Guns and Racism: The Critical Issue We’re Not Allowed to Discuss

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As gun control advocates push for stricter gun laws, and pro-gun groups continue to push back, there’s one important aspect of the debate conservatives tend to fear discussing: race. Contrary to conservative views, race does factor into determining how the United States should consider moving forward in addressing gun violence and gun control.

In the U.S., gun laws are as polarizing an issue between liberals and conservatives as any other. According to a survey conducted by the Pew Research Center in 2012, when asked whether or not stricter gun laws would reduce mass shootings, only 29 percent of Republicans said it would, while 79 percent of Democrats think it would. 32 percent of Republicans said stricter gun laws would reduce accidental gun deaths, but that number jumps to 74 percent among Democrats.

With that in mind, and understanding that the Republican Party is heavily White and that the Democratic Party is far more racially diverse, it’s not hard to see how race and politics intersect at the center of the gun debate.

A 2005 Gallup Poll found that one in three White Americans (33%) owned a gun in this country, whereas only one in six people of color did (18%). Virtually the same results were found in a survey conducted by the Pew Research Center, which said  31 percent of White Americans were gun owners, while only 15 percent of Black Americans and 11 percent of Latino Americans owned a gun. Overall, of those Americans who own guns, 82 percent of them are White.

There are a variety of reasons why communities of color own fewer firearms than White communities, but one of main reasons is how guns affect communities of color. Gun violence, for one, is more prevalent in communities of color, where Black people comprise 67 percent and Latino people comprise 28.1 percent of victims of murder and non-negligent manslaughter; and despite making up 13 percent of the U.S. demographic in 2010, Black people comprised 56 percent of the victims of gun homicides. Black teens are 25 times more likely to be injured by a gun than White teens. Native Americans also have above average rates of gun violence.

This higher concentration of gun violence in communities of color is a result of major racial inequalities in low-income areas, where, thanks in large part to Jim Crow laws, more people of color reside—particularly Black residents. In 2006 and 2007, despite comprising only 15 percent of the U.S. population, 62 center cities of the country’s 50 largest metro areas accounted for 39 percent of gun-related murders. And in 2011, cities such as Chicago (with a demographic of approximately 67% people of color) and Detroit (approximately 91% people of color; 1)82.7% Black) registered record highs for gun violence.

Lack of access to resources such as quality education—closings of public schools for example—steers many poor youth of color toward a culture of violence, continuing the cycle of generational poverty established during Jim Crow days. Rather than supporting these young teenagers and adults with better opportunities, the justice system also condemns them at a higher rate than White youth, which, in turn, perpetuates this violent lifestyle. Southeast Asian Americans, typically coming from immigrant refugee families, contribute to a distant third gun homicide rate, also due to gang violence resulting from economic struggles. Rising out of poverty is especially difficult for these communities because of the continuing push to cut assistance programs by conservative lawmakers. Economic disparities lead to alternative, and violent, ways of surviving, which then leads to more gun crimes and deaths.

Homicide is only one casualty of gun violence; suicide is another. Studies have shown that less access to guns results in fewer suicides. According to 1999-2002 statistics, Native American men, ages 15-24, were among the highest rate of firearm suicide victims and 60 percent of Native American suicides resulted from the use of a firearm. Numbers also point out that if a gun is used, suicide attempts are twenty times more likely to be fatal.

Discussions on race and guns have developed increasingly with the occurrence of many tragic events within the past few years. News of unarmed Black men murdered by White police officers has spread online and in the media, the most notable story of which was the death of Trayvon Martin; and although George Zimmerman is White and Latino, racial profiling is nothing new in this country.

But it is when we factor in conservative pro-gun groups, such as the National Rifle Association (NRA), the most prominent of these organizations—who, on their website, states they are “closely aligned with the most extreme elements in the Republican Party and [have] brought a number of the GOP’s most influential operatives into positions of power within the organization—that race and gun issues heighten.

As the media examined the Travyon Martin story and its potential racial motivators, NRA Vice President Wayne LaPierre, who is White, criticized any coverage of such as “sensational reporting from Florida.” The NRA’s stance on “stand your ground” and “castle doctrine” laws are well-known to the general public, however when the story of Marissa Alexander came into the light, the NRA made no comments about how she should have been allowed to protect herself from her abusive partner. When a White/Latino man used the “stand your ground” defense, he received an acquittal, but when a Black woman used that same argument, the court sentenced her to a 20-year prison sentence and the NRA, despite calling self-defense a human right after the Zimmerman verdict, made no statements statements on the case.

Republicans, after the Supreme Court struck down a key component of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 in 2013, moved quickly to pass strict voter ID laws in states such as Texas and North Carolina, which disproportionately affect people of color. Conservatives were all in favor of these restrictions because they feared voter fraud, yet, when considering stricter gun laws—despite there being no background checks at gun shows, where 40% of firearms are sold—they object and claim right to the Second Amendment. Red states with the most permissive gun laws have been found to have the most gun deaths percentages.

Recently, there was also a study conducted by researchers that linked racism with gun ownership. By using a “Symbolic Racism Scale,” which asked questions to determine a person’s prejudice toward marginalized groups, the research team found that those who owned guns were much more likely to score higher on the racism scale. The study concluded that White people were twice as likely to own guns and greatly opposed gun control than Black people are. They also noted that “stronger Republican identification, being from a southern state and anti-government sentiment were associated with opposition to gun-control policies.”

Conservatives today only use race when they need it, but when discussing racial disparities in terms of gun violence and control, race seems to be a non-issue. Conservatives rarely discuss how at least 44 of the last 62 mass shooters since 1982 have been White males. In the wake of Sandy Hook, right wing pundits lambasted author and columnist David Sirota for “injecting” race into the post-Newtown discussions. However, when an Asian student was discovered to be the mass shooter in the case of Virginia Tech, conservatives wanted to discuss how his racial background could have played a factor. When an ex-military Black man was determined to be the shooter of the Washington Navy Yard, Conservative media outlets were instantly captivated with the shooter’s race, some going so far as linking it back to President Obama’s commentary on the Trayvon Martin case.

The NRA also does its best never to address race, either ignoring these events altogether, urging Americans not to discuss or debate regulation policy, or arguing against stricter gun laws. Not only have Republicans responded to these tragic incidents, such as Sandy Hook, with statements ranging from “Our communities are suffering and it is because of the ever expanding lack of self control & personal responsibility” to “One measure of insanity is repeating the same failure time after time, hoping that the next time the failure will turn out to be a success. Gun-free zones are a lethal insanity,” historically the NRA has supported and lobbied for more relaxed gun legislation in the wake of mass shootings.

Gun violence, both in communities of color and in the case of mass shootings, is prevalent in the United States. Conservatives, seeing all of this, refuse to give way to some reform. One has to wonder how a party with a majority of White people can ignore how race plays a factor in the growing debate over gun control.

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1. 82.7% Black