Why Liberals Need to Reconsider Gun Control in Light of Race

What do we think about when we think about guns? For most Stanford students, a few simple words probably spring to mind. Words that denote towns or schools, but connote terrifying acts of mass violence. Columbine. Virginia Tech. Aurora. Newtown. Understandably, we fixate on such national disasters not only because they are highly publicized, but also because we fear a similar incident happening on our campus. Few of us have reason to own or regularly come in contact with guns (indeed, because of the misguided Gun-Free School Zone Act of 1995, California students are prohibited from having guns on campus). Many Stanford students will never see their lives directly affected by a gun unless The Farm becomes the site of a school shooting. When it comes to gun violence, then, school shootings seem most immediate, most concerning, most frightening.

They shouldn’t.

Real violence is happening in our backyard, right now. Unfortunately, it largely escapes our notice. Recently, five people were shot in a gang-related incident in East Palo Alto – once given the moniker “murder capital of the United States.” A six-year-old girl, caught in the crossfire, ended up in the hospital. Gang violence is a more pressing issue than random mass shootings; the latter only receive a disproportionate amount of attention because their infrequent nature makes them charged, arresting news stories.

Few Stanford students have been exposed to the harshest realities plaguing other young adults. (Indeed, fully one half of Stanford students do not receive need-based financial aid from the university, indicating that their families make above $200,000 a year.) Unfortunately, the Stanford bubble so effectively isolates most of us from gang violence and its effects that we fail to consider those whom gun violence most impacts, those who live in the gang-infested inner cities of the US, those whose deaths rarely make the news because they are not considered unusual, random, or noteworthy. In 2010, gang-related gun violence accounted for about 20% of all US homicides, despite gang members constituting only about 0.25% of the US population. Gang violence is one of the major factors driving our country’s homicide rates higher than those of other developed nations.

One of the major strategies to reduce gang violence has been the implementation of stricter gun control measures. Indeed, Chicago – which last year saw 500 murders, more than the countries of Australia, Saudi Arabia, and Jordan *combined *over the same time period – has some of the harshest gun control laws on the books. Concealed carry is completely illegal throughout the city, and open carry is illegal in the majority of cases. Chicago’s obscene murder rate makes it clear that these harsh gun control measures aren’t working. People still carry guns. Gang members who are not legally allowed to own firearms? They own firearms. If they cared about obeying the law, they wouldn’t be in gangs.

This situation essentially leaves law enforcement officers with two options: give up, or crack down harder on those who illegally acquire firearms. The former option does not solve anything. If laws are not going to be enforced, what’s the point in enacting them? The second option, however, would have some negative consequences that many liberals who casually advocate gun control as a fix-all solution would be well advised to contemplate.

Unfortunately, the criminal justice system exhibits prejudice against people of color. While there are certainly fair and unprejudiced police officers, attorneys, judges, and jurors, racism is not dead.  Both unintentional and intentional racism make the system as a whole unfavorable toward people of color. Black and Latino people are incarcerated at much higher rates than white people are. According to the Department of Justice, black individuals have a six times higher chance of ever being incarcerated than white people, and Latinos have a four times higher chance than white people. One out of every three black men will spend some time in prison in his lifetime. The police are four times as likely to use force against a black person as against a white person. Black men are also twice as likely as white men to be arrested; when sentenced, they receive longer sentences. Arrests related to the War on Drugs disproportionately affect black people. According to the FBI, between 1980 and 2007 – the last year for which data were available – black Americans were arrested for drug-related crimes at rates 2.8 to 5.5 times higher than white Americans.  However, a survey by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services found that between 2002 and 2010 black Americans used illicit drugs at rates only approximately 1.4 times higher than white Americans. The same survey found that black adolescents dealt drugs at rates about 1.2 times higher than their white peers (data for adults was unavailable). The evidence strongly suggests that black people are being arrested at rates disproportionate to the rates at which they commit drug-related crimes.

Unfortunately, the recent political clamor arising primarily from the left for a similar “War on Guns” will only continue to disadvantage people of color. As the above statistics indicate, the War on Drugs has disproportionately targeted black and Latino Americans. There is little reason to believe a “War on Guns” would not do the same.

Eighty-eight percent of gang members are people of color. Attempting to crack down on gang violence by implementing stricter gun control laws— and by subsequently enforcing those laws —is going to put even more young black and Latino men in jail.

That shouldn’t be anyone’s goal.

In particular, the left – historically concerned with the plight of disadvantaged members of our society – needs to carefully examine the unintended consequences of gun control. Liberals champion both social justice causes but also increased restrictions on gun ownership. However, these two goals are at odds. We cannot fight institutionalized racism by giving more power to those same institutions that exhibit racism. But harsher gun control laws will necessarily give more power to our government – an institution that, however inadvertently, exhibits racism.

If we want to reduce gun violence, the answer is not gun control. Gun control is a seductive approach because it suggests we can solve the problem of gang violence simply by writing a few laws. This is patently false. If anything, gun control will *worsen *gang violence by further disadvantaging people of color.

Gun control is attempting to put a Band-Aid on a structural problem in our society. If you fight skin cancer with make-up, you’re going to die. Guns are a symptom of the issue, not the issue itself. We don’t reduce gang violence – and consequently America’s gun-related homicide rate – by limiting access to guns. We reduce gang violence by limiting gangs.

Of course, it’s a lot harder to improve conditions in the inner cities than it is to pass gun control legislation. We could start with a massive overhaul of the education system, which would include ensuring schools in low-income neighborhoods receive as much funding as those in wealthy suburbs. We could start by at least considering some other ways to increase access to high-quality education, perhaps by reducing the power of teachers’ unions or investing in preschool programs. We could start by focusing our efforts on ways to make the illegal drug trade less lucrative, one of which could be legalizing drugs. We could at the very least start thinking about these issues, begin a national conversation on them, encourage scholars to research them. We could discuss ways to reduce the appeal of gangs. We could fund studies on how to revitalize struggling neighborhoods. We could tackle these deep-rooted problems head-on, cognizant of the enormity of the task ahead of us, but also aware of the tremendous benefits to be reaped by devoting our energies to these issues. We could stop pretending that gun control will solve the major structural issues facing our society. We could protect the right of all Americans, guaranteed in the Constitution, to own firearms.

Liberals need to re-evaluate their fervent support of gun control in light of its negative consequences for minorities. We all want to reduce the US homicide rate. But gun control is not the answer.

Miriam Pollock is the Opinions Editor for the Review. She can be reached at mpollock@stanford.edu*. *********

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