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Boxing As a Solution to Help End Gun Violence

Boxing programs aren't scientifically proven to reduce violence, but the anecdotes seem promising.

Boxing programs aren't scientifically proven to reduce violence, but the anecdotes seem promising. GlebBStock/Shutterstock

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Baltimore Mayor Jack Young suggested that letting young people settle their differences in a boxing ring might stop people from shooting each other. But would an intervention like that really make a dent in the murder rate?

Baltimore saw 309 homicides in 2018, with an overwhelming majority attributed to gun violence. Nearly 20% of the victims were part of a shocking demographic—people who had been shot before and survived. In that way, violence in the city is often cyclical, involving a rotating cast of people who are perpetually stuck in the crossfire.

Many of them are also teenagers, or younger. Following the killing of a 17-year-old boy last week, new Mayor Jack Young suggested an alternative to settling disputes with guns: boxing. “If they want to really settle [disagreements], we can have them down at the Civic Center, put a boxing ring up, let them go and box it out, those kind of things. [May] the best man win, and the beef should be over,” Young said at a rally to end gun violence.

Homicides have long been a problem in Baltimore, but the city’s politicians have struggled to deal with a full-blown crisis since the unrest following the 2015 death of Freddie Gray in police custody. City officials have since rolled out programs, and the police department is now governed by a federal consent decree after the Justice Department found that policing has long been mired in racial bias.

The past few months have been particularly bad, and with 134 homicides this year so far, it seems likely that the city will reach 300 murders for the fifth year in a row by the end of 2019. For context, New York City had 15 homicides in May. Baltimore, with just 7% of New York’s population, had 33.

Boxing is an unlikely solution to fix a problem so complex and widespread. But Baltimore may have reached the point where politicians are willing to try any and all ideas. Would a seemingly simple idea like this actually help, even just a little?

Pat Russo thinks the city should take the idea seriously. He’s the founder and executive director of NYC Cops and Kids Boxing, a program through which police officers serve as mentors and boxing coaches to kids who are at-risk for joining gangs. “Every boxer you see give an interview on television, there’s a common denominator. They all say they’d either be boxing or dead. Boxing changes people, gives them an outlet,” he said.

A former police sergeant, Russo founded his program 35 years ago and now runs three free community gyms in Brooklyn and Staten Island where kids can get homework help, take boxing lessons, and learn about careers in firefighting and policing. He said as a rookie cop, he saw that arresting the same kids over and over again was creating a cycle. “What were they supposed to do with felony records?,” he asked. “How could they get jobs? What was left for them except gangs and violence?”

In the program, Russo said that kids get sense knocked into them—literally. “This is really just a common sense approach,” he said. “The gym becomes a surrogate family year round, because the sport isn’t seasonal. You can watch the kids become better people.”

Baltimore is home to a similar program that combines boxing and academics, one that operates under the motto “no hooks before books.” Marvin McDowell, who runs that boxing gym, told ABC News Baltimore that he could see a scenario in which Young’s idea could work, where two contestants train at different gyms and then sign an agreement on the day of the fight saying they’ll leave their beef in the ring. "It gives you a choice—whether you want to engage or walk away or feel like you're being chumped,” McDowell said.

Though research on the subject has been mixed, there is some support among academics for programs like those run by McDowell and Russo. In 2006, researcher and social worker Whitney Wright published an article in which she argued that boxing provides are a highly effective way for young people to express stress and frustration without resorting to violence. In a structured program, she wrote, participants may “take the familiar experience of fighting they already identify with and sanction it, control it, structure it, refine it, harness it, [take] ownership of it, and turn into an art form to be valued and respected.”

But Wright only studied structured boxing programs, those that made time in the boxing gym the safest and most supportive part of participants’ schedules. It isn’t clear from Young’s remarks if he was suggesting something like that, or a more informal scenario where contestants fight once to settle a dispute.

Loretta Stalans, a professor of criminology and psychology at Loyola University in Chicago, said that the mayor’s comments seem to assume that boxing will be an outlet for aggression, but that may not be a useful starting point. “A lot of gun violence is not about aggression,” she said. “Often, it’s about economic motives, like you see with armed robberies.”

The Mayor’s office could not be reached for comment, but Young’s spokesman Lester Davis told the Baltimore Sun that “Baltimore has a rich boxing history,” making it a solution worth considering.  

Baltimore City Council Member Robert Stokes agrees, and thinks the city should consider creating its own program. “I think this could be a great start in addressing the violence here in Baltimore, and in other places,” he said.

If Baltimore does establish a boxing program, Russo said that he thinks they should structure it like his in New York, as it would be an easy opportunity for the police to connect with the community in an informal way. “So at the same time as you’re providing an opportunity for these kids to learn to be independent and take pride in themselves, they’re also gaining better relationships with law enforcement,” he said.

When asked whether he thinks the program would impact Baltimore’s homicide rate, Russo was emphatic. “I can say 100%, that if they did this right, they could see a turnaround,” he said. “I’m so sure of it, I would volunteer to go down there and help them build the program myself.”

But Irvin Waller, a professor emeritus of criminology at the University of Ottawa, isn’t so sure. He credits programs like Russo’s that “teach the right skills and provide mentorship” with having some impact on street violence, but he said that Baltimore needs a much more comprehensive solution. “The sad thing about Baltimore is that they don’t have the strategic plan like many other cities have used to reduce violence, as Boston did in the 1990s, and as we’ve seen a lot abroad,” he said.

The city currently has several initiatives focused on ending violence, including Safe Streets, a recently expanded program that seeks to intercede in disputes in several neighborhoods, and Ceasefire, an organization that runs “zero murder weekends” during certain months. A nonprofit, the Baltimore Community Mediation Center, also teaches conflict resolution and offers intervention services.

But Waller said that Baltimore’s efforts have often been isolated to specific neighborhoods, or tried and then abandoned after a few years. Now, he argued, the city needs to create a holistic approach to implementing and expanding evidence-based programs. “There are all things that are well-known to have worked, and when you spread these across the city, you get dramatic results,” he said. “Baltimore has one of the highest homicide rates in the world. They need a plan that looks at where the problems are, and adapts things that have been effective to create a city-wide strategy.”

Emma Coleman is the assistant editor for Route Fifty.

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