Guns Don’t Kill People, Systemic Inequality Does

Another day in America, another pile of bodies, and another set of cries for gun control. Predictably, the Atlanta and Boulder and Indianapolis mass public shootings were followed by calls to ban AR-style rifles. President Biden proposes to subject “ghost guns” to background checks and place pistol-stabilizing braces under the National Firearms Act as short-barreled rifles.

This marks a return to the old, pre-pandemic normal in America in which extremely rare cases of large-scale homicide bring efforts to regulate guns and gun parts in ways so general they are unlikely to have the desired effect of dramatically reducing gun violence.

As tragic as they are, overemphasis on these dramatic but rare events diverts our attention from the vast majority of homicides which involve fewer than four victims, victims who are shot with regular old handguns that are acquired in transactions not covered by criminal background checks.

Having studied American gun culture for a decade now, I find myself returning repeatedly to an important truth: Everyday gun violence in the United States is concentrated in places and among people that are most affected by economic and racial inequality. Efforts to reduce this violence should, therefore, be equally concentrated on addressing its causes in these same areas. Doing so shifts efforts at intervention away from guns per se, a move that allows us to circumvent federal gridlock on gun legislation and as well as legal challenges to gun regulation. We can carve a political path forward right now by decoupling violence reduction from gun control.

Among Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) member nations ranked as high-income by the World Bank, the United States has the highest overall homicide rate, which is driven by gun homicides. But the problem with these national-level statistics is that no one lives in the U.S. overall. We live in particular cities that have very different homicide rates.

While Baltimore looks like Guatemala or El Salvador, Austin is more similar to Canada or Sweden. There is `also considerable variation within cities. St. Louis is segregated into neighborhoods with homicide rates higher than Honduras and those with rates that would make Japan jealous. Even within more dangerous neighborhoods in any given city, homicide is concentrated in certain identifiable social networks.

Focusing attention on mass public shootings and the overall homicide rate leads to advocacy for blanket policies passed at the federal level, like AR-style rifle bans and universal background checks. But neither of these policies are guaranteed to reduce highly concentrated, everyday violence, according to the RAND Corporation’s comprehensive 2018 evaluation of gun policy in America.  Even if these policies were effective, under current filibuster rules in the U.S. Senate, neither is likely to pass.

An alternative approach accepts that there are many Americas, some of which are like our high-income OECD counterparts and others more resembling the developing world. Resources, not untargeted gun regulations, should flow to the areas of greatest need. This is exactly what President Biden’s recently announced “American Jobs Plan” seeks to do in allocating $5 billion to community-based violence prevention programs.

Although the details remain to be worked out, these funds should go to programs that have already proved effective in reducing violence locally. I am thinking of programs that combine the efforts of police, social welfare agencies, and community members, like Operation Ceasefire and other focused deterrence programs, or those that work outside of state agencies, like Cure Violence and other public health approaches.

As Thomas Abt argues in his book Bleeding Out, violence and poverty exist as a truly vicious cycle. By taking on violence directly, disadvantaged communities can realize their economic potential, further reducing violence.

These community-based efforts have the additional political benefit of not requiring across-the-board efforts to regulate guns themselves. As such, they could garner support from the gun-owning population, especially its moderate to left-wing. An article I recently co-authored shows that 20% of gun owners in America self-identify as politically liberal. Another two in five see themselves as political moderates. Thousands of these gun owners are members of the Liberal Gun Club (LGC). Although not as large and loud as the National Rifle Association, the LGC advocates for reducing violence involving firearms through root cause mitigation. This entails specifically addressing systemic inequality and directing our resources to the most problematic behaviors and most affected people.

Investing in violence-affected neighborhoods is certainly not a cure all. It will not eliminate all community, workplace, intimate partner, or mass public violence. But by emphasizing violence and its causes we can bypass the unending debate over controlling guns and immediately begin to address the problem where it is most needed. As a t-shirt sold by the liberal-owned gun store Rocket Armory reads, “Guns Don’t Kill People, Systemic Inequality Does.”

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