Opponents of gun control most often discuss the issue in terms of "liberty" -- the individual right to own and carry a firearm. The failure of nearly every federal effort over the last 20 years to restrict gun access has shown this to be an effective strategy, and one that has trumped -- if not trampled -- public safety arguments.
Yet there exists an opportunity to shift the debate -- not by abandoning the safety message, but by tapping into another less obvious, but potentially potent, aspect of gun control: equality.
The fact is, the widespread availability of guns is a significant, but often overlooked, cause of persistent inequality in the United States. Focusing on the relationship between guns and inequality will allow gun control advocates to argue that restricting firearm access is an essential step towards achieving social justice and economic empowerment.
The first way that guns drive inequality is by making life more violent and less stable for people living in economically disadvantaged communities. Crime rates, especially violent crime rates, are higher in poorer neighborhoods. While this is true across the world, and is likely to remain so, open access to firearms in the United States makes these crimes easier to commit, more lethal, and more destructive of community life.
Most people think of violent crime as the result of poverty, but in fact it is also a cause. Over the July 4th weekend this year, for instance, 82 people were shot in Chicago, most of them in the city's struggling South Side, where crime rates are ten times higher than wealthier areas of the city. For residents of these neighborhoods, who are striving to make ends meet and improve their economic lot, the chaos and destruction wrought by gun violence is an enormous obstacle. And it is one that richer communities do not have to face.
Given the racial aspect of socio-economic inequality in the United States, the negative impact of gun violence is borne especially by minority communities. The nonfatal gunshot injury rate in Chicago, for instance, is about 6.5 per 100,000 people. Divided by race, however, it's 1.62 per 100,000 for whites, 28.72 for Latinos, and 112.83 for blacks. For all males, the gunshot injury rate is 44.68 per 100,000, yet for black males it's 239.77, and for black males aged 18-34 it's a staggering 599.65 (about 1 in 200). In other words, a young black man in Chicago has a 38,000 percent greater chance of being shot than a white person. This is a blatant form of racial inequality.
Those fighting gun restrictions would argue that these figures merely demonstrate the need for residents of poorer neighborhoods to arm themselves for their own protection. But firearms are far more often used for community-destroying crime than they are for individual self-defense. Gun violence, in short, is a structural impediment to true equality for high-crime, low-income areas.
Second, guns place marginalized communities in constant fear of mass shootings. Of course, armed maniacs have attacked nearly every fora of American life, and any American could become a victim. Yet mass shooters have repeatedly targeted vulnerable groups -- children, women, and religious and racial minorities. These groups are targeted precisely because they are vulnerable, and yet, since they often lack the political power to enact meaningful gun control restrictions, they are left defenseless.
The sad reality is that hateful, violent minds will inevitably latch onto our culture's latent bigotries -- racism, sexism, anti-Semitism, and so forth -- and then lash out at those perennially disfavored groups. While this danger is likely to endure, the easy availability of firearms makes such hate crimes far more deadly and far more frightening.
Black Americans cannot truly be free if they cannot even feel safe praying in church, lest a maniac gun them down. Nor can Jewish Americans feel fully secure so long as they must pass through metal detectors on their way into synagogue, to protect them from an armed fanatic.
Shockingly, our most vulnerable population -- children -- must endure a special risk of gun violence, as the new trend for state legislators is to prove their pro-gun bona fides by pushing to expand gun rights into the classroom. For instance, there are proposals in at least three states to allow concealed carry in K through 12 schools. The psychological terror mass shootings inflict, in sum, is part of the broader social inequality that vulnerable groups must endure.
If we allow the gun control debate to continue solely as a conflict between the freedom to own a weapon and the danger that firearms pose, we obscure an important truth -- the danger presented by gun violence is not distributed equally in our society. Low-income communities and minority groups bear a unique burden in the form of neighborhood gun violence and the threat of mass shootings.
Gun control advocates struggle, and legislative efforts fail, when opponents invoke the ideal of liberty -- of defending gun rights against an over-reaching state. By moving beyond public safety and invoking equality, advocates have the opportunity to challenge their opponents with an equally lofty and essentially American ideal. When it comes to gun policy, the equal protection of the law must be no less important than the right to bear arms.