What’s behind gun violence?

January 21, 2013

Elizabeth Schulte explains why Barack Obama's solutions to gun violence fall short.

BARACK OBAMA, surrounded by school children and the families of victims of the mass shooting in Newtown, Conn., announced his commitment to stricter gun laws on January 16, the one-month anniversary of the Sandy Hook massacre.

Sandy Hook was just one of several recent mass shootings involving military-style assault weapons that have focused the world's attention on gun violence in the U.S. And so the administration has been under pressure from nearly everyone to take some kind of action.

Nearly everyone. Naturally, the crackpots of the pro-gun lobby disagree that gun violence is even a problem in American society.

Most people, however, share the attitude articulated by Obama that the time has come to take action in response to the senseless mass killings. For those who see gun violence taking lives on a much more regular, if less reported, basis in poor neighborhoods, mainly populated by African Americans and Latinos, they feel a similar urgency.

Among the proposals put forward by Obama and Vice President Joe Biden are increasing the number of police in schools, banning military-style assault weapons and high-capacity magazines, expanding background checks for gun buyers and strengthening laws against gun trafficking.

What's behind gun violence in the U.S.?

But will the administration's proposals get us any closer to stopping gun violence? The fact is that the Obama administration and Congress aren't prepared to make the kind of changes needed to address the causes of gun violence in the U.S. And some of the measures they have come up with could make the situation even worse for the very people they say they want to help.

One group, of course, doesn't share the concern over the senseless loss of human life--the National Rife Association (NRA).

If the administration has picked the NRA to stand up against, it's picked a very deserving target. For many decades, the NRA has been right wing and racist to its core. But NRA leaders have outdone themselves in recent weeks--for instance, running an ad that criticizes Obama's supposed "elitist hypocrisy" because his children have Secret Service protection when they go to school.

While the NRA talks about defending rights and freedoms, first and foremost, it speaks for the rights and freedoms of the gun industry, a multibillion-dollar business. These corporations spend a lot of money to make sure that any legislation controlling guns or ammunition is toothless or easy to maneuver around.

Thus, while some politicians, Democrats especially, talk tough about legislation meant to address gun violence, they never really hit these corporations where they live--in the pocketbook.

In the run-up to the passage of Bill Clinton's 1994 crime bill--the most expensive such legislation in history to that point--there was a lot of tough talk about banning assault weapons. But in the end, the language of the bill was so vague and narrowly written that many assault weapons could still be sold legally, and weapons manufacturers suffered no harm at all. In addition, the ban had a 10-year expiration date.

In the meanwhile, gun makers were able to find ways around the new government restrictions. To get the crime bill passed, its authors defined an assault weapon as a gun that could accept a detachable magazine and that included two or more other combat-type accessories, like a pistol grip, flash suppressor or grenade launcher. A gun with just one accessory was still legal.

FOR MANY people who live in poor and working-class neighborhoods, gun violence was a concern well before Sandy Hook. In poor Black and Latino communities, where residents have been disproportionately affected by the economic recession, the housing crisis and a lack of good jobs, the pressures of feeding your family, crime and gun violence all go hand in hand.

Because of these unequal and discriminatory conditions, Blacks are more likely to be the victims of violent crime. According to Bureau of Justice Statistics, homicide victimization rates for Blacks were six times higher than for whites.

It's little surprise that a growing number of African Americans are in favor of greater gun restrictions. According to a recent Gallup poll, non-whites were growing more in favor of stricter gun laws, with 49 percent saying they were dissatisfied with current legislation, compared to 31 percent a year ago.

On the face of it, decreasing the number of guns seems like the right idea. But when city, state and federal governments--and their police forces--are the ones in charge of solving the problem, the picture can look worse for neighborhoods with gun violence.

According to a plan just proposed by Mayor Rahm Emanuel in Chicago as part of the national push around gun violence, the city is getting ready to pass some of the toughest gun restrictions in the country, including strict rules and high sentences for possessing a stolen gun and mandatory jail time for some gun violations.

As part of the public relations campaign for the new restrictions, the Chicago police organized a news conference that was supposed to show how many illegal firearms they had retrieved in just the first two weeks of 2013. When reporters noticed that many of the "recently seized" weapons had inventory tags attached that gave dates as much as a year old, the jig was up.

Police Supt. Garry McCarthy dismissed the lie, telling reporters, "Well, you know what the point is."

Yeah, the point is that you're lying.

THIS STORY illustrates how the police function in U.S. society--above the law, and with their own set of rules. Mix this attitude with greater police powers over search and seizure--as politicians concerned over gun violence propose--and you've got more excuses for police to terrorize poor, Black communities.

Not that there aren't any number of excuses that the police use already--such as the so-called war on drugs.

Or take the example of the "stop-and-frisk" policies of the New York Police Department, where a recent study showed that out of 685,000 NYPD stops in 2011, only 770 guns were recovered. Overall, 87 percent of those stopped were Black or Latino.

Like other laws, gun laws aren't written to protect everyone. They're written to protect a small, select group, at the expense of the rest of us. When was the last time you saw the police bust into the home of NRA leader Wayne LaPierre to check out his gun permits--or stop and frisk him because his NRA button made him looked suspicious?

Police--purveyors of so much violence and harassment in Black and Latino communities--are the last people such communities need to keep the peace. Their record shows clearly that they don't value the lives of people of color--as the cases of police murder victims Ramarley Graham in New York and Alan Blueford in Oakland, Calif., illustrate.

In addition to adding more police overall, part of the Obama administration's "anti-violence" plan calls for federal money to increase police presence and surveillance in schools. But this is likely to exacerbate an already growing problem--of children being pushed out of schools and into the prison system. As the ACLU warned in a letter to Vice President Joe Biden,

[P]olicymakers might assume that adding police, metal detectors and surveillance necessarily makes students safer, [but] experience demonstrates otherwise. In practice, most school police spend a significant portion of their time responding to minor, nonviolent infractions--children who have drawn on desks or talked back to teachers, for example--rather than behaviors that seriously threaten school safety.

Criminalizing minor misbehavior that should be handled by teachers or school administrators has serious consequences for kids and only contributes to the school-to-prison pipeline--that is, pushing kids out of classrooms and into jail cells. When students are arrested just once, their chances of graduating drop dramatically, and they face lifelong repercussions as a result. We must ensure that a legislative solution does not result in children being punished more severely in the name of school safety.

As the ACLU points out, we've seen this policy before--during the Clinton years--and the results in Connecticut, for example, included "the arrest of two Hispanic fourth graders for 'insubordination,' the arrest of an African American first grader for 'leaving school grounds,' and the arrest of a Hispanic kindergartner for battery."

FOR MANY people, it was welcome news that the federal government was voicing concern about gun violence. But while the administration's anti-violence policies give the appearance of doing something, the reality is different.

But in the meantime, the Obama administration can get away with ignoring the real conditions that give rise to violence.

The federal government is willing to spend billions more on police and homeland "security"--but there's no money when it comes to social policies that might make a difference in people's everyday lives, and with the violence those conditions sometime cause.

Many cases of gun violence are the result of poverty and crime. How about jobs that pay a living wage and offer alternatives beyond the terrible choices that many people face in order to feed themselves and their families?

Then there is that other un-discussed source of violence in U.S. society--the family, where the stresses of everyday life come to the surface, often in the form of violence directed at those who are most vulnerable. Research shows that among people who own firearms, the guns are turned most often against family members or themselves.

Art Kellermann, a former researcher at Emory University who says his work ended because of pressure from the NRA, told NPR in an interview, "[A] gun kept in the home was 43 times more likely to be involved in the death of a member of the household than to be used in self-defense."

So how about the Obama administration proposing to increase funds for counseling for families dealing with problems that could result in domestic violence. Or maybe it could have fought back when the Republicans killed the Violence Against Women Act in Congress last year?

If the Obama administration and Congress really wanted to get to the heart of gun violence, they would have to take a serious look at the social policies the government is based upon. The answer to gun violence isn't spending billions on police who devalue people's lives. The real answer depends on a whole new set of social priorities that would make people's lives worth living.

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