein said. “We need to make sure that people who own guns, as is their right, do so in a safe manner and aren’t a threat to themselves or others.” 

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