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."
After the fact. When preventive measures fail, the violence interrupters go to the hospital emergency room and talk to the victim's friends, aiming to head off retaliation. Outreach workers also offer alternatives to thug life, such as school or job training, through community organizations. "I feel I took so much away from the community as a predator," says Lenorris "Bee" Bolden, a violence interrupter who did six years for drug conspiracy. "The best thing I can do now is to try to stop the problem."
Since 2000, CeaseFire has hired about 120 workers and has spread to 16 neighborhoods in Chicago and nine outside the city. Most have seen a drop in shootings and homicides compared with neighboring precincts without CeaseFire. In the 11th Police District, for instance, killings declined from 72 in 2001 to 25 in 2004.
Those numbers have not gone unnoticed, particularly by politicians eager for a good-news story. Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich has boosted annual funding for CeaseFire to $6.25 million, and New Jersey Gov. Jon Corzine hopes to expand a fledgling program in Newark and Irvington. First lady Laura Bush visited CeaseFire's outreach workers in Chicago's Logan Square neighborhood last June. Impressed by Slutkin's idea that violent behavior is learned, and thus can be unlearned, Bush asked Slutkin to sit with her at the 2006 State of the Union speech, and she has connected him with White House advisers to talk about quelling violence among kids in the Middle East.
Slutkin on first glance seems an unlikely antiviolence crusader. Pale, thoughtful, and turned out in a conservative navy blue suit, he looks at 55 like he should be in private practice on Chicago's tony Gold Coast, not ministering to the gangbangers of Englewood and East Garfield Park. He grew up in West Rogers Park, with a father who nurtured his curiosity about science (he fondly recalls having a model of the human eye in his room at age 9) and a mother who "was relentlessly enraged by injustices." Those two influences merged after medical school, when he began to specialize in infectious disease, first fighting a TB epidemic among Vietnamese refugees for the city of San Francisco, then moving to Mogadishu, Somalia, where he worked for the International Rescue Committee treating cholera and TB outbreaks among refugees from the country's civil war. Daniel Tarantola, who worked with Slutkin on World Health Organization campaigns against AIDS in Africa and Thailand, remembers him as a solid thinker who never flinched at harsh conditions. With CeaseFire, he says, Slutkin is applying lessons learned with AIDS, addressing not only the visible manifestations "but their links to deeply rooted causes."
Criminologists praise CeaseFire's fresh approach to suppressing violence and give the group extra credit for taking on the highest-risk groups in the worst neighborhoods, rather than just giving lectures in high school auditoriums, as many anticrime programs do. "They're taking on a tough target," says Wesley Skogan, a professor at Northwestern University's Institute for Policy Research, who studies violence in Chicago. Just 5 percent of offenders commit 40 percent of crimes, Skogan says. He has started a two-year study, funded by the National Institute of Justice, to determine how much of the recent decline in violence in Chicago can be attributed to CeaseFire and how much to other anticrime programs, such as the federal Project Safe Neighborhoods program and Chicago Police Department efforts. Slutkin is only too happy to share the credit. "Why have only one intervention?" he asks, noting that it took many different approaches, including seat belt laws, air bags, and speed limits, to reduce highway deaths. "If you add to something else, soon you get synergy."
Born: Aug. 7, 1950
Education: B.S. in physiology, University of Illinois; M.D., University of Chicago
Countries worked in: Somalia, Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania, Zaire, Thailand, 15 others
Last read: Presence, by Peter Senge
This story appears in the June 12, 2006 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.