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Philanthropy Needs to Do More to Back Research About Gun Violence

By Ellen Alberding for The Chronicle of Philanthropy

Just a year ago, in a moment of horror, the nation learned of the unimaginable slaughter of innocent children and educators in Newtown, Conn.

The event caused Americans to pause for a moment and to consider: What kind of people are we, and what do we want our nation to be?

For those of us in philanthropy, the question quickly became, What can we do to accelerate the search for solutions and galvanize the public to push for sensible public policies that would prevent mass shootings and the daily toll of gun violence that claims 30,000 lives every year?

The public was ready to answer the call. Most Americans (90 percent) agree that stronger gun laws, especially background checks to limit access to lethal weapons, as well as improving mental-health treatments, are key.

And while Congress did not act, that does not mean that progress hasn’t been made at both the federal and state levels.

The Obama administration developed a comprehensive strategy based on first-rate research to curb gun violence by limiting access to guns by dangerous persons and restrict the most lethal weapons. A majority of U.S. Senators (54) backed a key idea from that plan—voting to expand background checks. That is a step in the right direction.

Meanwhile, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, and New York passed new laws that require more background checks for gun purchases, and states including California, Connecticut, and Maryland have placed new limits on assault weapons and high-capacity magazines. Many states, including New Jersey and Texas, have new requirements that improve background checks by requiring better records that disqualify people who are prohibited from owning a firearm. Other states, such as Delaware and Illinois, gave law enforcement new tools to combat gun trafficking.

These measures are based on the best available evidence about what works to prevent gun violence. A research symposium held at Johns Hopkins University this year gathered that evidence and the best minds in the country to inform policy making.

But we in the foundation world must do more to finance research that helps us understand the impact that access to firearms has on public safety and to develop policies to reduce violence that are based on evidence about what works. When we know what works in one community, we can apply those lessons nationwide. Spreading this information is a second crucial role for philanthropy.

The momentum for these changes comes from new voices, energy, and attention that have emerged in communities across this country.

Law-enforcement groups and mayors calling for laws to protect officers and communities are now joined by mothers who are concerned about the safety of their children. Teachers and faith leaders are lending their voices to improve public safety for their students and parishioners. Physicians are rallying because they know firsthand that the best medicine is preventative. These groups, like the majority of Americans, support solutions that have been shown to reduce the toll of gun violence. These coalitions will thrive with even greater philanthropic support.

As I reflect on this tragic anniversary, I feel optimistic that our nation will continue to build on the progress we’ve made this year. But I also know that won’t happen unless we can encourage more people in philanthropy to put their money and their prestige into efforts that rally our lawmakers to make critical changes in public policy.

Even after the Newtown tragedy, both researchers and advocates continue to struggle to raise funds. That is even after the Joyce Foundation, which I lead, and other grant makers joined together after another tragedy—the 2011 shooting in Tucson that killed six people and wounded 13 others, including U.S. Representative Gabrielle Giffords. We created the Fund for a Safer Future, and since then the fund and its donors have invested more than $15-million in organizations that promote sensible gun laws.

More foundations and philanthropists can join our work or get our advice about where to finance efforts. Let us all resolve in the next year to ensure this good work continues and that none of our children have to live in fear. That’s the best way to honor the people whose lives were taken too soon in Newtown.

Ellen Alberding is president of the Joyce Foundation.

This is a reprint of an article titled Philanthropy Needs to Do More to Back Research About Gun Violence that originally appeared in The Chronicle of Philanthropy.