“Gun control has not worked in D.C. The only people who have guns are criminals. We have the strictest gun laws in the nation and one of the highest murder rates. It’s quicker to pull your Smith & Wesson than to dial 911 if you’re being robbed.” – Lowell Duckett
“Our neighbors in Virginia are just as responsible for these killings as the criminals are because they won’t pass strong gun [control] legislation.” – former Washington, DC mayor Marion Barry.
“A teenager is more likely to die from a gunshot than from all natural causes of death combined. This is unacceptable in America.” – President George W. Bush, 2001
1980s-2000s The scourge of Black on Black Crime comes to the forefront of American consciousness, and the doorsteps of African American neighborhoods. The Brady Center notes the chilling statistics in GUN VIOLENCE IN THE AFRICAN AMERICAN COMMUNITY:
Gun violence is a priority issue for African-Americans and other minorities. Nearly 350,000 Americans were victims to murders, robberies, and aggravated assaults in 2003 committed by perpetrators carrying a firearm, and our minority communities are the hardest hit:
• In 2002, firearm homicide was the number one cause of death for 15-34 year old African-Americans.
• In 2002, the firearm death rate for African-Americans was over twice that of whites.
• In 2002, an African-American male under age 30 was nearly 9 times more likely to be murdered than a white male under age 30.
• In 2003, 91 percent of African-American murder victims were slain by African-American offenders.
• In 2002, African-American males accounted for 47 percent of all homicide victims, while they only account for 6 percent of the entire population.
• Firearms have become the predominant method of suicide for African-Americans aged 10-19 years, accounting for 64 percent of suicides in 2002.
— June 2005
2008 The Supreme Court, in the case of Heller vs the District of Columbia, strikes down the District’s gun ban law.
As noted in Part 1 of this two part series, the history and guns and African Americans is clear: for much of our country’s history, through acts of omission or commission, the Supreme Court was a willing participant in creating an environment where whites could terrorize blacks, in a manner that left blacks unable to defend themselves.
That was then, this is now. What should be today’s stance on guns in the African American community?
To make that decision, let’s let look at the current state of black Americans and guns. That picture is disturbing and disgusting: African Americans are literally killing themselves off. As shown in the Brady Center statistics above, black folks are disproportionally the perpetrators and victims of gun violence, compared to the rest of the population. What southern white racists used to do African Americans, we are now doing to ourselves.
In coming to my own conclusions about how to deal with this, let me start by mentioning two things I often hear concerning gun rights which I dismiss out of hand.
First, I am not moved at all by arguments that the Constitution “guarantees” the right to keep and bear arms. As I recall, the original version of the Constitution did not allow women the right to vote. And more important to me personally, the Constitution made it legal to own slaves. I might be a slave today if not for several amendments that were passed after the bloodiest war in American history.
(And let’s not even talk about the fact that residents of the District of Columbia suffer from taxation without representation: DC residents have no voting representation in the House or the Senate-a Constitutionally enabled violation of voting rights that nobody seems to care about.)
The issue to me is not the right to keep and bear arms, but whether it’s right to keep and bear arms. If “unrestricted” gun ownership is bad public policy, then the laws-including the Constitution-should be changed. Anyone who’s unwilling to take that approach can stop reading this now and go elsewhere.
Similarly, I am not moved by the argument that gun control laws are unfair because they prevent “law abiding people” from having guns. Here’s something I know with absolute certainty: 100% of all criminals were law abiding citizens… until they committed their first crime.
If there was a way to guarantee that law abiding citizens who own guns will never (a) intentionally or unintentionally misuse them or (b) give their gun(s) to someone else who might misuse them… I’m willing to listen. But I haven’t heard anybody come up with that yet.
Finally, let me say for the record that I do believe that there are many parts of this country where gun ownership should be less restricted than in others. I think that in rural or other areas where residents and law enforcement officers are widely dispersed, people need guns to maintain proper self-defense. The District of Columbia’s restrictive hand gun ban would, for example, have been foolish for a rural county in Wyoming.
The question for me is, is “unrestricted” gun ownership a good idea in an urban area like Washington, DC? (I use the generic term “unrestricted” because nobody knows at this point what level of gun ownership/licensing restrictions and controls will be allowed by the Supreme Court in future decisions.)
Scared Sh**less; Is SCOTUS Out to Get Us?
Well, let me tell you how I, an actual DC resident, feels now that the Heller decision has struck down the citys handgun and other gun restrictions: I’m scared sh**less. I don’t think this is going to make the city safer at all.
I’m sure there will be a lot of people who will get guns and “feel” safer. But I didn’t think too much of it when people said “if it feels good, do it” back in the ’60s. And I don’t think too much of that today, either.
Many cynics and conspiracy theorists in the African American community are trying to figure out, why is the Supreme Court doing this now? When African Americans needed to defend themselves from violent southern whites, the Supreme Court did everything to keep blacks unarmed and unprotected.
But now that black on black crime has reached pandemic proportions, the Court wants to ease gun restrictions-thus making it easier for blacks to get guns and further their own self-destruction. It almost seems like the Court is basing its decsions on what enables the most black people to die!
OK, I won’t go there. It’s hard to believe that the Supreme Court of the US (SCOTUS), in this day and age, is indeed interested in seeing black people suffer. But the best that can said, in this instance and in others, is that the Supreme Court isn’t doing the black community any favors.
In any event, arguing about SCOTUS and its rulings is, in the short term, a waste of time. The Supreme Court decides “rights,” it doesn’t decide what is right. If the laws or the Constitution provides rights that are wrong for society, then people need to make that case, and not just complain when court decisions don’t go their way.
The Polite Society vs The Dysfunctional Society
One favorite comment of some gun rights activists is, an armed society is a polite society. I can’t think of an idea that is more naive or dangerous.
Let’s start with the basic question: how did we get to the point where our inner cities are so violent? The answer is obvious. Washington, DC, like many other cities, is suffering through a massive scale of social dysfunction. The city has high levels of fatherless families, failed public schools, poverty, drug usage, gangs, and any other social ill you want to mention. And when you add issues of race to these already incendiary conditions, it’s not too surprising that violence results. In fact, it would be a surprise if there wasn’t any violence.
Most of the violence and gun violence we see in DC is from young and immature black males whose lives are not valued, and as such, they have never learned the value of life.
The possibility or even fact that a potential victim of their violence has a gun will not make them less violent or more “polite.” It will not scare them or deter them. Guns don’t kill people, people don’t kill people. Violent people kill other people, and they will use the most effective means to so. Enter the handgun.
This is why I find complaints that “the ban on guns has not stopped violent crime… We have the strictest gun laws in the nation and one of the highest murder rates” to be incredulous. A gun ban was never going to stop people from being violent.
Violence is a function of societal and personal fault. It will occur regardless of restrictions on guns, or the lack thereof. But the effectiveness of guns in killing people does affect the nature of the violence, and the death rate from violence. So talking about guns and gun control is vital.
The Mega-Question: Where Do Illegal Guns Come From?
At the start of thus article, I quoted Lowell Duckett, who said “Gun control has not worked in D.C. The only people who have guns are criminals.” The District of Columbia did in fact have one of the nation’s strictest handgun bans prior to the Heller ruling. And it’s also true that many crimes committed in the District involve guns.
So here’s the mega-question: if guns are illegal in the District, where are these criminals getting their guns? The answer: from law abiding citizens! As noted in the report INSIDE STRAW PURCHASING: How Criminals Get Guns Illegally from Mayors Against Illegal Guns:
“Virtually every crime gun in the United States starts off as a legal firearm,” according to then-Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) director Bradley Buckles in 2000. In a 1997 report, the ATF looked at how guns then “pass through the legitimate distribution system of federally licensed firearms dealers” before ending up in the hands of criminals. The ATF concluded, in part, that, “there is a large problem of diversion to the illegal market from licensed gun establishments.”
Many of the guns used in DC come from next door states Maryland and Virginia. As reported by the Washington Post last year,
Law enforcement authorities traced more than 10,000 guns recovered in Virginia, Maryland and the District last year — and nearly half came from Virginia, according to federal data released yesterday.
Virginia also was among the top sources of guns recovered by authorities in New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, North Carolina and South Carolina, the data show. In New York, more recovered guns came from Virginia than from any other outside state — roughly one of 11 traced.
“Somebody coined I-95 ‘the iron pipeline,’ ” said Mike Campbell, a spokesman for the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, which released the report yesterday. “There’s a lot of traffic moving up and down 95.”
These statistics explain why former DC mayor Marion Barry has bitterly complained that “our neighbors in Virginia are just as responsible for these killings as the criminals are because they won’t pass strong gun [control] legislation.”
Two persons interviewed from Virginia in the Post article expressed surprise about the number of guns coming from the state:
J. Tucker Martin, a spokesman for the Virginia attorney general’s office, said he could not comment on the report without reading it. But he said the office is satisfied with the state’s laws in general. “Virginia has a very effective law enforcement system,” he said.
Philip Van Cleave, president of the Virginia Citizens Defense League, a gun rights group, said he was surprised that Virginia’s guns were turning up in significant numbers in other states — 530 in New York, 301 in North Carolina, 140 in New Jersey, 110 in Pennsylvania, and so on.
“We have stricter laws than a lot of these states where the guns are showing up,” Van Cleave said. “In Virginia, we require two forms of identification, which some other states don’t require.”
This points to the fundamental problem of gun control in this country, in my opinion. Our state, local, and federal law enforcement systems have no effective way to keep legally-obtained guns from criminals. And those who think we do are either out of touch or in denial.
This is why I say I’m “scared sh**less” about the effects of the Heller. For me, it’s all about supply and demand. If more people can obtain guns legally, that will increase the supply of guns that can be obtained and used illegally. It’s ipso facto.
Once more DC residents can get guns, lawbreakers who otherwise found it “hard” to go to Virginia to run a scam for guns can now just go scam at the local gun store, or perhaps just go next door to a neighbor. The next door gun store – that is what scares me the most. It doesn’t take a doctorate in law enforcement to figure that many residents would buy guns solely to feed the demand for weapons from the criminals, or more likely, friends and neighbors who are eventually up to no good.
It’s no wonder that the DC Police have been one of the biggest advocates of gun control. The idea that an increased percentage of the populace is armed means that any potential confrontation with a resident can turn into an armed confrontation. That in turn could mean more Sean Bell type incidents, not to mention, more shootings of police.
Self Inflicted Wounds
So far, we haven’t touched on the problems of guns and suicides, domestic violence or accidents. The Brady Center has reported that “Firearms have become the predominant method of suicide for African-Americans aged 10-19 years, accounting for 64 percent of suicides in 2002,” which is frightening. But also consider this study on suicides in the District from the Washington Post
Seventeen years ago, a couple of criminologists at the University of Maryland published an interesting paper about the 1976 District ban on handguns — a ban that was recently overturned by the Supreme Court on the grounds it was inimical to the constitutional right of Americans to bear arms to protect themselves.
The researchers employed a simple procedure: They tabulated all the suicides that had taken place in Washington between 1968 and 1987. Colin Loftin and David McDowall found that the gun ban correlated with an abrupt 25 percent decline in suicides in the city.
Loftin and McDowall, who now work at the University at Albany, part of the State University of New York, also tabulated suicide rates in Maryland and Virginia over the same period, to test whether suicide rates just happened to be declining in the entire region. There was no difference in the suicide rate in the Maryland and Virginia suburbs before and after the D.C. gun ban. The researchers also tabulated the kinds of suicide that declined in Washington: The 25 percent decline was entirely driven by a decline in firearm-related suicide.
One problem I have with gun control advocates is, they tend talk about the “benefits” of gun ownership in absolute terms, when in fact, gun ownership involves both “benefits” and dangers. The advocates say there is a benefit from improved self-defense. But they don’t mention that there’s an even greater downside from, for example, suicides and domestic violence. This is from another study cited by the Washington Post
Medical researchers Arthur Kellermann and Donald Reay once studied all firearm-related deaths in King County, Wash., between 1978 and 1983. They found nine of the deaths involved self-defense — killing an intruder or attacker. In the same period, household guns were involved in 12 accidental deaths, 41 criminal homicides and 333 suicides.
Even excluding suicide, Kellermann and Reay found that guns were 18 times as likely to be involved in the killing of a member of the household as the killing of an attacker.
This is why comments such as one I read which said that DC’s gun policy “makes good, honest, decent black people (or anyone else) in the inner cities no more than lambs for slaughter” miss the mark. The assumption is that having a gun makes a person safer, because it enables them to fight off criminals. But it ignores the fact that improper use of a gun by law abiding citizens-in suicide attempts, domestic disputes, or accidents-can pose an even greater threat.
It also ignores the fact that the line between a law abiding citizen and a criminal can be razor thin, especially in a dysfunctional society. It is a fantasy to expect that in a troubled city like Washington, or anywhere, that no “decent” citizens will be involved in incidents where their worst instincts take over. When that happens, that citizen will probably wish that they didn’t have a gun in their possession. The city’s gun ban makes this less of a risk.
Finally, it ignores that much of the violence is not criminal vs law abiding citizen crime, but rather, criminal vs criminal crime. Or better put, much of the violence is young black male on young black male crime, driven by fights over drugs, territory, or even petty squabbles. With the DC gun ban being overturned, more guns will get in the hands of these young men. And it won’t be a pretty sight.
I often hear-and I admit, I’ve said it myself-that we should let these criminal kill each other off… good riddance. But that’s the problem: their low value for life reflects the low value we have for their lives. I begin with the idea that every life is valuable and redeemable. I refuse to base my decisions on anger or despair or outright hatred.
With all of that said, it’s time to come to conclusions.
What I’m Going Say the DC City Council and the Mayor
All right, it’s time to write my government representatives and tell them what I want them to do next. For me, it’s a no-brainer: I’m going to ask them to pass most restrictive gun control laws possible within the scope of the Heller. And then, I’m going to pray. Not just for me, but for everyone in this city.
Here’s the bottom line for me. I’m tired of seeing black people, and black youth in particular, killing themselves. And there is no doubt in my mind that, if this law enables does result in much expanded ownership of guns, it will eventually enable more black males to shoot themselves to death. I don’t want that.
I’ve read and I understand the thoughts and feelings of gun rights folks who are adamant about their rights to keep and bear arms. But let me say this.
It would be wrong and unfair to label control rights advocates as selfish for their positions on guns. There is nothing selfish about wanting to protect your own life or the lives of your family. But they are, in fact, making a choice. They are choosing an incremental increase in their of safety, over a more pronounced increased risk of violence from suicides, domestic violence, and the conflicts among the disadvantaged segments of our society.
That is a fair choice for them to make. But I don’t think it serves the greater good.
And this is not, as some might feel, about being unwilling to do what’s necessary to protect my family. This is about a simple risk or threat analysis. As I see it, the risk of a home intruder coming into my home is much less than the collective risk of a gun in my home being used in a suicide attempt, during a domestic violence incident, or an accident. Given that risk of my own gun doing harm to me or my family is greater than the risk of a some intruder harming me, this is not a hard choice to make.
But even more, the less guns that are available generally means there will be less of a supply for criminals at large-which is good for me, and maybe, makes it less likely that black men will kill each other.
In the end, the only thing that will make DC safer (which is not the same as making DC safe-that’s a pie in the sky thing to hope for) is to address our city’s ills. It troubles me personally that in this election season, very little discussion is made of the problems of the inner cities. I’d much rather talk about ways to prevent black men from becoming criminals, then to talk about where to buy a gun so I can shoot a black criminal. An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.
But it is what it is. Right now, nobody knows what levels of gun restrictions will eventually be allowed by the Supreme Court. In the meantime, I hope the city takes a hard line against gun ownership, and apply the strongest restrictions on gun ownership as possible. And I would recommend that all black folks in cities like Washington do the same. Because all things considered, in the end, it’s the right thing to do.