Austin violence prevention office launches public health campaigns aimed at gun safety, stress

Austin's Office of Violence Prevention launched two public safety campaigns in March. (Courtesy APH/Lock Arms for Life)
Austin's Office of Violence Prevention launched two public safety campaigns in March. (Courtesy APH/Lock Arms for Life)

Austin's Office of Violence Prevention launched two public safety campaigns in March. (Courtesy APH/Lock Arms for Life)

Following a year that saw Austin pass its record homicide count, the city's Office of Violence Prevention is moving ahead on several initiatives officials said they hope can curb 2021's spike in violence.

The violence prevention office, or OVP, was formed last year at Austin Public Health following previous city work targeting gun violence. This month, the office launched two initiatives aimed at safe gun storage and stress reduction—which OVP Manager Michelle Myles has pointed to as a main pandemic-related driver of violence.

On March 3, the office announced its Address Your Stress advertising campaign highlighting elevated stress and how to address it. According to the OVP, Austinites can expect social media posts, radio hits, and digital and physical advertising calling attention to the issue and directing residents to the campaign website for more resources.

“We all need help,” Myles said in a statement. “When we constantly operate within our stress response, we have limited access to critical thinking and the heightened senses in our body that wears us out. Add in an acute stressor and interpersonal conflict, and you have a recipe for violence that could have been prevented if cooler minds prevailed.”

The Address Your Stress announcement was followed by news of Safe Gun Storage Saves Lives, a collaboration between the city, other agencies and the Lock Arms for Life gun education group. The gun safety campaign will feature public messaging about firearm storage, opportunities for in-person education and gun lock distribution, and related advertising throughout Austin.

As it was launched March 14 amid the South by Southwest Conference & Festivals in town, representatives of that campaign said it will promote safe gun storage both during and after the citywide festival. Leaders with the involved organizations said gun storage is key to reducing the risk of violence or accidental injury in the home as well as on the streets, and especially among children.

“Investing in safe storage is a proven way to prevent Austin residents from experiencing violence,” Myles said in a statement. “Access to gun locks and understanding how and why to use them can make an immediate difference in a home. Safe storage supports many of the OVP’s approaches, including preventing the stress response from escalating harmful thinking to gun violence.”

The campaign also started as Texas overall has seen a rising firearm-related mortality rate over the past decade statewide that regularly topped the national average, according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data.

Responding to violence

The OVP's involvement in the new violence reduction campaigns follows a year that saw Austin surpass 80 murders for the first time. In addition to the stress and gun storage programs, Myles has said the OVP is planning for further community violence intervention work and related grant opportunities this year, while also working to secure more funding for future initiatives.

Myles previously told Community Impact Newspaper she believes the issue of stress ties closely to rising violence recorded in Austin since 2020. While noting that most large cities nationwide experienced a similar jump in violent crime over the past year-plus, Myles said addressing stress in the city is among the top priorities for the office's local work.

"Because of so much stress and not enough resources and not enough language for understanding around what’s happening, we just kind of behave without realizing that we’re being impacted by higher stress levels, which is really triggering certain parts of our brain to do certain things," Myles said in January. "Raising of the awareness is the antidote.”

According to DPS and APD data, 2021 brought Austin its largest-ever homicide total as well as the city's highest murder rate since the 1990s. Other crimes, such as kidnapping and aggravated assault saw year-over-year increases in 2021, while fewer cases of rape and intimidation were logged. In total, the number of crimes against people as reported by APD fell 2% from 2020 to 2021.

In January, the latest month with available year-over-year crime data from APD, 11 murders were recorded citywide—up from the four recorded in January 2021. Kidnapping, rape and assault cases were also up from their January 2021 totals to start the new year. According to APD, the city recorded its 16th murder this year on March 7.
By Ben Thompson

Austin City Hall Reporter

Ben joined Community Impact Newspaper in January 2019 after graduating with a degree in journalism from Northeastern University in Boston. He spent more than two years reporting on Montgomery County and The Woodlands area before moving to Austin in 2021 to cover City Hall and other news throughout the city. Contact Ben with questions, tips or feedback at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter @BThompson_CI.