One week ago, in an op-ed for the far right wing website World Net Daily, National Rifle Association (NRA) Board Member Ted Nugent commented on the violence that has made national headlines in Ferguson, Missouri, and stated, "The overwhelming majority of violent crime across America is conducted by young, black males who, sadly, are on the self-inflicted expressway to prison or an early grave-or more often than not, both."
Where to begin... For starters, Nugent has blatantly misstated the facts. In truth, more whites are arrested for violent crime in the United States than blacks (even though African Americans are arrested for such crimes at a higher rate than whites). There are multiple socioeconomic and structural causes that increase an individual's propensity for violent behavior. Pigmentation is simply not a factor.
But reading Nugent's column brought an equally important point home for me. The way we talk about incidents of gun violence in this country -- and the solutions we propose to stem future acts of violence -- seems to be dramatically different depending on the race of those involved.
Consider the tragic death of 25 year-old African-American Kajieme Powell in St. Louis this summer. Powell came to the attention of St. Louis County police on August 19 when he stole two energy drinks and packet of pastries from a local convenience store. He made no attempt to get away, however. Instead, he placed the cans on the ground outside the store and paced nervously back and forth, as if waiting for something. When two police officers arrived on the scene, Powell walked toward them with a kitchen knife in his hand, yelling, "Shoot me!" As he closed in on the officers, they obliged, shooting him dead.
It was a textbook example of suicide-by-cop. And yet very little of the subsequent national conversation mentioned the issue of mental health. Instead, we got the standard character assassination that is so common when African-Americans are involved as perpetrators. Comments like this one by NBC contributor Jeff Halevy: "Knife-wielding thug who just robbed a store. Get over it. It's not always race."
It's not always race? Then why is a perpetrator immediately dehumanized when he is African-American? He is a "thug" who was involved in a "drive-by." Or he's a "gang banger" who got caught up in "inner city violence" ... Convenient terms to let people know that it was a black person who pulled the trigger. Mental health is not part of the discussion, even in cases like Powell's where it's an obvious factor.
Conversely, when an episode of mass gun violence involves a white perpetrator (think Jared Loughner, James Holmes, Elliot Rodger, etc.), the conversation immediately turns to mental health. The shooter was "deranged" and probably on medication, we are told. And we'll hear asides like, "He seemed like such a good person" or "We never could have seen this coming."
This dichotomy of treatment is intentional. Consider the NRA's response to the Sandy Hook massacre committed by Adam Lanza, a young white man. NRA CEO Wayne LaPierre conducted a press conference a week after the tragedy and condemned our government for refusing "to create an active national database of the mentally ill" -- a curious position for an organization that purports to be a protector of individual rights and privacy. Meanwhile, LaPierre rants to conservative audiences about "knock-out gamers" and sits on the NRA board with Nugent, who declared, "Apartheid isn't that cut and dry. All men are not created equal."
The NRA fully understands the racial dynamic at play here. As long as we can blame something other than guns, America will not have to come to terms with the truth that violence is a complicated phenomenon that is made far more lethal by the easy availability and killing power of firearms. And for an organization with an overwhelmingly conservative, white base, that "something other" is minorities.
The gun lobby is able to pitch this myth because, on the surface, it may seem that gun violence is connected to race. Although African Americans make up only 13 percent of the U.S. population, nearly 40 percent of homicides are committed by African-Americans. However, as I noted above, more sophisticated analyses of the propensity for interpersonal violence show race is not a determinative factor in violent behavior. For example, gun death rates (including suicide) for blacks and whites are similar in some states (including Mississippi, New Mexico, and Arizona). States that do have racial disparities in gun death rates typically have large African-American populations concentrated in segregated inner-city poverty (i.e., Missouri, Michigan, and Illinois). Let's not forget that, throughout history, racist government policies have contributed to poverty, unemployment and lack of mental health services in communities that are predominantly African-American. Take any racial or ethnic group and subject them to these types of conditions and the results will be similar.
Nonetheless, the NRA understands that fear is the best motivator when it comes to selling guns. Sadly, its not-so-subtle attempt to blame African-Americans for violence seems to be a contributing factor to the unnecessary killing of unarmed black men in our society.
Let us also reject the gun lobby's unnecessary stigmatization of the mentally ill. The truth is the majority of individuals with a mental illness diagnosis will never be violent toward others. Only about 4 percent of interpersonal violence in America is caused by mental illness alone (there is, however, a strong correlation with mental illness and suicide). Yet, if you were to focus on media coverage surrounding mass shootings, you'd likely come away with the impression that all mentally ill Americans are violent, crazed maniacs who are moments away from going postal. This is patently untrue, and it diverts us from a productive discourse about true risk factors for violence -- including low socioeconomic status, substance abuse, and history of arrest.
Which brings us back to what the NRA is trying to hide from public understanding, because whatever one's circumstances, easy access to firearms is known to make violence more lethal. For example, studies show that areas with more guns have more gun-related homicides. It is a national tragedy that we have a gun policy that makes it easy even for individuals with long histories of violence to obtain firearms. Felons, domestic abusers and those who have recently been adjudicated a danger to self and/or others based on mental health history are indeed a public safety threat, yet we still live in a country where approximately 40% of firearms transfers happen without a background check.
So I have three suggestions for a more peaceful and free America. First, let's stop using ugly euphemisms like "thug" to describe human beings who might have become violent for a complex set of reasons that have nothing to do with the color of their skin. Second, since we do have a gun violence problem in the United States, let's look for evidence-based solutions to deal with the problem, like universal background checks and expanded firearm prohibitions for those at risk of violence (i.e., violent misdemeanants, domestic abusers, alcohol abusers, etc.). Third, let's acknowledge that blaming gun violence on race (or mental illness) is a lazy and dishonest way of looking at a complicated problem that allows the gun lobby to avoid responsibility for the growing body count in America.
As a country that prides itself on extending political equality to every citizen, nothing less will do.
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