To Gary Slutkin, giving up guns is a lot like swearing off smoking
'Violence is an infectious disease," says Gary Slutkin. He's a man who knows his diseases, having battled tuberculosis in San Francisco, cholera in Mogadishu, and AIDS in Uganda as an epidemiologist for the World Health Organization. In fact, when Slutkin returned home to Chicago to be near his aging parents after 10 years abroad, he wondered, "What the heck am I going to work on?" In a country with electricity, running water, and medical care, he figured, there would be no public-health problems that even come close.
But it didn't take too many headlines before he spotted a big one: The United States leads the developed world in deaths by firearm, and violence is the No. 1 killer of teenagers and young adults in major cities. Chicago's problem is particularly acute: In 2002, the city's homicide rate hit 22.2 per 100,000, compared with 7.3 in New York. In Chicago, Slutkin says, 20 to 30 percent of children have witnessed a shooting. Public-health officials and doctors at big-city hospitals have long seen violence as a health issue; besides the lives lost and the legacy of anguish and fear, medical costs average $39,000 per shooting, Slutkin estimates.
Kill the thought. Slutkin's public-health instincts kicked in: Why not approach violence as unhealthful behavior that can be changed, like smoking? In Chicago, in Rwanda, and now in Iraq, the problem is that the unthinkable--shooting a neighbor, shooting a child--becomes the social norm. The disease-causing agent is not a microbe but a thought: "He looked at my wife, so I should shoot him." Immunize against the thought, and cure the disease.
Settled back in the States in 1995, Slutkin joined the faculty at the University of Illinois-Chicago and, with the university's encouragement, founded the Chicago Center for Violence Prevention. Its CeaseFire antiviolence campaign is designed--like the fight against AIDS in Africa--to interrupt harmful behavior and change social norms. First, he found politicians, police, ministers, and community leaders who were willing to speak out every time there was a shooting in the neighborhood. "You need multiple messengers with the same message," he says. "That's what worked with smoking."
Next, he recruited the outreach workers who would hit the streets and talk to the target group. In Uganda, success hinged on hiring former prostitutes who understood the difficulties in getting clients to use condoms. In Chicago, where gang violence now accounts for 50 percent of homicides, Slutkin seeks reformed ex-cons and ex-gang members and sends them to the same street corners where they once got into trouble. They plug into the grapevine, find out who's talking about shooting someone, and get the would-be perpetrator to consider the consequences: prison, losing the kids, disappointing Mom.
"I said, 'Listen, man, don't do nothing crazy, man,'" a CeaseFire "violence interrupter" said he told a man itching for vengeance after being robbed on the street. "I said, 'Let's get those guys on the phone so we can talk.' I believe if I wasn't there, that guy was blastin'. I kinda got this squashed. I been working on that all weekend."