† Criminal InJustice is a weekly series devoted to taking action against inequities in the U.S. criminal justice system. Nancy A. Heitzeg, Professor of Sociology and Race/Ethnicity, is the Editor of CI. Criminal Injustice is published every Wednesday at 6 pm.
Of Guns and Bitter
by nancy a heitzeg
“As a country, we have been through this too many times. Whether it’s an elementary school in Newtown, or a shopping mall in Oregon, or a temple in Wisconsin, or a movie theater in Aurora, or a street corner in Chicago — these neighborhoods are our neighborhoods, and these children are our children. And we’re going to have to come together and take meaningful action to prevent more tragedies like this, regardless of the politics.”
~ Statement from The President on School Shooting in Newtown, Connecticut
In the face of yet another unspeakable tragedy - 28 Dead, 20 of them small children - attention turns yet again to the ubiquity and ready availability of guns. There are more 300 million guns in private hands here — one for nearly every man woman and child in the United States. Since the 2004 expiration of the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994, some of these legally owned guns include semi-automatic assault weapons such as the AR-15.
In addition, these guns are more freely assessable due to a plethora of NRA/ALEC driven lax gun laws — some 99 reduced restrictions on permits, training, buying/selling, conceal and carry in the past three years alone. Their unfettered use is also increasingly supported by law; as detailed in CI last week, Stand Your Ground/Shoot First legislation allows shooters in 25 states to claim self-defense under situations that were once simply plain murder.
The expected result is a seemingly endless death toll. The United States ranks 5th in the World for murder by gun – these shootings occur on the street, in homes and what seems to be a growing number of mass shootings at schools, places of work and worship, and public spaces.
And, in the face of these unspeakable tragedies, the reaction is often the same. Horror. Shock. The Tragedy of Silence is temporarily broken. Media attention that exploits individual and personal tragedy. Story lines that search for “motive” and individualized explanations. The “othering” of the shooter – labels of “mental illness” if the shooter is white; “thuggery” if not. The anger, the bitterness, the blame.
A Word of Caution from Melissa Harris-Perry:
“What I would caution–and I think it’s part of the lesson we learn as parents, and that we also have to learn as a country, vis-á-vis our children–is that we cannot make them safe at all times. And so we have to be careful about the reaction being, ‘Let’s build a moat, and a wall, and a metal detector around our whole worlds.’ We can, however, change the structural realities in which they exist that make them safer because there would be fewer available guns… we can’t exclusively lead with our hearts. We must also lead with our heads as we start thinking about reasonable reactions to this.”
I echo these concerns.
Full disclosure: I strongly support the reinstatement of the Assault Weapons Ban. I fully support the stricter regulations on the manufacture, sale and possession of guns and ammo, as well as the repeal of lax conceal/carry laws and Shoot First legislation. I am opposed to “sport hunting“, the tactics/politics of the odious NRA and the gun show loophole.
But I am not opposed to the Second Amendment, nor to the notion expressed in District of Columbia v. Heller that the “right to keep and bear arms” is an individual right. I support legitimate efforts at self-defense as both individual and collective community rights. By any means necessary – No Justice/No Peace.
I am also aware that “increasing criminalization would adversely affect certain populations”, most notably communities of color. Consider this:
- White male terrorists will always have access to arsenals, while communities of color who legally arm in self defense are targets of unwarranted police action and sometimes, assassination.
- The Federal life-time ban on legal possession of firearms by anyone convicted of any felony, even non-violent, disproportionately impacts communities of color since they are over-represented at every phase of the criminal injustice system, particularly in light of the War on Drugs aka The New Jim Crow.
- The school security measures instituted post-Columbine ostensibly to “protect” students – security cameras., metal detectors, an on-site police presence – became, in inner city majority Black/Brown schools, a vehicle for turning schools into mini-security states and the grease for the “school to prison pipeline”.
- Public order policing, including the onerous NYC stop and frisk policy — was often marketed as a means to get “guns off the street”. Instead, nearly 700,000 stops have produced about 800 guns; hardly a high hit rate, especially given the costs of racial profiling and the mass violation of the civil rights and liberties of nearly 1 million in NYC alone.
We must be clear – the law has never saved us, calls for “law and order” and more more more criminalization never make us safer, In fact, for certain communities at least, it escalates the risk of institutionalized state violence.
So Yes, let us have that national conversation about reinstating the assault weapons ban, the repeal of Shoot First legislation and increasing the regulation of all guns and ammo.
But let’s make sure all voices are at the table and heeded too, especially those who will bear the brunt of our “solutions”. Let’s not replicate yet again our old “Law and Order” mistakes. Let’s discuss not just more legislation but an end to differential enforcement as well.
Let us remember too, that this will the beginning and not the end of the conversation – guns are just another tool for violence in a culture that celebrates, commodifies and capitalizes on it at every turn.
I hope that we are finally ready…
Graphic: New York Times