Massacres make the headlines, but we’re missing the steady effect of gun violence in communities across the country
2012 was the year of the gun. On December 14, America was yet again thrown into terror. Twenty 6- and 7-year-old children and six adults were slaughtered at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., by a gunman using semi-automatic handguns. The Newtown massacre is the second deadliest school shooting in U.S. history and one of the deadliest mass shootings worldwide. On July 20, terror had rained down on dozens of folks watching the “Batman” premiere in the city of Aurora, Col. Less than three weeks later, Wade Michael Page, a 40-year-old army veteran, murdered six worshipers who were attending prayers at a Sikh temple. Schools and places of fantasy and faith have become slaughter houses in America.
The human toll of gun violence in this country is astounding and undeniably deeply troubling. America’s firearm death rate is eight times higher than that of other industrialized nations. More than 85 Americas die from gun violence daily—annually, another 73,000 are wounded and virtually millions are impacted by the psychological and social consequences of gun violence. Firearm deaths are the leading and second leading cause of mortality for African Americans and Hispanics ages 15 to 23 respectively. We spend up to $22 billion in direct and indirect costs every year due to gun related murders and injuries.
However, this larger picture is often lost when we look at ridiculous acts of violence such as these most recent massacres, Columbine and the 16 other mass gun murders in America since 1991. We fail to connect the dots; we compartmentalize these occurrences and fall short of acknowledging our own culpability in the larger equation and solution to this problem.
Few of us react as defiantly when our youth are murdered daily on American streets, especially when it involves white-on-white, brown-on-brown and black-on-black gun slayings. Where in such instances are the national coverage, the rallies and the impetus to hold our elected officials accountable? There are too few examples.
However, we vehemently rally and protest when such killings “are bold enough” to cross racial lines such as the recent Trayvon Martin case. How are we able to go about privileging in such strange ways certain types of violence as “abnormal” and in other instances making “abominations” acceptable? What message are we sending our youth about the value of certain human lives?
For the past 12 years, I have been conducting research on the effects of community violence on the developmental trajectories of youth. From these studies, we know that exposure to violence has serious deleterious effects on mental health functioning, diminishes academic success, promotes membership in risky peer networks such as gangs, and advances risky sexual behaviors that can lead to contracting sexual transmitted infections (STIs) including human immunodeficiency virus (HIV). My research shows that the linkages between the disproportionate rates of violence exposures among youth and their high rates of risky sexual behaviors are not spurious but interrelated. After countless surveys and interviews, we also know most youth cope with such exposures mostly by avoiding areas in their communities that are “hot spots” for violence or by trying to focus on school success to move out of high crime neighborhoods in order to make a better life for themselves. Girls often adopt more passive coping styles than boys. Our findings also indicate that the vast majority of community violence occurs as the result of guns.
This past July 4 weekend, 52 persons were shot and 7 murdered in Chicago—a footnote for many. Too often extreme violence has become a common occurrence in many of America’s cities. However, we are foolish to think that if we ignore the senseless gun violence taking place in our inner cities that it would not have a contagious effect on our pristine and protected city areas. For an illustration, we only need to look at Chicago and a rash of gun violence taking place on our affluent “Magnificent Mile.”
When it comes to talking about those mass murders, there is no shortage of discussion about the culpability of the National Rifle Association, the violent media and popular culture, the lack of common-sense federal gun policies, and politics and political ineptness—not to mention our appetite for violence as a culture and that we fail to have public discussions about mental illness. No doubt, we can all add many other items to this list.
But when will we connect the dots and realize that addressing all senseless gun violence is not an inner city, black, white or poor issue but an American concern? Without doubt, both sides must come to the table—the powerful gun lobbyists and those who advocate for stricter gun control. This is not only about protecting our second amendment rights but also enacting sensible gun control laws and necessary measures to protect our way of life as Americans and ensure our future national security. Metal detectors have already become fixtures in our airports and many of our schools. It is time to say enough.
Dexter R. Voisin is an associate professor at SSA.