Gunslinging in America

Now that the National Rifle Association is playing hard ball by suggesting today that we provide armed guards in every school across America at a cost of nearly $6bn, it is quite clear that this conversation has gotten completely out of hand.

The idea that more guns will stem gun violence is categorically false. The data tells us otherwise. In fact, adding a new gun into any situation - at home or at work - greatly increases the likelihood of gun violence .

I shouldn't be surprised that the National Rifle Association (NRA) would propose this to Congress, a body it's largely bought off. This is fundamental to NRA belief and behaviour. In fact, the majority of NRA members, if polled, would likely consider a gun - if not multiple - an absolutely necessity in my Anacostia neighbourhood in southeast Washington, DC.  This is not alarmism, nor conjecture that falls from the truth. 

The typical NRA member, not knowing much about current conditions, would predicate his gun policy position on past precedent and 1990s statistics that showed 500 gun deaths per year in in the District of Columbia, regardless of the fact that 2012 is headed for a much smaller number, at under 100 homicides.  

Thanks to the Supreme Court ruling on DC v Heller, which struck down the District's handgun ban and affirmed an individual's right to bear arms, it's now that much easier for me to have a handgun in Anacostia. 

The NRA would be proud. Not that it was that difficult before. All one had to do was stop by any gun show in Virginia, pick up some weapons, and smuggle them into the District (illegally, of course, but gun trafficking is how guns get around). 

Now, post-Heller, the District's handguns, shotguns and rifles require no permit to purchase or owner licensing.  

Gun violence

From an NRA perspective, there is just cause to carry in my community. Last year, someone was shot - multiple times in the head - directly in front of my house. 

Moreover, the sound of gunshots, and the concomitant scream of sirens, is not uncommon in Anacostia and my neighbours have admitted to stockpiling their own defensive measures. 

But in my perspective, and statistically this bears out, if I had a handgun at home, it would significantly increase the likelihood that I would experience gun violence in my home or on my person. Irrespective of my belief in nonviolence, this is not a chance I'd like to take.

Here's where the talk of gun safety falls short. 

In the wake of Connecticut's mass shooting, we're witnessing an entirely reactionary approach to gun violence. Don't get me wrong. Yes, we need an assault weapons ban, as there's no good self-defensive reasoning for military grade weaponry on our streets. Yes, we need to ban high-capacity magazines and the easy access to ammunition online. Yes, we need better background checks and better mental health data, and yes, we need to better fund the perpetually under-resourced National Instant Criminal Background Check System and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. Yes, we need to make gun trafficking a federal crime; it's remarkable that it isn't. And yes, both political parties are to blame for preventing this from happening and for allowing gun numbers to grow to 300m, a 50 percent increase from 200m in merely 15 years.  

Slowing the 100,000 gun-related injuries per year, 30,000 of which result in death, however, won't happen from a simple upgrade in gun controls and gun safety, though that'd surely help.  

At the root of gun violence is something much more insidious. Look at any of the hard data on the geography of gun violence: The majority of it consistently corresponds and correlates strongly with poverty and inequality. 

This should come as no surprise to anyone who knows anything about how shame or guilt works in instigating violence. In societies with higher poverty and inequality rates - keep in mind that America is breaking recent records on both fronts - shame especially, and consequently violence, is quite prevalent. Don't take my word for it. Look at James Gilligan's Harvard faculty writings on preventing violence, Richard Florida's reporting at The Atlantic on the geography of violence, The Economist Intelligence Unit's quantitative peace indices, or The Equality Trust's data. The findings are consistent.

Combustible situation

While this is the softer side of preventing violence, to ignore it is a fool's errand - especially in Anacostia where unemployment is 35 percent, poverty is pervasive and educational achievement is leagues below the rest of the District.

Think about it. If I'm poor, can't provide for my family, have little to no education to stand on, and can't afford health care when my child gets sick, how do you think I'd feel, especially if someone or something disrespected me? Or if the District did a disservice to my neighbourhood, like Metro's plans to cancel bus services in southeast, which is the primary access to my job? Or if the District's City Council only saw value in my community for its cheap condo-building potential? Frankly, I'd be pissed and I'd want to fight back. 

Viewed through this lens, I can understand why young men in my neighbourhood, or any neighbourhood in America, would want to take up arms. That doesn't mean it's legitimate but I can certainly see where they're coming from.

Now couple America's high rates of poverty and inequality with our culture of violence that promulgates the idea that a gun gives you power (thank you Hollywood filmmaking, America's endless war-making, and violent video gaming), and you've got the makings of a seriously combustible situation.

This is what we must focus on, not merely gun bans and better mental health data reporting. The NRA isn't the only culprit in the room, perpetuating the propensity for violence in America. 

We are all culpable, for allowing poverty and inequality to remain pervasive, for promoting policies that exacerbate these problems (see fiscal cliff conversations), and for doing little to reduce the educational achievement and economic opportunity gaps in this country.

There is a reason why violence is rare in countries and locales where poverty is low and equality is high. It is time we focused on that for a change.  

Michael Shank is an adjunct professor at George Mason University's School for Conflict Analysis and Resolution.