Guns and Racism

Gary Gutting, New York Times, December 28, 2015

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My purpose here is not to continue arguing with the gun lobby or even to discuss the precise form that new gun legislation should take. Instead, I’m interested in understanding the intensity gap and how we might overcome it. Only when there’s a sustained passion against gun violence will there be a meaningful chance of effective action.

It might seem that fear of gun violence is the great motivator. Pro-gun advocates see guns as our best defense against armed criminals. Anti-gun advocates see the wide availability of guns as a greater threat than criminal violence. The issue seems to come down to what you fear more: criminals or guns.

But the passion of the gun lobby goes much deeper than fear of criminals. As Firmin DeBrabander’s excellent book, “Do Guns Make Us Free?” demonstrates, the basic motivation of the pro-gun movement is freedom from government interference. They talk about guns for self-defense, but their core concern is their constitutional right to bear arms, which they see as the foundation of American freedom. The right to own a gun is, as the N.R.A. website puts it, “the right that protects all other rights.” Their galvanizing passion is a hatred of tyranny. Like many other powerful political movements, the gun lobby is driven by hatred of a fundamental evil that it sees as a threat to our way of life–an existential threat–quite apart from any specific local or occasional dangers.

The intensity gap exists because opponents of gun violence have no corresponding deep motivation. We cite suicide rates, urban violence, and, especially, mass shootings as horrors requiring more effective gun laws. But few of us actually see guns as existential threats to fundamental American values. In this, however, we are mistaken. Our permissive gun laws are a manifestation of racism, an evil that, in other contexts, most gun-control advocates see as a fundamental threat to American society.

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How does racism enter into this picture? Let me put it in personal terms. I spend a fair amount of time in Chicago, where the newspapers regularly offer front-page reports of shootings from the previous night. Checking The Tribune on a recent morning, I learned that two people were killed and a dozen wounded. You might think that a steady stream of such reports (this year, Chicago will have over 2,700 shootings, with over 400 people killed) would induce high levels of fear, especially since many shootings occur on the streets. In fact, I’m not particularly afraid, since–like most Chicagoans–I’m hardly ever where the violence occurs. There’s something to worry about only if you live in certain overwhelmingly black communities on the West and South sides of town. (The papers publish helpful maps showing how the killings are distributed.) These are where almost all the shootings occur, and the large majority of victims (and perpetrators) are black. The patterns are similar in other large American cities, so that those who live with gun violence as an imminent, personal threat are mostly black.

But imagine if there regularly were shootings in previously “safe” white areas. Now there are frequent killings on the Magnificent Mile, the Gold Coast and in Lincoln Park. Both the perpetrators and the victims are white, and, despite greatly increased police protection, the violence continues. Given the strong support for gun control among residents of these areas, the cause would quickly become very personal. Chicago has relatively strong gun laws, but the city borders on Indiana, where the laws are much laxer. My neighbors and I would join a vigorous and relentless campaign for stricter national gun laws.

This isn’t our reaction to gun violence in black parts of town. Does this mean that we’re racists? Perhaps not. Perhaps we just haven’t realized the extent to which gun violence is destroying urban black communities. But once we realize this, our passion for justice and hatred of racism should galvanize us to action. {snip}

The case for the racist effect of our permissive gun laws is especially powerful.  There’s no way of explaining away all these deaths as aberrations. If we fail to oppose with equal passion and vigor the relentless political pressure of (mostly white) gun advocates, we force a large number of black citizens to live with the constant threat of gun violence. We’re in effect letting the Second Amendment trump the Fourteenth Amendment, implicitly preferring the right of gun ownership to the right of black people to live free from fear.

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