The Real Problem with Our Gun Problem
We need to stop conflating school shootings and drug-related gun violence. They are not the same, nor are their causes.
In the later 1980s and early 1990s violence was classified as epidemic in the United States. The U.S. Surgeon General declared it to be a public health problem. Money was available from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) to study nationally and in New York and other large cities what was then called “weapon-related (i.e. gun) violence.”
In the 1990s I was a violence epidemiologist for the New York City Department of Health assigned to do this work. With a few others, in hospitals and medical examiners offices, I counted the injuries and deaths caused by violence. Our work opened doors. For example, we were invited to very elaborate anti-gun events packed with well-dressed urbanites, with open bars and such highly esteemed speakers as Jim Brady. Brady was the presidential press secretary shot when an attempt was made on President Reagan’s life. The 1993 Brady Bill was named after him, and it sought to restrict gun sales through increased background checks.
This particular posh New York City event was triggered by a 1997 mass assault on the Empire State Building, where one person was killed and six were injured. As I sat and listened to the heated discussion about gun violence and its impact on Jim Brady and tourism, and as I looked through the gun violence pamphlets and posters throughout the room, I was taken by the apparent absence of focus, let alone discussion, let alone mention, of the real problem: near-daily shootings in inner cities, where most of the victims were minority young men and boys. Today, just over 20 years after that NYC event, as I march and attend panel discussions about gun violence, I fear we have not come as far as I hoped we would have.
I realize I am not the first to note that though school shootings did not begin with these events, they began to draw media attention when the victims were mostly white children (now Parkland, and – back to when media first got excited about school shootings – Columbine). What is missed is that by lumping all gun violence together, as if they all have the identical root cause, we’re clouding our vision for finding a workable solution.
Interestingly, and perhaps not coincidentally, Columbine, and the media attention it was given, occurred just after the country was able to enjoy three or so years of a homicide rate lower than that seen in over a decade. We had, rather we have, in general become a safer country in terms of homicides. Furthermore with this decline in homicides came a parallel decline in firearm-related homicides. It seemed that whatever efforts were implemented during the epidemic (and there are thousands of conflicting theories on this alone) some methods were effective, and Americans got safer. Would Columbine have received the same attention during the peak of the violence epidemic? One can only speculate of course.
During the epidemic of the late 80s-early 1990s, the rate of homicides, and firearm homicides specifically, was ten times higher for blacks and about five times higher for Hispanics compared with whites. In fact, while blacks have seen a shift from a high of 30 per 100,000 homicides during the epidemic to a low of 15 per 100,000 just a couple of years ago, whites have seen little shift in the past 20 years. Their rates fluctuate between 1.5 and 2.5 per 100,000. These rates become even more dramatic, meaning serious for blacks and divergent by race, when age is considered; the rate of death by a firearm for a black (child, teen, or young adult, usually) peaks at 60 per 100,000 for those 18-24 by the most recent counts. Simply put, this has always been a problem for people of color and the work those communities have done, without the media and political attention, should get high praise for the reductions they have seen.
This does not minimize the significance of school shootings or the killing of non-black, non-Hispanic youth. Any child targeted is a tragedy. That said, when we lump together school shootings and street-level gun violence we end up arguing over causes and solutions rather than finding them. First we must clarify the differences in the nature of the problem. Mass shootings in and outside schools are typically (not always) completed by a one or two young white males who have felt isolated from their white community and have access to high capacity assault weapons that were obtained legally. Comparatively, school and other mass shootings are rare. Street shootings are typically (not always) completed in connection with a drug transaction. Often, a young Black male “runner” who would not be able to call the police if his drugs or money was stolen, carries a gun and uses it if needed for protection. Comparatively, street shootings are by far not rare enough.
Is this about mental health?
For street violence, the answer is “sort of.” For mass/school shootings, the answer is “likely.” Without a doubt, young children of color who must live every day in violent communities carry at least some level of anxiety and/or PTSD. Furthermore, unquestionably, these emotional illnesses go undiagnosed. That said, their emotional illness is from the violence they are exposed to – sometimes daily, it is not a factor that causes it. Mass shooters, on the other hand, whether they have received a DSM diagnosis or not, cannot be described as mentally stable. Improvements in how we talk about mental illness (non-stigmatizing), learn about it, and respond to it (e.g. support for increased services), would reduce the likelihood that these young, white males would fall through the social isolation cracks.
Is this about high capacity assault weapons?
For street violence, the answer is “no.” For mass shootings (schools and otherwise) it is “yes.” And though these are rare, the more powerful the weapon the more people will be killed in each occurrence.
Is this about structural racism/structural inequality?
For street violence, absolutely, unequivocally, “yes.” This is the cause of the violence in the first place and of the failure to pay attention to it for decades. For mass shootings/school shootings, the answer is mostly “no.” The oppression of minorities does not have a direct link to these incidents. That said, these shooters are primarily white so to suggest white privilege is irrelevant would be a mistake.
Is this about unsafe schools?
For street violence, the answer is “no.” In fact, schools may feel like one of the only safe places for low-income children of color. It is the walk to and from school that poses the problem. In terms of school shooting, the answer is still “no.” Experience shows that it is nearly impossible to stop an individual with an assault weapon who is determined to shoot inside a school. For example, in 2014, in Tennessee there was a shooting inside a military armory where doors were secured and many people carried weapons.
Is this about hypermasculinity and a male culture of violence?
For both street violence and mass/school shootings, the answer has to be “yes.” These shooters are almost always male. Hypermasculinity and male culture of violence may not be the principle cause, but for us to ignore these clear facts would be a missed opportunity to discuss solutions.
Is this about access to guns?
For both street violence and mass/school shootings, the answer is again “yes.” But it is a different yes. In street violence it is not about background checks, as most guns are acquired illegally. The handguns that are riddling these communities need to be removed and not replaced. This will not stop the violence, but it will reduce deaths. For mass/school shootings, reducing access to guns by banning assault weapons, bump stocks, and increasing requirements and background checks to legally own a weapon would most certainly reduce the both number of incidents and of people killed.
Not all gun violence is the same which is why no one solution will work. Failure to recognize this is what makes finding a fix feel daunting and perhaps impossible. Yet it’s not. The problem is in our thinking, not in potential solutions. Mass/school shootings are not the same as street violence. If we fail to see this, we fail to cure this endemic problem.