John Rakowski, program coordinator for the Medical College of Wisconsin’s Violence Prevention Initiative, was addressing hundreds of Milwaukee youth at a citywide summit about gun violence at the Tripoli Shrine Center.
As if to underscore the importance of the gathering, less than 10 miles away on the very same street, police shot and arrested 22-year-old Ashanti Hendricks after he threatened to use a .40-caliber Glock pistol during a standoff at Children’s Hospital.
In an effort to reduce the gun violence that plagued the city last summer, Rakowski and other representatives from health agencies throughout the city recently hosted the “Coming Together” summit for youth and community leaders to collectively develop strategies to fight the problem.
Utilizing a public health approach to gun violence is not a new concept, Rakowski said, but one that is not yet commonly understood or implemented. It focuses on prevention and invites a broader collaboration beyond law enforcement and the criminal justice system to address the issue.
“The big things that came up were the relationship between violence and unemployment or underemployment in our community, particularly in relation to our young people. It’s a complex problem that’s going to require a variety of strategies,” Rakowski said.
Youth are disproportionately affected by gun violence in Milwaukee. According to the Milwaukee Homicide Review Commission’s 2012 report, 44 percent of last year’s homicide victims in Milwaukee were under the age of 25.
Data compiled by the commission this year shows that there have been 71 gun-related homicides in the city between Jan. 1 and Oct. 31. That equates to four out of five of all homicides. Of the 456 non-fatal shooting victims during the same time period, half were 24 or younger.
With those numbers in mind, the summit placed local youth input at the centerpiece of the event. Coming Together organizers, led by a partnership between the Violence Prevention Initiative and the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee’s Center for Urban Initiatives and Research, created and administered a gun violence survey.
The survey is intended as a tool to better understand youths’ perceptions and experiences related to guns and gun violence.
Preliminary findings from the 168 completed surveys were shared during the summit and used to catalyze discussion throughout the day. Rakowski cautioned that the results do not reflect all Milwaukee youth, but may provide a glimpse into their opinions and perceptions on this issue.
The survey found that 80 percent of the youth surveyed perceive gun violence as a serious problem. Slightly more than half said that youth carry guns for protection against attacks by other people, while 42 percent did so to “show off” and impress their friends.
Half said that they had seen another youth carrying a gun in the past 12 months, while 40 percent reported seeing someone threatened by a gun. More than one-third have been threatened themselves by a person with a gun.
Several community organizations helped administer the surveys to 168 youths between mid-October to the day prior to the summit. Rakowski said he hopes to partner with additional agencies to increase the survey’s sample size to at least 500.
“We want to develop strategies based on the data and rely on evidenced-based practices,” Rakowski said. To the best of his knowledge, “most of the survey items are not being measured elsewhere in our community, particularly from youth input.”