Trigger warning: gun violence, racism
There was once a time when the National Rifle Association (NRA) called for gun control. The Black Panthers—a Black Power group that fought for the liberation of Black people and organized educational programs, free school lunches and food pantries—were gaining momentum around the country. One of their programs, started in Oakland, California, sought to hold police enforcement accountable. Black Panthers would arm themselves and watch, from a legal distance, when police officers would pull over or arrest Black people—oftentimes for no crime other than being Black, Indigenous or a Person of Color (BIPOC). Shortly thereafter, politicians, including then California Gov. Ronald Reagan, and the NRA pushed for gun restriction laws. Their racist tendencies culminated in efforts to prevent people of color from expressing their right to bear arms.
Fast-forward 50 years: The NRA, as one of the largest lobbyists in the country, now seeks to promote open carry laws and restrict gun control legislation at all costs—including that of human life.
This history exemplifies the role of race in discussions around the Second Amendment. When Black people exerted their right to bear arms, they were targeted and killed for being “extremists,” but when white people exert this same right, they are considered patriots.
Gun violence today continues to intersect with racism. We don’t have to look farther than the past year to know that BIPOC, especially Black men, are killed by police firearms at a disproportionate rate. Moreover, people commonly stereotype Black communities as the ones filled with violence without reviewing the validity of such statements or considering the systemic problems that contribute to such violence. This happens at our university too. Consider the locations we are told are “dangerous”—East Cleveland, Hough, Glenville. It is also no coincidence that these neighborhoods are predominately Black, while neighborhoods we are encouraged to explore—Coventry, Little Italy, Ohio City—are predominately white.
In reality, we cannot say that East Cleveland has higher rates of crime than University Circle, but rather there are different types of crime in each place. Moreover, crime also exists on the West Side of Cleveland, but it typically does not get the same publicity due to the area being predominantly white.
Gun violence is a public health crisis and cannot be discussed without considering these other systemic problems, still perpetuated by our systems and institutions today. Gun violence and mass shootings saw a dramatic increase from 2019-2020 in most major cities across the U.S. In Cleveland, murders increased by 42%. Last year, there were 185 homicides, nearing the deadliest year, 1982, when there were 195 homicides, but also 200,000 more people in Cleveland.
Systemic racism coupled with the COVID-19 pandemic begin to explain the increase in violence. The pandemic has caused increased isolation and a dissolution of social networks, including churches and schools, which were anchors for many people in the community, especially those facing domestic violence at home. The pandemic also worsened food insecurity and financial stress, both of which are linked to increased violence.
The increase in gun violence across the country has detrimental effects on people’s mental health, relationships, family and goals—in addition to negatively affecting communities. Sociologist Patrick Sharkey found that violence is absorbed through neighborhoods, with children scoring lower on reading and vocabulary tests after a homicide, even without witnessing or hearing the violence. Similarly, a recent comprehensive longitudinal study found a connection between the juvenile use, access and victimization of firearms and continued firearm violence in adulthood.
And yet, this robust research about gun violence is largely ignored by politicians.
In January, Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine signed Senate Bill 175, also known as “Stand Your Ground” into law. After years of being challenged by organizers across the state, the law “removes the traditional obligation to de-escalate a confrontation and avoid using lethal force in public by stepping away … when it is safe to do so,” as a Giffords Law Center study stated.
These laws, already enacted in 27 other states, increase firearm homicides consistently and have an unclear effect on other gun-related violence such as robberies, shots-fired calls and nonfatal shootings. In Florida, where a Stand Your Ground law has been enacted since 2005, there has been a 24% increase in total homicides and a 32% increase in firearm homicides.
These laws also exacerbate systemic racism and gender bias. In one analysis, the Urban Institute found that “a white shooter who kills a Black victim is 350% more likely to be found to be justified than if the same shooter killed a white victim.” Similarly, other marginalized groups, including people who identify as transgender, are more likely to be unjustly penalized or killed.
And yet, despite all these concerns about the efficacy of Stand Your Ground, DeWine made it state law.
These types of laws are like applying a band-aid to a broken bone; they fail to address the root of the problem and instead exacerbate it.
Likewise, the U.S. Department of Justice introduced “Operation Legend” for nine cities to try to address increased violence. However, in doing so, they took a unilateral, and rather ignorant, approach, providing $10 million for the hiring of new police officers and sending in additional federal agents.
Edward Dabkowski, a researcher at the Begun Center for Violence Prevention Research and Education at Mandel School of Applied Social Sciences, emphasized that Operation Legend was closely tied to the previous presidential administration and only funded one element of violence prevention, failing to look at gun violence as a systemic issue.
“We can’t just increase patrols and lock people up,” Dabkowski said. “We need to look at systemic issues … and we need to consider gun violence a public health issue.”
Dabkowski further stated that when he sees programs like Operation Legend he asks, “What problem are you trying to solve?” Because increasing the funding for law enforcement will not solve the systemic problems contributing to gun violence.
Stand Your Ground laws and initiatives like Operation Legend are not going to solve gun violence.
Mimi Karon, the State Legislature Lead in Cleveland with Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, shared her memory of the Columbine shooting in 1999. At the time, when Karon was in her early-30s, she thought by the time she had kids, the problem would be solved. Instead, it has worsened.
And one of the worst parts, she emphasized, “is that gun violence is so unnecessary, it is fixable.”
Moms Demand Action is not against guns—in fact, Karon mentioned that there are gun-owners and NRA members within their organization—but rather in support of gun safety. After the Dayton, Ohio shooting in 2019, “People were so articulate about doing something, and then [Stand Your Ground] is what lawmakers decide to do? It is a slap in the face to people who are impacted by shootings, to people who lost family members. Cleveland will see an increase in gun violence as a result.”
Gov. DeWine not only disregarded scientific research in passing Stand Your Ground, but ignored the pleas of clergy, prosecutors and law enforcement who wrote letters opposing the bill. In response, 23 representatives sponsored new state legislation—Ohio House Bill 381—to repeal Stand Your Ground.
The idea of confiscating people’s personal guns is only a fear-mongering tactic employed by the NRA and other gun lobbyists. In doing so, they ensure all their loyal gun owners fear and target organizations working for gun safety legislation that saves lives.
While complete gun bans are unlikely in the U.S., we can plead for gun safety. That means universal background checks and safe storage requirements, as well as investing in after-school activities, neighborhood organizations and research.
It means investing in people.
Shani Buggs, a violence prevention researcher at the University of California, Davis, has commented “What we know is: When you look at communities that have low rates of gun violence, they don’t have police on every corner. They have stable homes and safe places for people to work and play. They have supportive options for youth. They have quality schools. When people’s needs are met, they are safer.”
As long as we fail to address the systemic issues in our community—and across the country—in favor of increased police enforcement budgets and for-profit prisons, gun violence will continue to increase. And people will continue to unnecessarily die.