This OpEd appeared in the Salt Lake Tribune July 30, 2016
Written by Elizabeth Love, GVPC Intern
To Understand Race and Gun Violence, Utahns Need to See People, Not Stats
A few weeks ago, a 16-year-old Hispanic boy, who is my age and attended my high school, was killed in a west Salt Lake City drive-by shooting after a family barbecue. A few local news outlets reported the incident, his family set up a Go Fund Me, people who knew him grieved and those who didn't went on with their lives.
I began to wonder what the reaction would have been had the same incident happened to a white boy in an east side neighborhood. I can't imagine anything less than mass hysteria. If it were to happen regularly, Sens. Mike Lee and Orrin Hatch perhaps would find it in themselves to support gun control or risk being voted out of office.
But right now, our senators don't have to support gun control. Could it be because their voter bloc is spared from gun violence? Utah is very white demographically, and the brunt of gun violence is suffered by minorities. When Lee appears on Fox News and claims the problem is terrorism, not gun violence, it may be easy for us to believe. The 88 Americans killed each day by gun violence in America are invisible to us. Their stories aren't slapped across the front page like when there is a mass shooting or terror attack. We're not told about the families they're leaving behind. Sometimes we're told nothing at all. Even gun control champions like Connecticut Sen. Chris Murphy and California Sen. Diane Feinstein rarely try to push gun control bills through Congress in reaction to anything other than mass shootings. We hear so little about all other types of gun violence that gun violence and terrorism almost feel the same.
The numbers, of course, tell a different story. Gun violence takes far more American lives than terrorism, the two aren't even comparable. So why aren't we bombarded with stories about each and every shooting in the same way we're bombarded with stories about terrorism? Could it be that our race issues and our gun issues aren't mutually exclusive?
Maybe gun violence is just another side of us seeing minority lives as somehow less than our own. I have a hard time believing that if the leading cause of death for white males aged 18-34 was firearm homicide, like it is for black males, that we wouldn't do anything about it. So why do we let that happen to our minority population?
Is racism in our country still so explicit that we see minority lives as the collateral damage to our weak gun laws? I'd like to hope not. I'd like to hope that it comes from a lack of knowledge and experience, that if we or our senators lived the gun violence, if we saw the 88 lives lost per day as people not numbers, that we would have more humanity, regardless of skin color.
Maybe if we heard their stories like we do after high profile attacks, things would be different. If every person shot and killed wasn't just described as a gender, age and race, but as man about to be married, a daughter who had just graduated or a mother with kids grieving her. Maybe then the feelings of grief and outrage could be transported across town just as they are across oceans after terror attacks. Maybe if we just reported on every shooting victim as if they were white and in a rich neighborhood, maybe then things would change.
A recent letter to the editor, claiming that gun control is a “sham and a waste of time” incorporates some of the popular misconceptions about guns and gun-control laws. First, the Second Amendment rights of individuals are not open-ended. In fact, they are generally limited to the right to own a gun for self-protection in one’s home. The notion that the Second Amendment proscribes the adoption of reasonable controls on possession and use of firearms is a fiction perpetuated by the gun lobby to keep the public fearful that someone is “coming for their guns.” Yet, how many guns have been confiscated from law-abiding citizens in the eight years of the Obama presidency? Zero.
What has happened is that the gun industry and gun lobby have successfully appealed to many citizens’ sense of fear—fear that has fueled the largest increase in the sale of guns and ammunition in the gun industry’s history. According to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, the number of firearms manufactured annually in the U.S. has more than doubled in the last eight years. A 1994 survey showed that gun owners primarily bought guns for recreation and hunting. A similar 2016 survey showed that Americans now buy guns out of fear. Fear sells guns—lots of guns—and it feeds the gun-industry’s lust for more sales and profits, while adding to the American death toll.
The truth that the gun lobby and gun industry do not want you to know is that you are not statistically safer with a gun. A gun is much more likely to be used in a suicide, domestic violence assault or unintentional shooting, or to be stolen and used in a violent crime than it is to be used to protect family and property. Further, a home that has a gun is much more likely to be the scene of homicide or serious accident than is a home without guns. It is startling that more Utahns now die from guns than from car accidents.
Suicide rates have steadily increased over the past 15 years, especially in Utah. Means matter. Guns are responsible for more than half of all suicide deaths, and states—like Utah—with higher gun ownership have higher suicide rates. According to a study in the American Journal of Public Health, domestic-violence victims are five times more likely to be killed if their abuser has access to a gun. These incidents also often claim the lives of intervening police officers. Another report in Accident Analysis and Prevention shows that states with the highest percentage of guns in the home had nine times the rate of unintentional firearm deaths compared to states with the lowest gun levels. Many of these incidents involve children unintentionally shooting family members. Not only is this devastating for the loss of life, but also for the emotional toll it takes on surviving family members.
As for the recent Ohio State University stabbings, no one was killed. Had the assailant used a firearm, the result would surely have been more tragic. Most survivors of active assault situations will tell you that they would not have been safer carrying a firearm. Open-carry enthusiasts in Dallas actually hampered police efforts to identify and disarm a sniper.
Easy access to firearms has made our country less safe for all of us. How to reduce the tragedies of gun violence? States that have enacted sensible gun laws, such as more rigorous background checks, longer waiting periods, safe storage and gun-proficiency requirements, have fewer gun deaths and injuries. Common-sense gun legislation does not infringe on the rights of responsible citizens and would save many American lives.