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Three Gun Violence Scholars on What Is Missing From America’s Gun Control Debate

Academics of colour often find themselves on the sidelines when it comes to curbing America’s gun violence.

Images via Reuters / Wikipedia Commons 

Last week 10 people were killed at Santa Fe High School in Texas, just months after a shooter killed 17 people at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. This pattern has become all too familiar in the United States, which has suffered 102 mass shootings to date this year, according to the Gun Violence Archive.

Skeptics of post-massacre gun control efforts often point to the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary school shooting as a watershed moment in the left’s losing fight against the NRA and gun rights activists: If 20 small children being slaughtered in an idyllic Connecticut community can’t lead to change, perhaps nothing will.

But there is room for hope after Parkland. Since that tragedy, we’ve witnessed the birth of the #NeverAgain movement and the #MarchForOurLives, both of which have led to small policy changes. The Republican-led Congress recently voted to reinstate funding to the CDC for gun violence research; state governments like Florida have already passed laws banning bumpstocks while raising the age (from 18 to 21) for buying a firearm; companies like MEC have severed ties with brands that do business with the NRA; and multimedia giant YouTube recently announced that they would prohibit people from posting DIY gun-making videos. Even if these motions don’t lead to drastic reductions in gun violence, they represent small symbolic steps toward sensible gun control laws. They show that people on both sides of the aisle don’t want to sit idly and wait for another mass shooting to happen.

But, in spite of these developments, the conversation about gun violence remains narrowly focused on mass shootings, which account for about three percent of the annual homicides committed with firearms in the US. Lost in all of the news coverage is a sustained discussion about gun violence in black communities, who are disproportionately at risk of getting injured or killed in shootings. African Americans account for roughly 50 percent of the gunshot victims in the US, even though they only account for 12 percent of the US population.

This is a familiar omission, one that we see after nearly all mass shootings in the US. This disparity is shaped in part by the fact that scholars of color—who have been doing research on the frontlines of America’s gun violence epidemic—are often relegated to the sidelines of this conversation. This is a shame, as many of us have a lot to offer.

Luckily, two of my favorite gun violence scholars, Desmond Patton (Columbia University, Social Work and Sociology) and Joseph Richardson Jr. (University of Maryland, African-American Studies and Medical Anthropology) were up to chat more about this. The following is an abbreviated and slightly edited (for readability) version of a discussion we had.

Jooyoung Lee: So, to get things rolling, what do you think is the most critical part of your work that’s been ignored in media coverage of gun violence?
Desmond Patton: When I listen to discussion about gun violence, they tend to gravitate towards immediate causes and outcomes. That is to say, why did this person commit this murder right now. And of course we want to understand why a specific shooting happened, but I think as researchers we need to also focus on pathways to violence. I’m usually very uncomfortable when we start talking about communities of colour because we seem to never talk about how institutions and policies shape violent contexts that may lead to violent behaviours. When we talk about Parkland, I hear a structural analysis that leads to additional resources and attentions. I don’t hear the same things when we talk about urban-based gun violence, in which communities that have some of the highest rates of gun violence go untreated. Parkland becomes the narrative we uphold which further marginalizes those communities.

Joseph Richardson Jr.: There is no discussion about structural violence regarding the preventable harm associated with gun violence that disproportionately affects black boys and young black men. We have to acknowledge that structural violence leads to interpersonal violence yet with black boys and black men we tend to blame the victim instead of the structures that reproduce violence.

I direct the Capital Region Violence Intervention Program, a hospital based violence intervention program at the University of Maryland Prince George’s Hospital Center. We are the second busiest trauma center in Maryland and treat on average 700 victims of violent injury per year, that’s almost two people per day. The overwhelming majority of survivors of gun violence we treat are black boys and young black men. If you spent a week in our trauma center with our trauma surgeons and nurses it would be crystal clear the gun violence is a crisis in the black community and for young black men in particular. Gun violence is the leading cause of death for black boys and young black men. It has been the leading cause of death for this population for decades. Not a few years but decades. But, imagine if gun violence were the leading cause of death for young white males for decades? It’s impossible to imagine because it wouldn’t have ever gotten that far.

The question America should ask itself is why so much attention to gun violence now?

Jooyoung: For me, the discussion has also veered away from taking on larger racist stereotypes about black men and other young men of colour—who, as we all know, are the most vulnerable to getting injured and/or killed in shootings. It’s great that the Parkland kids have reached out to young folks from Chicago and other communities of colour where gun violence is happening on a much more routine basis, but I haven’t really seen anyone in this movement taking on the larger stereotypes that shape how society sees gunshot victims from places like Chicago, St. Louis, Philly, Compton, and other communities of colour left out of the spotlight created by Parkland. Harmful stereotypes about African Americans still persist. There’s still this underlying belief that if you are black and you got shot, you must have been doing something to get yourself shot. This is something that John Rich shows brilliantly in his work and something that has stayed around even when the Parkland kids are being intersectional about their activism.

What about grief and the broader impacts of gun violence? How does your work address these issues that have emerged in the aftermath of Parkland?
Desmond: I’ve been fascinated by the ways in which social media shows you how trauma impacts an individual’s life. Through posts, emojis, hashtags, images, etc you’re able to observe how a person moves through a grief cycle. For example, a person may describe how they’re not sleeping or that they remain in disbelief because of the loss of a loved one. As time progresses, it becomes clear that social media may also hinder their ability to move through through a grief cycle as others comment and interact with their grief; at times making upsetting or disrespectful comments.

In new research published in Digital Medicine my research team found a pathway to threatening and aggressive tweets that starts with responses to trauma and grief for gang associated youth and young adults in Chicago. In fact, there was a two-day window between a response to loss and an aggressive post. This tells us that social media can be used to cope with violence in a way that run counters to how young black youth are depicted in media.

Joe: We have neglected to address the effects of gun violence on caregivers. Our program provides counseling services not only for male survivors of violence, we also facilitate, caregiver support groups because the caregivers often suffer in silence. In fact, the vicarious trauma suffered by caregivers in many cases is more severe than the trauma suffered by the person who was injured. Everyone suffers. You cannot just inoculate the person who was injured by providing them with mental health and social support services and send them back to a network and environment where violence is contagious.

Jooyoung: And the other thing is, calls for more access to mental health care services forgets that many folks of colour don’t have the same relationship with formal therapy. In my work, I met lots of young people living with injuries who were skeptical about formal mental health care services that were available to them. Some thought they were going to get hypnotized and others were resistant to the idea of talking about their innermost fears and vulnerability with a complete stranger. So, part of the mental health picture requires a new way to think about social and emotional support as something that people find in their everyday relationships with family, friends, and even people who are in religious institutions.

What are key policy discussions that aren’t happening right now? And how does your work inform a more nuanced discussion on these issues?
Joe: There are a number of policy issues. For example, Maryland (which is where we run our hospital-based intervention) is trying to pass a bill SB 122 that would provide significant funding for violence prevention across the state. However, that bill includes mandatory minimums and increasing prison sentences for various crimes. So on the one hand, you get violence prevention funding that is desperately needed, but at what cost? Sending more poor black Marylanders to prison who live in neighborhoods that have been impacted by structural violence literally decimated by high rates of unemployment and the effects of mass incarceration. As a gun violence researcher of colour, I cannot support that kind of legislation, despite the funding for violence prevention.

Desmond: I think we have to contend with the role of social media in gun violence. We’ve been quick to utilize social media to monitor urban areas and Black Lives Matter activists, but we’ve missed white mass shooters who have left dark messages on social media. We need to have critical discussions about the very real concern that what people say or do on social media may lead to offline violence.

Jooyoung: The other thing, to go back to Joe’s point, is that this movement hasn’t really addressed the ongoing problems of police shooting and killing black men and other folks of colour. We’re having a discussion about raising the age for people to buy firearms and encouraging people to give up their firearms, but many people don’t want to do this because guns represent a means for self-defence. This is where there’s a lot of overlap between people in communities like West Philly and those in red states who own guns and concealed carry. People get guns because they don’t feel safe and have lost faith in the police. So, there’s this terrible irony that we’re talking about regulating guns, which is important, but also not addressing the underlying reasons for why Stephon Clark is getting shot and killed by Sacramento Police. Police violence against black men hasn’t gone away and yet that type of police violence has been swept under the rug in this whole #NeverAgain moment.

Joe: What’s interesting to me is what determines when we decide as a nation what constitutes a public health crisis? In the 80s and 90s we criminalized crack by creating draconian drug policies that sent millions of black people to jail and prison. The irony is Joe Biden framed a lot of those policies yet he is the vice president of the first black president. Policies such as the Anti Drug Abuse Acts of 1986 and 1988 and the Crime Bill of 1994 under the “first” black President Bill Clinton devastated black inner-city communities and families for generations. We can even go further back to the 70s when heroin ravaged urban communities, it was criminalized. It’s how we arrived at the Rockefeller Drug Laws in New York which served as the blueprint for mandatory minimums. The gun violence that was associated with crack markets in inner-cities was criminalized as well. So the black community has been suffering from a drug and gun violence epidemic for a long time yet it was never considered to be a public health issue. There was no public health approach for crack or gun violence. The approach has been lock them up, build more prisons, hire more police.

Only recently have we discussed criminal justice reform, which is interesting now that crack use has waned considerably. Now that heroin and the opioid crisis is literally killing white Americans at extremely high rates, we have approached it as a public health crisis, which has commanded resources, research funding from NIH and the CDC and considerable media attention. Where are all the visuals of SWAT teams and DEA using battering rams on the doors of white middle class homes in the same way they barreled into crack houses? Clearly someone is selling heroin as well right, particularly if most drug transactions are intraracial this means that there are a lot of white heroin and opioid dealers out there killing a lot of people. But there is no discussion about a war on drugs now because the faces suffering from it are white.

Conclusion

Our conversation continued for the greater part of a half hour. As we talked, it struck me how we often go round and round about gun control policies in the aftermath of mass shootings, but almost always fail to address what Desmond refers to as “pathways” into violence, or what Joe calls “structural violence.” In all of the talk about gun control—which is a positive thing overall—we lose sight of the bigger picture, the root causes of violence that propel young people, and particularly black youth, into gangs, drug dealing, and other risky behaviours that amplify their risks of being shot and becoming a shooter.

Follow Jooyoung Lee, Joseph Richardsonand Desmond Patton on Twitter.

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