2021 is on track to be the worst year for gun homicides in decades (CNN). The problem of American gun violence is so severe that it has taken on a continental scope. American firearm manufacturers are currently being sued by the government of Mexico (CNN), where imported U.S. firearms and drug prohibition policies fuel a drug war that has taken 300,000 lives (CFR). Here in the United States, a range of policy changes are proposed yet again as means to stop the bloodshed.
But the dimension of racial equity is often completely erased from conversations around gun policy on the left – as well as on the right. This amounts to ignoring those communities most directly affected by violence.
While the National Rifle Association is known for its full-throated defense of individual firearm ownership of any kind, the NRA supported restrictive gun control laws in California after the Black Panther Party held an armed rally at the state capital (History). Amid racist police violence around the country, the Panthers organized “Black self-defense groups that are dedicated to defending our Black community from racist police oppression and brutality” (UC Press). But the police are often absent from discussions around gun policy, either from the left or the right.
Talking about policing is a crucial part of a community-centered approach to ending gun violence. Though 80% of arrests are for low-level crimes like disorderly conduct (ACLU), local police departments acquire military-grade rifles and grenade launchers alongside mine-resistant combat vehicles and shotguns directly from the U.S. military through the 1033 program (ACLU). Before Michael Bloomberg founded Everytown for Gun Safety, he greatly expanded NYPD’s racist stop-and-frisk program as mayor (NYCLU). Given the ongoing violence inflicted by police on communities of color, an equitable approach to reducing gun violence must involve disarming militarized police. It is heavily armed police officers with a legacy of unrestrained aggression against people of color who enforce restrictions on gun possession.
And when liberals push for gun control, it is often in response to publicized mass shootings in white communities. Depending on these tragic incidents as an impetus for change fundamentally misrecognizes the reality of gun violence in this country. Most gun deaths are suicides (UC Davis), while one in four homicides involve domestic violence (EFSGV). Mass shootings account for just 0.2% of gun deaths (UC Davis). Black men have the highest risk of death by firearm homicide, and there is a “strong correlation” between income inequality and homicide (UCLA). See our previous coverage of “Black-on-Black crime.” As Dornethia Taylor of Black Lives Matter said, “national attention and money was being thrown at white students, while black students – who experience gun violence at far higher rates – were being ignored and left out of the conversation.” Though centering marginalized communities and advocating for economic and health justice are also priorities for the left, conversations around gun violence often leave these aspects out entirely.
There is an urgent need to address a culture of violence baked into American society. And there is an equally urgent need to identify solutions that recognize that gun violence is affected by the deep inequalities of class and race within which it occurs. That healthcare and economic justice materially reduce firearm violence are not new discoveries (BMJ). We need solutions responsive to these realities. We also must center the leadership of those actually most impacted by violence: members of poor and working-class communities of color.
“So much of the murder and destruction is coming from a sense of hopelessness,” said Rev. Gregory Holston of the Black Clergy of Philadelphia and Vicinity, “and it’s up to us to give our children the hope that they need.” To combat gun violence, Holston’s group is calling for a Philadelphia Marshall Plan that includes fully funding city schools and community-based violence solutions (WHYY). To truly reduce interpersonal violence, we can’t only pay attention when it’s affluent white people who die. We also can’t reduce violence by depending on policing and incarceration, forms of social control that depend on violence inflicted by armed men themselves. It is people in oppressed communities who know best what their communities need. Mental and physical health care, economic justice and reparations, and a reduction of policing and state violence must accompany restrictions on gun sales to truly end this crisis.
We can’t deal with gun violence without acknowledging the role of white supremacy and the police.
Economic inequality strongly correlates with increased homicides by firearms.
Economic and racial justice and community empowerment are key elements of reducing violence.