ST. LOUIS CASE STUDY
Generation Progress is launching a series of case studies to explore how young people have been involved in local efforts that have successfully moved forward the dual priorities of gun violence prevention and criminal justice reform. Young people are the generation most impacted by gun violence. According to America’s Youth Under Fire, a 2018 joint report by Generation Progress and the Center for American Progress, gunfire has surpassed car accidents as a leading killer of young people in the United States. Young people understand that if we are to end the gun violence epidemic, we must place it in context with the criminal justice system and policing.
Generation Progress wanted to explore the question of what happens when a young survivor of gun violence is elected to public office. Does this change the conversation in state legislatures or the types of bills that are introduced? Generation Progress went to St. Louis to speak to Rep. Bruce Franks Jr. about his experiences as a state organizer and how his personal story changed the dialogue in Missouri’s state capitol.
In addition to Rep. Bruce Franks Jr.’s election, recent races have ushered in elected officials intimately familiar with gun violence, such as Virginia State Delegate Chris Hurst, whose girlfriend was shot and killed on television in 2015 as she was reporting live. Some survivors of gun violence have even served in Congress, including Arizona Rep. Gabby Giffords, Louisiana Rep. Steve Scalise, and California Rep. Jackie Speier. But few elected officials have experiences that exist so squarely in the intersection of gun violence and the criminal justice system as State Rep. Franks. As a young black man who has experienced both gun violence and police brutality, Franks represents some of the most impacted communities, making him unique among legislators. African Americans between the ages of 15 and 29 are 18 times more likely than their white peers to be the victim of a gun homicide. While African Americans accounted for 15 percent of the population of young people in this age range, they comprise 64 percent of gun homicide victims. Bruce’s story is not unique in his community, but it is unique among elected officials.
At six years old, Franks’s life was forever changed when his nine-year-old brother was gunned down by an exchange of bullets between two warring drug dealers. The St. Louis neighborhood where Franks grew up was no stranger to scenes like the one that took his brother, with neighbors regularly being witness to acts of senseless violence. But while many communities look to the police to control crime, Franks observed that it was police themselves fanning the flames of violence. The fractures of understanding and trust between community and the police were only widening. This, he knew, had to change—and if nobody else was going to step up, he would.
His neighborhood had another problem. With high rates of crime, the community was also deeply impacted by the criminal justice system, with many formerly incarcerated people struggling to find stability in their lives. Franks realized that members of his own community were entirely without the resources necessary to remain drug-free and fully reenter working society.
After attending Generation Progress’ inaugural youth gun violence prevention summit in 2014, Bruce returned home to St. Louis where he founded a nonprofit and began work as a community liaison with the St. Louis Police Department. Within a year, Franks realized he could more directly impact his community as a legislator and in 2016 ran for, and won, a seat in the Missouri state House.
LEGISLATING THROUGH A HOLISTIC APPROACH
Since being elected, Franks has introduced several pieces of legislation to curb gun violence, increase community investment, and improve community policing relations. His lived experiences have given him a greater understanding of what’s necessary to change the criminal justice system and curb gun violence beyond simply regulating firearms. His legislative approach centers community reinvestment and utilizes measures proven to lower instances of gun violence when implemented. Franks has introduced several gun violence prevention measures.
- HB 1585 (5139H.01I) – Designating June 7th as “Youth Violence Prevention Day”
- HCR 70 (5988H.01T) – Declaring youth violence as a public health epidemic and declaring June 7th as “Christopher Harris Day” in Missouri
- HB 1592 (5400H.01I) – Requiring the reporting of lost or stolen firearms
- HB 2559 (6503H.01I) – Authorizing municipalities and counties to pass ordinances requiring a permit to carry a concealed firearm within the municipality or county
For Franks, effective solutions go beyond common-sense gun legislation by addressing the problem through a holistic approach. Curbing access to firearms is only one piece of what must be a multipronged approach to tackling the issue. Studies have shown that reinvestment in youth programs and financial investment from both the public and private sector are part of turning the tide in communities experiencing high rates of gun violence. Franks has embraced this approach, tackling gun violence with both the firearms regulation measures noted above, but also by pushing for community reinvestment. Franks has had two notable efforts pushing for community reinvestment.
- Missouri FY2018 Budget Amendment – Securing bipartisan support to restore funding for a youth summer jobs program, targeting young people in Kansas City and St. Louis
- HB 1775 (5442H.01I) – Increasing community investment in local businesses through his sponsorship of a bill that authorizes a tax credit for establishing a new business in a distressed community
Franks has worked far beyond the legislative approach to address the challenges faced by his community. In the past, he’s worked as a peacekeeper, serving as a liaison between neighborhood police forces and local communities during the national headline-making protests in Ferguson. He understands that de-escalation has to come from a place of security and trust that law enforcement is there to serve poor and black communities. This requires accountability for a police department that black St. Louis residents have reason to mistrust. To address distrust in the police, Franks has introduced legislation to improve community policing relations, including:
- HB 1583 (5143H.01I) – Requiring the director of the department of public safety to initiate disciplinary action when the director is presented with any information demonstrating cause to discipline a peace officer licensee
- HB 1586 (5295H.01I) – Establishing a “Protestors’ Bill of Rights,” so that young people understand their rights when it comes to protest and interactions with the police force
- HB 2327 (6237H.01I) – Specifying procedures in officer-involved deaths and shootings by requiring the officer take a drug test and undergo a psychiatric evaluation
Today, Franks continues to serve as a liaison between the police and the community. The personal relationships built with individual police officers and community leaders have provided Missourians with a bigger platform to express their concerns with local law enforcement. Franks also works with the police department to implement revisions to their training program and community programs. There is a clear partnership in the development of a community policing model, as well as discussions following any officer-involved shooting.
FUELING THE LONG-TERM MOVEMENT FOR SOLUTIONS
Through the introduction of policies that empower young, rural, and traditionally disenfranchised Missourians, Franks has demonstrated a comprehensive view of youth empowerment. Automatic voter registration (AVR) is a policy tool that addresses some of the challenges with registering young voters and helps ensure that young people can have their voices heard on the issues that affect their lives. Put simply, AVR removes much of the bureaucratic red tape that keeps young people from voting. Some of the legislation introduced by Franks that seeks to build the power of youth and disenfranchised communities include:
- HB 1584 (5138H.01I) – Requiring the secretary of state to establish a system for automatic voter registration
- HB 2492 (6279H.01I) – Modifying provisions for absentee voting
Provisions like AVR that systematically level the playing field for all Missourians serve three purposes: to increase civic participation from a greater variety of people, to improve governmental representation by including a diversity of lived experiences, and to save the government and civic sectors a substantial amount of money.
CHANGING THE CONVERSATION IN THE CAPITOL
Franks’s ability to speak from his lived experiences with gun violence and police brutality has enabled him to cross partisan barriers in a time where our nation is experiencing increasing political polarization and a widening partisan divide. His personal experience, often alien to many state legislators from “traditional” backgrounds, has, in several cases, trumped politics. Republican state Rep. Mike Stephens, who entered the Legislature at the same time as Franks, has publicly said he considers him a friend. And his previously mentioned FY2018 budget amendment was a result of persuading the Republican-controlled Missouri House to restore funding for a jobs program that, according to local reporting, Missouri Gov. Eric Greitens wanted to cut entirely. In July of 2018 his bill declaring youth violence a public health epidemic in the state cleared the House with zero opposition.
While willpower alone has gotten Franks far in life, his success can be directly attributed to national and local funding. His accomplishments continue to happen at the state level, but his success was fostered in part by funding from Generation Progress’ national program that knit together many individuals and local campaigns into a network of support. Franks continues to build the criminal justice reform and gun violence prevention movement by mentoring survivors of gun violence and young people pursuing elected office. Gun violence prevention organizers and leaders need to build a movement that invests in and empowers young people and survivors to not only tell their stories, but to attain positions of civic leadership. The message here is simple: invest in electing people who are survivors and who can best represent their communities.