Gun Violence is a Racial Justice Issue
Black Americans are twice as likely as white Americans to die from gun violence and 14 times more likely than white Americans to be wounded. A documented 4,084 Black people were lynched in seventy-three years; 93,262 were shot dead in fourteen. Like lynching, gun violence is a racial justice issue.
Gun violence alone reduces the life expectancy of Black Americans by four years. And yet, the U.S. largely ignores the external, systemic factors driving inequality and violence in Black neighborhoods. Black-led community based groups have worked relentlessly to develop community-based solutions that successfully reduce gun violence. As an organization dedicated to the prevention of gun violence and the saving of lives, Brady must do its part to match these grassroots efforts with upstream, systemic change.
The Homicide Divide
Gun homicide (mass shootings, so-called “everyday” violence, and police-involved shootings) is a universal American threat. But Black Americans are ten times more likely than White Americans to die from it. And Black youth fare even worse. Black children and teens are fourteen times more likely to die from gun homicide than their White counterparts.
The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights’ Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (“CERD”) called out the United States’ “high number of gun-related deaths and injuries which disproportionately affect members of racial and ethnic minorities, particularly African Americans." CERD then urged the U.S. government to take action, including implementing universal background checks for all private sales, prohibiting concealed carry in public; increasing transparency concerning crime guns by repealing the Tiahrt Amendments; and reviewing Stand Your Ground laws for principles of proportionality and necessity.
Black people are not inherently more violent. Sadly, violence is a capacity that all humans share. White men, for instance, commit the majority of mass shootings and when faced with “poverty, unemployment, and single-parent households, they are more likely to commit homicide and other violent crimes than black men confronting a similar set of structural impediments.”
We must instead consider how public policy has made it so that Black people are more likely to face conditions that facilitate gun violence.
A STRUCTURAL AND SOCIAL ISSUE
Concentrated gun homicide is tied closely to urban poverty, which tracks inequality, which tracks segregation, which tracks race.
The same cities that experience disproportionate gun homicide — Detroit, Baltimore, Philadelphia, New Orleans, Newark, St. Louis, Chicago — all have large, segregated Black communities with a history of disinvestment. This segregation and disinvestment didn’t happen by nature, but by design. "Deindustrialization, discriminatory housing practices, and white flight from neighborhoods as Black families moved in pushed large numbers of Black people into poverty, perpetuating economic inequalities between white and Black people.” Today, many metropolitan areas remain just as segregated as they were in 1968.
Even within cities, gun homicide concentrates in specific areas. Yolanda Mitchell, Ph.D and Tiffany Bromfield, for instance, found that Philadelphia’s safest police district, which is about 85% White had no gun homicide in 2014, while Philadelphia’s most violent district, which is about 90% Black, had 40 gun deaths that same year. Research shows that violence may concentrate in certain neighborhoods because violence begets more violence. People who are victims of violence and do not sufficiently recover are more likely to commit violence themselves. In addition to the obvious physical damage, gun violence also hurts mental health, academic attainment, economic prospects, social networks, and reputation.
Gun violence traumatizes entire communities, then stigmatizes that suffering.
To name poverty and such structural impediments as the only issues would be to ignore what we know to be true.
Trayvon Martin was spending time with his father in suburban Sanford, Florida when he was hunted, confronted, and executed by an armed vigilante. Philando Castile, a well-respected Supervisor, was in suburban Falcon Heights Minnesota when he was stopped, shot, and killed by a police officer. Renisha McBride, a Ford employee and beloved daddy’s girl, was seeking help after a car accident in suburban Dearborn Heights, Michigan when she knocked on a door, and was met with a gunshot. Trayvon, Philando, Renisha, and countless others were not cut down by fatherlessness, poverty, or anything else that distracts from the uncomfortable truth that they were shot because they were Black. Black skin, bias, and guns don’t mix.
Police Violence is Gun Violence
Police-involved shootings, like other forms of gun violence, impact all people in the United States. American police kill more often than police of any other industrialized country.
America’s extraordinary police shooting rate is, in part, a product of our extraordinary civilian carry rate. And unfortunately, officers mistakenly perceive that unarmed Black civilians are carrying guns more than other groups.
Black Americans are 2.5 times more likely than white Americans to be killed by police and constitute 31% of all police-involved fatalities.
In the last decade, infamous police shootings like those that killed 12-year-old Tamir Rice and 18-year-old Michael Brown have amplified the long-held question; where can Black people be safe? Recent police-involved shootings have made answering that question even harder.
- Botham Jean was everything America tells Black men to be: educated, gainfully employed, and active in his community. None of that mattered when a Dallas Police officer mistakenly entered Botham’s home and shot him in “self-defense.” Botham had been eating ice cream and watching TV.
- Atatiana Jefferson, a future doctor, had also done everything “right.” Her big dreams ended when a Fort Worth Police Officer responded to a wellness check at her home. Without identifying himself as Police, the officer lurked outside Atatiana’s window before demanding she put her hands up. Fearing an intruder, Atatiana, a legal gun owner, reportedly grabbed her weapon. Within four seconds, the officer had shot Atatiana dead in front of her eight-year-old nephew with whom she had been playing video games.
- Breonna Taylor was a 26-year-old emergency room technician with dreams of being a nurse and starting a family. Her life ended suddenly when Louisville police with a “no-knock” warrant entered her apartment in the middle of the night without warning and without identifying themselves as law enforcement. Her boyfriend Kenneth Walker, a licensed gun owner fearing for their safety, fired his weapon before police fired approximately 20 shots into the apartment, killing Breonna.
Our gun-saturated country often forces officers to make split-second decisions; our race-saturated history and the policies and structures that have been developed as a result, often puts Black Americans on the wrong end of them.
For that reason, racial justice requires not only reasonable gun regulations that make the streets safer for everyone, but also community-oriented, accountable policing.
THE RISK OF FIREARM SUICIDE
Two-thirds of the nation’s annual gun deaths are suicides and 85% of gun suicides are white men. At first glance, this may not seem like an issue of racial justice, but in fact there is a racial connection here.
Attempted suicide rates have dropped among teenagers in every ethnic group other than Black Americans, for whom rates of suicide increased by 73% between 1991 and 2017. Researchers believe that exposure to racism and adverse childhood experiences, like trauma, are partially to blame for Black teens’ increasing suicide attempts.