Monday, August 5, 2013

Guns and the Different Planets We Inhabit

Recently I took a driving trip that involved substantial stretches on the road by myself. I used the time to catch up on some podcasts I had been saving for some time, but hadn't had the chance to listen to. In particular, I was able to get all the way through a two-part series put out by This American Life on reporting they had done on Harper High School in the fall of 2012, aired in February of this year. You can find the episodes here and here; I highly recommend them (fair warning: they are depressing).

In the show, the reporters present a series of stories gleaned from spending 5 months (fall semester 2012) at Harper High, a predominantly black high school on the south side of Chicago. Although it is well-run and well-kept within the building it is clearly in a rough neighborhood, and the majority of the reporting focuses on violence (shootings) involving current and recent students. Pretty much all of this violence takes place outside the school building itself, but it nevertheless has a profound impact on the school and the students. Over the year prior to the reporting (the 2011-12 school year), 29 current and former students had been shot, 8 of them fatally.

The discussions reporters had with students and staff were remarkably frank and matter-of-fact, both about the violence that these young people had witnessed (many if not most had seem someone shot in front of them) and about the social and economic systems that sustained and encouraged that violence. The discussions on gangs blew apart most common conceptions about what gangs are and are not, and how and why violence among these rival tribes occurs.

At the end of the report, the host mentioned that they had gotten a tweet after the first episode from a listener who accused them of finding the most violent high school anywhere, implying that they were blowing the problem out of proportion by focusing on an outlier case. In response, the last segment of episode 2 is simply a role call of roughly a dozen principals and superintendents from cities around the country citing similar numbers of casualties among their students. This is clearly not an isolated problem, except insofar as it is isolated in the poorest inner-city regions within major American cities.

And therein lies the disconnect. It struck me as I listened to 15 and 16 year old black kids matter-of-factly talk about guns - where to get them, how much they cost, how to keep them hidden, which kinds are the most desirable. The national conversation about guns and gun control over the past year in the United States has been almost completely dominated by middle-class and upper-middle-class white men. Occasionally a white woman, usually a prominent one, will get a voice in (say, Gabby Giffords). Occasionally, a prominent and well-to-do black man will be let in as well (Leonard Pitts or Thomas Sowell). The debate has a largely theoretical tone, focusing on rare cases like the Aurora theater shooting or the Sandy Hook tragedy. High-minded ideas about the Bill of Rights and the Founders' Intent are bandied about. Wayne LaPierre expounds his now-famous "good man with a gun" theory.

Meanwhile, the vast majority of those actually affected by gun violence - young urban poor, often minority kids - are left out completely. Those Harper High kids could tell you with precision and cold calculation the value of a 30-round clip (it lets you keep shooting longer in a firefight, which is good since most shots miss - these kids are lousy marksmen). But if the NRA showed up with its arguments about the 2nd Amendment and Inalienable Rights penned by white slaveowners over 200 years ago, would we expect those urban black kids to understand, or care? Would the social workers in the school, who do their jobs with energy and enthusiasm day in and day out despite fearing for their lives, care about the niceties of whether this or that model of assault rifle can or can't be bought at a gun show with a background check? They live in a world so far removed from the pundits and pontificators that they might as well be on Mars.

Except that the decisions that result from the tussle among pundits, politicians, interest groups, and others - the wealthy chattering classes - have a very real impact on those poor black kids and teachers in south Chicago. In fact, the urban core suffers the consequences far more than the rest of us do. Whether I can or can't buy an AR-15, or a 30-round clip, at my local gun store is largely peripheral to my life, and (however much they may protest) to the lives of nearly all wealthy white suburbanites who are the ones carrying out the argument. Nobody I know will die whether gun laws are tightened or loosened, whether 30-round clips are legal or illegal. Some conservatives will get into a high dudgeon about their "freedom being taken away", but this is largely the kind of freedom that wealthy people with very few real problems in the world can argue about - the epitome of the hashtag #firstworldproblems.

Back in the urban core, meanwhile, the fact that guns are freely available and that gun laws are being loosened on an ever-wider basis has real life-and-death consequences for those kids at Harper High. Police stats show that at least 40% of the guns in the Harper neighborhood come from straw purchases at nearby suburban gun stores and shows. When 30-round clips are readily available, more poor black kids die.

It was in this context that Chicago passed (and, to some degree, still maintains) incredibly strict handgun laws - the very kind that the NRA and their comfortable suburban members seek to get rid of. I have no idea whether such laws are effective or not - so far, the dent seems to be minimal. On the other hand, only a very great idiot would expect the NRA's call to arm everyone for "self-defense" to lead to anything other than a bloodbath in urban core areas already awash in petty violence. Those kids are Harper will tell you themselves - guns aren't for defending yourself when you're being shot at, they're for taking revenge against the people that shot your buddy. These kinds of "gang wars" go on for years, with nothing more at stake than pride, "turf", and survival.

The fact that the victims and perpetrators of violence are mostly poor, minority, and in the inner cities, while the pontificators (me included) are mostly white, wealthy, and well outside those inner city regions means that the "national conversation" on gun violence is neither national nor a conversation. It is a Kabuki argument between wealthy ideological tribes with no real material stake in the outcome - a political game played for money and votes and influence in Washington and in state capitols around the country. Those stuck in the urban killing zones, while they are in theory citizens with equal rights to the rest of us, live in a democracy in name only. They have no voice in the decisions that affect whether they are likely to live or die.

It is long past time that those people had a voice. Until they get it, the "gun debate" in our country is a worthless farce, akin to letting farmers with pickup trucks in Montana control mass transit policy in Boston, or Los Angeles plastic surgeons decide the fate of dairy farmers in Wisconsin. We would recognize this as injustice in just about any other area of public policy - the cries of "No taxation without representation!" are quick to run at Tea Party rallies when decisions they care about are on the line. But because the victims and perpetrators of gun violence (and often, they are both) are poor, and confined to urban slums, and largely not white, it seems somehow natural that the rest of us should decide their fate for them. I don't know how to solve that problem, nor do I expect a resolution any time soon. But if the NRA or other gun-interest-groups want any thinking people to take them seriously, they should stop arrogating to themselves, from their suburban and rural base, the power to decide the fate of people who live in another world entirely.

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