An honest debate about gun violence

Mark Goldblatt Author, "Bumper Sticker Liberalism"
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Few things in American public life are as predictable as gun control advocates taking to the airwaves and editorial pages in the immediate aftermath of a shooting spree to call for more stringent gun control measures. The summer of 2012 was a banner season for anti-gun rhetoric since it featured not one but two horrific incidents: the July 20th massacre of patrons at a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado, and the August 5th massacre of worshippers at a Sikh temple in Oak Creek, Wisconsin.

The absolute worst time to engage in such a debate is in the immediate aftermath of a shooting, with our emotions still raw, and with images of the carnage still fresh in our minds — which, of course, is the reason the political left wants to have the debate while the yellow police tape is still up at the crime scenes. But as time passes, the potential for a saner debate increases. To ask, for example, whether a civilian should be allowed to purchase a high-capacity “drum magazine” for a semi-automatic weapon, as the Colorado shooter was allegedly able to do, is not to dismantle the Second Amendment. Would such a restriction be the proverbial camel’s nose under the tent? Maybe. But it’s not an unreasonable question to ask.

That debate, however, has nothing to do with the broader problem of gun violence in the United States. Though both the Colorado and Wisconsin massacres were violent and did involve guns, they were aberrations. Legislation aimed at reducing the likelihood or deadliness of such incidents will have little or no impact on how many Americans get shot and killed from year to year.

Gun control advocates want to yoke their efforts to ban many types of firearms, including semi-automatic weapons with legitimate self-defense uses, onto our collective revulsion at the bloodshed wrought by a couple of maniacs. They argue that America has become a shooting gallery — at least when compared with other industrialized nations. If only Americans would stop clinging irrationally to their Second Amendment right to bear arms, we could cut gun violence down to, say, Canadian levels.

The argument seems plausible, at least at first glance. Canada has long had some of the strictest gun control laws in the world, and in 2007 Americans were almost six times more likely to be the victim of a gun homicide than Canadians were. The rate in Canada was 0.6 per 100,000 people; in America, it was 3.4 per 100,000.

End of discussion, right?

Except if you dig down into the numbers, the issue becomes more complicated. The plague of gun violence in the U.S., it turns out, is not as widespread or as random as many gun control advocates would have us believe. Indeed, gun violence in America largely consists of black and Hispanic males shooting other black and Hispanic males. According to a study by the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence, based on data collected by the Center for Disease Control, 1.5 white Americans in 100,000 were shot and killed in 2007 — still higher than the Canadian rate of 0.6, but, given the population densities of the two nations, at least in the same ballpark. On the other hand, the rate for Hispanic Americans was an alarming 5.2 per 100,000 — more than three times the rate among whites Americans. The rate for African Americans was a grotesque 18.1 per 100,000, or roughly 12 times the rate among whites Americans. The rate for African-American males was an obscene 37.59 per 100,000.

Those are the victim rates. The ethnic disparities among gun homicide offenders mirror the disparities among victims. Though blacks make up less than 13% of the U.S. population, year after year they commit more than half of all gun homicides. The numbers for Hispanic offenders are harder to pin down since law enforcement agencies tend to group them with white offenders — perhaps to make the black-white contrast seem less stark. But given the high rate of Hispanic victimization, and the fact that more than half of all homicide victims in the U.S. are acquainted with their killers, it seems safe to conclude that Hispanic offenders also commit gun homicides at substantially elevated rates.

Any honest discussion of gun violence, therefore, begins with the inconvenient truth that it’s disproportionately a black and Hispanic phenomenon. That makes last summer’s horrors in Colorado and Wisconsin exceptional on at least three levels: first, because of the body count; second, because of the weaponry; third, and most critically, because of the demographics of shooters and their victims.

Recognizing the centrality of ethnicity to the problem of gun violence is just another way of saying, “Guns don’t kill people. People kill people.” But it also underscores the gnarly politics of dealing with the issue. You likely could significantly reduce incidents of gun violence in the U.S., and save many black and Hispanic lives in the process, with mandatory sentencing. So, for example, if you’re convicted of using a gun to commit a crime, we could tack an extra five years onto the end of your sentence. If you discharge a gun while committing a crime, make it 15. If you shoot someone, make it 25. No exceptions. No plea bargains. No mercy.

If states began to adopt such sentencing guidelines, you likely would have a drastic reduction in gun homicides — not because violent criminals would necessarily be deterred, but because, once they’re caught and convicted, they’d be incarcerated for much longer periods. It would therefore be a boon to the overwhelming majority of blacks and Hispanics, who are law-abiding citizens. But it would also require building many more prisons and filling them with mostly black and Hispanic males — which means that most blacks and Hispanics would oppose the effort. So too would every left-of-center advocacy group that fancies itself a guardian of minority interests.

So, yes, by all means, now that our emotions are no longer raw, let’s have a national conversation about gun violence. But for once, how about an honest one?

Mark Goldblatt is the author of “Bumper Sticker Liberalism.” He teaches at Fashion Institute of Technology (SUNY).