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An Issue of Race


Data Refutes notion that Urban Gun Violence Starts and Stops with Black Communities

Racial demographics of gun dealers show a different story

It is the goal of the Combating Crime Guns Initiative to shift the burden of gun violence from the communities most impacted onto the suppliers of crime guns, including irresponsible gun industry actors.

In working to better understand the irresponsible actors at play, Brady has obtained data from the ATF revealing that the vast majority of responsible persons transferring guns at licensed dealers in California, Illinois, Michigan, New Jersey, and Wisconsin are white. This data refutes the popular notion that urban gun violence is chiefly a problem that starts and stops with Black people living in city limits.

In 2017, the firearm homicide rate for Black males ages 20-29 was at least five times higher than that for Hispanic males and nearly 20 times that for white males in the same age group. Frustratingly, policymakers, government officials, and the public have interpreted these statistics as proof that there is something wrong with Black people, rather than the racist conditions that structure society. The “black on black crime” trope is one example of the misplaced blame that Black crime victims face. To make it plain, “black on black crime” is no more a phenomenon than “white on white crime,” since violent crime generally tends to occur between people of the same race.

Assumptions about Black communities have real world consequences, leading to, among other things, over-policing and mass incarceration. When it comes to gun homicide, the focus on “black criminality” conceals several root causes, including the illegal gun market’s role in flooding communities with guns.

A great deal of the illegal activity associated with gun violence happens long before anyone pulls a trigger. And as this data shows, guns very often flow from white communities into Black ones.

Case study: Chicago

Chicago, for example, is a favorite target for those who like to paint gun violence in blackface, but there is not a single gun store in the city. Yet, Cook County, Illinois, surrounding the city, plays an outsize role in supplying crime guns to Chicago.

The city of Chicago analyzed gun trace data between 2013 and 2016 and found that federally licensed Illinois gun dealers primarily located in suburban Cook County were the source of approximately two out of every five crime guns recovered in Chicago.

This is nearly identical to what was observed in previous trace data from 2009-2013.

In other words, any characterization of gun violence in Chicago that does not consider the suburbs is incomplete. Even so, some authorities insist on ignoring the role that suburban gun stores play. President Trump has repeatedly blamed the city of Chicago’s leadership for failing to control gun violence despite strong gun laws, ignoring the impact of gun markets in neighboring states.

Chicago does have tough gun laws, but right outside Chicago, in Cook County, there are 137 people responsible for selling guns under a federal firearms license; 97% of them are white. Only one of the 137 people responsible for selling firearms in Cook County, Illinois, is Black. This discrepancy does not align with Cook County’s demographics. According to the 2019 U.S. Census Cook County is actually relatively diverse.

The three counties surrounding Chicago: DuPage, Lake, and Will, show the same picture: of the 338 people responsible for operating federal firearms licenses across those three counties, 318 or 94.1% are white, while less than one percent (2) are Black.

White Americans are supplying, and profiting from, much of the gun violence hurting Black communities.

A National Problem

Other metropolitan areas show the same trend as Chicago.

There are 208 people responsible for operating federal firearms licenses in Wayne County, Michigan, home to Detroit, and 92.3% of them are white. Yet, according to the 2010 Census, Wayne County is only 54% white. Likewise, there are 62 people responsible for operating a federal firearms license in Alameda County, California, home to Oakland, and 85% of them are white. According to the 2010 U.S. Census, Alameda County is only 49% white.

To be a white gun dealer (or to be a gun dealer, period) certainly does not equate an intent to funnel firearms into Black communities for profit. However, ignoring race allows inequity to persist.

Attributing gun homicide’s devastating toll on Black Americans to racist notions like “deficient cultural values” and “black on black crime,” masks the real factors perpetuating gun violence, not least among them economic issues. Indeed, violence more clearly correlates to unemployment than it does to race.

When it comes to the gun industry, the very jobs that keep unemployment low in white communities, may contribute to gun violence in Black communities.

The federal government, under gun industry influence, has failed to adequately fund or equip the ATF to effectively regulate firearms manufacturers, distributors, and dealers. At the same time, the government has tended to equate “enforcing federal gun laws” as enforcing only the laws relating to gun users, not the ones relating to gun sales.

And that focus, when combined with stereotypes about black criminality and over-policing, leads to more inequality.

“Last year, 47.3 percent of those convicted for federal gun crimes were black — a racial disparity larger than any other class of federal crimes, including drug crimes. In a 2011 report on mandatory minimum sentencing for gun crimes, the U.S. Sentencing Commission found that blacks were far more likely to be charged and convicted of federal gun crimes that carry mandatory minimum sentences.” - Radley Ralko, Washington Post

Racist policies not only created the conditions for gun violence but continue it today. Rectifying racial inequities in criminal justice and gun homicide requires a change.