How a Chicago Program Cut Violent Arrests in Half

Former Surgeon General Vivek Murthy thinks emotional well-being can help reduce gun deaths.

Charles Rex Arbogast / AP

On an average day, 93 Americans are killed with guns—more than in any other developed country. National reforms, such as closing loopholes around background checks, might help curb that, former Surgeon General Vivek Murthy said this week at the Aspen Ideas Festival. But those types of changes aren’t likely to make it through a Republican-led Congress. So instead, Murthy pointed out some initiatives individual communities can take on to reduce gun deaths at the local level.

Murthy specifically highlighted programs focused on reducing stress and isolation, and that promoted positive social connections. One impactful example, Murthy said, is “the Chicago ‘Becoming A Man’ program — a one-year intervention, over 32 or so weeks, where kids met with a mentor once a week to develop social connection, to develop skills on how to handle conflict and adversity. In one year compared to a control group they had a 44 percent reduction in violent arrests.”

Indeed, as the Chicago Sun-Times reported, the program focused on attempting to teach teen boys in violent areas of the city how to react to stressful situations in non-violent ways. In addition to hourlong weekly group sessions, they also had access to counselors throughout the week.

Here’s how Sun-Times reporter Frank Main described it:

In one exercise, a leader asks one boy to hold a ball and another student to take it away. Typically, the second boy physically wrests away the ball. Then the leader asks the boy who held the ball what he would have done if he were asked politely to give it up. Usually, he responds that he would because it’s just a ball.

The program emphasizes helping the teens determine their own values and live up to them, as its founder, Anthony Di Vittorio, recently told Ulrich Boser  for The Atlantic recently:

As I’m the BAM counselor, I’m going to say, “Let’s talk about this concept of integrity.” We’ll practice it and then get the kid to an experiential understanding of what that idea means and relate it to his life with contemporary issues.

And then what happens is you start to value the value, and as they start to value these values, they become these guiding structures in their lives. And that’s where the changes starts to come in.

A study that compared 4,800 students in the program with their peers found that, among the mentored boys, violent-crime arrests fell 50 percent, and arrests for all types of crime fell 35 percent. The boys in the program also had higher graduation rates.

There are caveats, like the fact that the positive effects didn’t last beyond the program. But Murthy sees it and similar initiatives as promising interventions that can boost emotional well-being and help people consider alternatives to violence. That, in his view, would curb not only violent crime—which often involves knee-jerk reactions—but also suicides, which account for most gun deaths.