Gun Control Laws and Race And Class: Let's Talk About It

The day of the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre in Newtown, Connecticut, I was in Newtown, Pennsylvania at The George School, a private Quaker high school. On the way, I passed Neshaminy Middle School, the junior high that I attended in the 1970s. I remembered the time capsule that my science class buried in a field behind the school where we set off rockets and the book mobile where I bought and read (and no doubt re-read) the books, Lady Day Sings The Blues, and Dinky Hocker Shoots Smack (a young adult novel about a girl with an eating disorder). I must have read other books in junior high, but those are the ones that stand out.

It was only after visiting The George School and being impressed with the school's collegiate campus atmosphere and the refreshingly empowered and surprisingly diverse student body, that I reflected on the fact that junior high was a place where I was bullied. There were taunts, pokes and jeers on pretty much a daily basis for three years. I grew up in Levittown, Pa., a primarily white working class neighborhood, and was an introverted, only child who liked to read. I observed that my friends whose parents moved to the neighborhood from upstate tended to own guns because they were hunters. Families (my own included) who had moved to this working class suburb from the city tended not to be gun owners.

Then I grew up and moved to the city. I was the first in my family to go to college and also the first to go to a therapist. As I write in Tea Leaves, a memoir of mother and daughters:

"In the 1980s lesbian community I had come out in, seeing a therapist was more the norm than the exception. But in the working-class landscape that had shaped me, therapists were for the idle rich who had the time and money to dwell on their personal problems. The other scenario was that the person who saw a therapist--or a "shrink" in my father's vernacular--was severely emotionally disturbed."

My therapist, Fiora Raggi, who came to this country from Italy when she was a young woman was defiantly nonviolent. She told me that she would never own a gun and that she would rather be killed than to kill. At the time, I didn't agree with her. I have never owned a gun and would not own a gun. But in my hormonal youth, there were times when I did not feel nonviolent. I studied self-defense and karate. I went to a rifle range once and shot a handgun so that I could know what it felt like to handle a gun. I got a bull's eye on the third try and never held a gun again. Over the years my feelings and philosophy have shifted to total nonviolence.

But the conversation that I had with my therapist about gun violence in the city was an aside. Most of the gun violence in the city involves African American young people as victims. As Tavis Smiley writes in The Huffington Post "Black youth and teens accounted for 45 percent of all child and teen gun deaths in 2008 and 2009 but only make up 15 percent of the child population. The leading cause of death among black teens ages 15 to 19 in 2008 and 2009 was gun homicide."

I live in Philadelphia where gun violence is common. Much of this violence involves the murder of black children caught in the crossfire of drug-related violence. When shots are fired into an elementary school (which has happened) it is usually the result of nearby gang violence.
When local issues of gun control have come up in the past, politicians and the residents in the cities were in favor of gun control legislation and the politicians in the rural parts of the state have usually been against it. There are exceptions, of course, but the racial breakdown is that the urban areas represent more African American people. And the rural areas of the state of Pennsylvania tend to be populated with white people.

In Newtown, Connecticut, we have been introduced to another kind of gun owner: a wealthy white person who has everything money can buy including assault weapons. There are several reasons why I never would own a gun. I have always heard that if you have a gun in your home, there is a high probability that the gun will be used against you. There is also the possibility of using the gun on yourself in a moment of despair. Like many young people who are bullied (as we witness in the news of teen suicides), I developed a tendency toward self-destructiveness. It never occurred to me to harbor intense anger toward the bullies. What goes around comes around and I always have had a strong belief in karma. Besides, being cruel to others is a kind of punishment in itself.

Unfortunately, despite the anti-bullying campaigns going on in the schools, there will always be children who bully other children. There will always be people with mental health issues who slip through the cracks. (More anti-bullying legislation is needed as well as an overhaul of the mental health system.) But the fact is that guns kill people. And stronger gun control laws can and need to be enacted. If Adam Lanza was not able to get his hands on an assault weapon, the children and teachers of Sandy Hook elementary school would be alive today.

All young people, regardless of their race, deserve to grow up in a world that is free from violence. This includes war, poverty, and freedom from being fired on with assault weapons and from being shot because of their race, religion, and sexual or gender orientation.

We can start with gun control legislation. President Obama is in his second term and now is in a position to take action. Public opinion is on his side. Let's put pressure on our legislators to make sure this happens.

Tavis Smiley calls for every black person in America who said anything about Trayvon Martin to be as equally outraged about the massacre in Sandy Hook Elementary School and to push for gun control legislation. I am calling for every white person saddened by the killing at Sandy Hook to be equally sad about the murder of Trayvon Martin and to translate that sadness into action so that we can create a world where all of our children are safe.

You can learn more about Tea Leaves: A Memoir of Mothers and Daughters here.
For more by Janet Mason, click here.