On the first evening of the democratic debates in June, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Massachusetts) described gun violence as a national public health emergency that needs to be treated as a serious research problem. “We need to treat this like a virus that’s killing our children,” she said. And, of course, the horrifying statistics support her clarion call. Mass shootings, community-based gun violence, suicides and police shootings take about 40,000 lives each year in the United States.
The Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre in December 2012 catapulted the gun reform debate back to the forefront of American politics. After each well-publicized mass shooting, the issue enters the news cycle again.
The first democratic debates spent more time discussing gun reform than climate change, highlighting its prominence as a key issue. Democrats oftentimes justify strict gun laws around a need to keep children and public spaces safe from mass shootings. “We must be a country who loves our children more than we love our guns,” Eric Swalwell proclaimed during the second night of the debate.
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The Democratic National Committee’s website page on “Preventing Gun Violence” offers a similar line: “In a country as great as ours, no child should be afraid to go to school or walk around their neighborhood. No spouse should be afraid to come home at night. No American should be afraid to go to work or their place of worship. And no human being should be afraid to go to a shopping mall or baseball field, nightclub or movie theater, concert or college campus.”
Undoubtedly, mass shootings must be addressed, but these spontaneous horrific acts are responsible for just a sliver of total gun deaths in the U.S.
Mass shootings, defined by Mother Jones as “indiscriminate rampages in public places resulting in four or more victims killed by the attacker,” have taken 339 people’s lives since 2015. But, within the same time period, police — who are responsible for enforcing gun laws — have shot and killed 4,355 people, 1,200 percent more people than mass shooters.
The Missing Piece in Gun Violence Debates
Police shootings are gun violence. Yet deaths at the hands of police were just a footnote in the gun violence section of the presidential debate, voluntarily acknowledged by just two of the 20 candidates on stage: Mayor Bill de Blasio and Julian Castro. Castro described the stark discrepancy in police treatment of white and Black perceived perpetrators: “Dylann Roof went to the Mother Emanuel AME church, and he murdered nine people who were worshipping, and then he was apprehended by police without incident. Well, but what about Eric Garner and Tamir Rice and Laquan McDonald and Sandra Bland and Pamela Turner and Antonio Arce?”
The institutional racism rooted in American policing prevents the public from categorizing police shootings as gun violence, Natacia Knapper with Stop Police Terror Project DC explained to Truthout via email. “A large swath of people in our nation — white people in particular, but many others as well — don’t want to reckon with the horrors police have caused in communities of color because to do this would call into question the entire way we have viewed these systems and their roles in our society.” News media consumption, television shows and movies constantly reinforce the belief that policing is an irreplaceable institution keeping society safe and stable. Unlearning this “truth” is akin to unlearning that the Earth is round. Knapper continued, “For many Americans, I think it’s easier to compartmentalize the type of gun violence that comes from the police as “other” and incidents that result in the brutalizing and death of American citizens — Black, Brown or otherwise — are treated as individual instances that are not connected to a larger, overarching problem.” Police and the media exploit this divide when they describe the police violence victims’ unrelated criminal history or the victims’ possession of a gun or pocket knife, regardless of whether it was a factor during the killing. The underlying message is that the deceased deserved to die in order to keep everyone else safe.
But Knapper asks: “Who and/or what do they actually keep safe? “An institution that was birthed from snatching the path to freedom from our Black ancestors and guarding property above all else leaves little room for protecting humanity.”
Framing police gun violence, particularly against communities of color, as a separate issue allows for a perpetuation of the idea that police can be reformed out of racist violence. But since racist violence is a part of law enforcement, its true elimination would lead to the abolition of the institution. Incorporating police killing into larger gun violence discussions complicates matters — police are supposed to enforce gun laws but are committing gun violence on a shocking level themselves. Can an institution founded on “snatching the path to freedom” from Black individuals be trusted with the task of maintaining the peace?
Author and anarchist organizer scott crow doesn’t think so. “More strict gun laws will harm Black and Brown communities,” he told Truthout during a phone interview. “Invariably all laws do. All laws are arbitrary, bureaucratic, reactionary and selectively enforced. All laws. More often than not the legislation that comes out has more harmful and unintended consequences and outcomes than what they are meant to correct, or it’s just never enough because the bill is more watered down by corporate interests and other various stakeholders by the time it comes out,” he said. And police reinforce the dominant culture when they enforce these laws, according to crow.
Part of crow’s own story reflects the selective enforcement of laws. In 2002 he decided to buy a gun through the state system. He fit the background check criteria. He had only been arrested for civil disobedience and had never been convicted of a felony. But whenever he tried to buy a gun, the dealer held his background check and told him to come back. When he returned, the dealers would refuse to sell him a gun, and they couldn’t explain why. Time and time again. Finally, one dealer fessed up. The FBI had been visiting each dealer crow visited. “This is very much what the KGB would have done. The gun dealers weren’t allowed to tell me,” crow told Truthout. After filing a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request with the FBI, he was able to go through his 440-page file and confirm this was the truth. In 2001 the FBI flagged him as having a “predicate for violence,” despite having no evidence to substantiate the claim, and surveilled him for years.
Crow and an uncountable number of left-wing activists have lived through constant FBI and state police harassment; yet, it is unclear whether white supremacists had similarly giant FBI files prior to the day they unloaded on a mosque or church (it seems unlikely). The FBI ignored a tip about the Parkland shooter, a white male. This isn’t to say the FBI should have files on everyone, but the centuries-old police legacy of prioritizing political dissidents over white supremacist male violence is predictive.
Other, relatively new gun reforms such as “Red Flag” laws or ERPOs (Extreme Risk Protection Orders), which Beto O’Rourke heralded as a tool for decreasing gun violence during the debates, can be analyzed through this predictive framework. Fifteen states have passed these laws, which allow law enforcement, and — in some states — mental health professionals, family and friends, to file a petition with the court explaining why a person in possession of a firearm is a danger to themselves or others. If a judge approves the petition, law enforcement can immediately seize the firearm. Red Flag laws are intended to save lives, but there may be unintended consequences too. From October 2018 to January 2019, 302 Red Flag Law protection orders were issued in Maryland. Maryland police shot and killed at least one man while seizing his gun (he was white). Police are not trained in mediation or mental health services.
Considering law enforcement’s inherent racial bias and the surveilling of political dissidents, it is reasonable to envision a future where Black folks and rebels (especially Black rebels) are, ultimately, the primary targets of extreme risk protection orders.
If Not Police or Laws, Then What?
The gun violence debate, currently framed as one of gun control versus gun freedom, simplifies a complex problem. According to crow, the NRA has heavily influenced the narrative from all angles and is largely responsible for crafting a diluted discussion intended to build constituencies around gun use. Nonprofits secure funding by being “pro-gun” or “anti-gun” and politicians gain or lose support based on the same binary. This reductionist conversation, driven by electoralism, disallows the U.S. from having more nuanced discussions about the role that patriarchy, economic inequality, racism and police play in the gun violence crisis.
The possible solutions that result from these conversations aren’t politically expedient. In regard to intra-community violence, Knapper said, “The sad truth is if we poured in the same amount of money into affordable housing, accessible mental health services, fully implemented violence interruption within every single impacted community, workforce development and job opportunities as we do into policing — and in fact, divest from the police and pour those funds into those resources — a lot would change.”
Related research backs her up. The Brennan Center’s research shows that in a city of 100,000, each new resource-providing nonprofit community organization leads to a 1.2 percent drop in the homicide rate. And income inequality is the best predictor of homicide rates. A 2018 study compiled data across 3,144 U.S. counties and found that mass shootings (using a very broad definition of three or more victims with injuries) were most likely to occur with high levels of income inequality and high levels of income. This data, which doesn’t require law enforcement to implement, is rarely (if ever) discussed by politicians. Many seemingly prioritize police over public services. For example, Chicago’s 2019 budget allots over $1.5 billion to the police department; the city’s entire “Community Services” infrastructure, which includes offices like the Department of Public Health and the Department of Family and Support Services, is allotted nearly $200 million.
Feminist author Rebecca Solnit identified yet another glaringly absent piece of discussion around violence in her book, Men Explain Things to Me: “Clearly the ready availability of guns is a huge problem for the United States, but despite this availability to everyone, murder is still a crime committed by men 90 percent of the time.”
Culturally, this is incredibly important, yet it’s almost taboo to discuss it. It is difficult to imagine a “Reducing Toxic Masculinity” issue page on the DNC website. But Knapper told Truthout this is exactly what we need to unpack: “The violence that our society equates with being a ‘real man’ and deep-rooted misogyny that leaves men feeling entitled to women and femmes in a way that moves them to violence when that entitlement isn’t satisfied.”
This isn’t easy work, and considering partners of police are two to four times more likely to experience domestic abuse (oftentimes involving service weapons) it isn’t work the police can realistically take on. Case in point: Recently, in Florida, police charged a woman with burglary and trespassing for turning in her abusive husband’s guns after they filed for divorce.
Once more people begin to think about addressing conflict and violence outside of the criminal legal system, new solutions may emerge that were once invisible. Thankfully, these conversations, and the necessary organizing work that accompanies them, do not ultimately need corporate debate stages to materialize.