Carlos Gomez and many other Oakland residents understand too well the ultimate cost of gun violence. He lost a cousin in 2012 and since has pushed for local communities in the East Bay city to take a stand against guns in an effort to reduce the city's notorious murder rate. According to governmental statistics, 2013 saw a reduction from the previous year of nearly 60 murders, showing signs that activists, citizens and others are making an impact in the battle against violence in the city.
"I think it is important to put the efforts of the people first in how this city has begun to take serious and real action against gun violence," Gomez, a social worker and former gang member, told Beyond Chron.
For him, 2013 was a positive step toward changing the perceptions and pushing forward on grassroots initiatives to help continue to reduce the city's murders.
With 88 murders reported in 2013, a decrease from the more than 130 the year previous, police believe that as more and more local leaders and activists speak out and educate others, the number of guns being used in the city is reducing dramatically. "We are seeing a dramatic reduction in the overall use of guns, and this is translating into a reduction of murders in the city. It is a combination of efforts and we at the police department are pleased that community action is taking hold," said an Oakland Police Department official, who was not authorized to speak to the media.
Oakland Interim Police Chief Sean Whent, who credits the department’s focus on the city’s worst offenders, believes the police focus on violent crime has had a large impact on how the city has changed the status quo and saw the number of murders belong 100 for the first time since 2010. Last year was the lowest number of murders in the city in a decade, leaving many activists, including Gomez, optimistic about the city's future.
Whent credits the deployment of five crime-response teams to break up gangs and catch the most violent offenders in East Oakland, individuals that he said also commit much of the crime in other neighborhoods.
“It’s having an effect on the violent crime, but what we find is that those groups that do violence upon one another, their day job is committing robberies or doing burglaries. So when we impact their ability to do violence upon another, we also have an impact their ability to do robberies and burglaries—and that’s having an effect citywide,” he said.
Community action, however, seems to be the greatest impact overall, Gomez believes. He credits churches and local groups for their education efforts. This, he says, "is key to the success in the city. When our youth are being educated, going to college and getting good jobs, we see a direct reduction in violence."
Religious leaders may very well be the key. For a population that lives day-to-day in a constant state of uncertainty when leaving one's home, seeing a massive reduction in murders will help spur local business and help build communities.
"I think we shouldn't discount the efforts of religious groups in talking about the need to rid ourselves of guns. When I go talk to young people, especially gang members, it is clear that they don't put guns and life in the same context because that is how they know how to survive, so changing this perspective is key," he added.
In many ways, it is about creating a better sense of awareness, whereby families and communities, especially in the hotspot of West Oakland, are able to create a new sense of community foundation that educates people on the importance of putting down the guns.
Whent added that gang related violence has also seen a dropoff, showing that the city's future could be on the right path and the trajectory downward could be a huge step in the city regaining its foothold in the Bay.
For Gomez, the police and others, education is paramount. "We must educate people and deliver living wages to our citizens. People want to work and when there are enough jobs and the economy is moving along solidly like it did last year, we will continue to see less people being killed. This is in line with other cities and social workers I speak to on a daily basis."
While Oakland still has a long way to go before murder and violence are no longer daily front page news, the city's overall efforts appear to be making headway into creating a more peaceful city for all.