On Wednesday, January 16, President Obama introduced a number of reforms aimed at reducing gun violence, both through executive order – presidential decrees that bypass Congress – and proposed legislation for Congressional approval. By approaching gun control, a contentious and largely untouchable issue in American politics, Obama has shown considerable political bravery.
Over 925 Americans have been killed by guns in the past month since the Sandy Hook massacre, a tragedy which renewed the long-dormant debate over gun control. But the mere presence of over 300 million guns in circulation across the country indicates that the issue cannot be easily tackled, even with the president’s extensive proposals. Let’s take a look at some of the most important ones.
There are a number of sensible reforms that Obama has enacted. He put pressure on Congress to confirm a new director Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms director, a position left unfilled for six years. An executive order allows the Center for Disease Control and Prevention to conduct research on gun violence, something that it has inexplicably been barred from doing for the past few years. Health care providers will be encouraged to inquire about and report issues of gun safety in the homes of their patients. This is particularly important in light of accidental gun deaths, a dishearteningly regular occurrence – approximately five children die or are injured every day because of gun accidents. Additionally, Obama proposed that Congress spend $20 million to boost the National Violent Death Reporting System, which studies the “how and why” of gun deaths across the country – an important step that could lead to heightened awareness about gun violence.
This is a small selection of the reforms Obama outlined. Some proposals, such as an assault weapons ban and a ban on high-capacity magazines, stand little chance of Congressional approval. Others, like those outlined above, are sensible policies that should have been in effect long ago, but will do little to affect the everyday reality of gun violence.
A full list of the reforms can be found here.
The reforms, largely inspired by the Sandy Hook massacre, place a clear emphasis on preventing mass shootings (an incidence for which the US’s rate is eight times higher than other OECD countries). While mass shootings are traumatizing, tragic, and highly newsworthy, they do not constitute the large majority of gun deaths in the country. Out of the approximately 8,700 homicides committed yearly with firearms, victims of mass shootings regularly constitute less than 100 deaths (a mass shooting being defined as four or more people). This is a tiny fraction of total gun homicides.
Considering that firearms kill 30,000 people a year, that number makes up an even tinier fraction of overall gun deaths. In light of this, Obama’s proposals to curb gun violence are overly focused on measures to prevent mass shootings, as opposed to the more common causes of gun deaths. The proposed ban on assault weapons and high capacity magazines ignores the fact that 75% of gun homicides involve handguns. The proposed mental health program, designed to help treat would-be killers, does not take into account that those with mental health issues are more likely to be the victims of violent crime, rather than its perpetrators.
Gun homicides are largely concentrated in poor, urban areas of the country. Poor communities of color are adversely affected by gun violence – both in terms of victims of violence and the disproportionate number of those sent to prison for gun-related crimes. Approximately 70% of total murder victims are black. The new reforms do almost nothing to tackle this disparity.
In fact, they may make it worse. In an effort to prevent more school shootings like the Sandy Hook massacre, the administration is giving school districts across the country the option of placing 1,000 new “school resource officers” in place to protect schools. These officers, trained as police, will likely be concentrated in schools with large populations of students of color.
Placing more officers in schools increases the likelihood of school arrests and heavy policing of the school environment, sending many young children on a fast-track to prison. This phenomenon is labeled the “school to prison pipeline” – a system by which “zero tolerance” policies in schools lead to suspension and expulsion for minor infractions. Those disadvantaged children are more likely to disengage with coursework or drop out of school, often due to a lack of supervision or constructive activities. In such an environment, these children are far more likely to become involved in the criminal justice system.
Considering that black men make up a huge portion of the country’s already bursting-at-the-seams prison system, boosting that number by placing more police officers in schools will do far more harm than good. Out of two million prisoners across the country, 70% are non-white. One in eleven black men are currently in prison. While crime rates have actually declined over the past decade, the criminal justice system perpetually targets men and women of color, punishing and demoralizing instead of rehabilitating. Meanwhile, gun violence and crime continue to haunt marginalized communities of color.
To actually affect the murder rate by firearms in the US, gun control legislation needs to be paired with criminal justice reform, desperately needed to stop the targeting of poor communities of color by law enforcement. It also needs to recognize the actual root causes of violence entrenched in American culture – race and poverty being top-priority – in order to effectively combat the gun epidemic.
– Molly Korab