Guns and the Erosion of Community

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Over the fourth of July weekend there were over 540 shootings involving 516 injuries and 189 deaths by gun violence in the United States according to the Gun Violence Archive as reported by NPR. Several other news sources also reported these horrific numbers. Similarly, politicians and city officials from around the country are speaking out about the increase in violence over the last year. Some estimate the rise in  urban homicide rates to have increased by 30 percent in the last year. But let’s be clear, the rise in violence is almost exclusively due to the rise in gun violence. Guns are the key.

Few have made the connection that Kight makes between the number of background checks for gun permits and the increase in homicides by gun. Background check requests are reportedly one of the best measures of gun buying in the US since there is no formal method to track gun sales. March 2021 set a new record of background checks at over 4.7 million. Kentucky out ranks all states with 73,900 per 100,000 people for numbers of background checks. Illinois is second (58.2K). Minnesota is 6th in the country with 16.8k/100k. It is estimated that as many as 400 million guns are circulating in the US with an estimated 39 percent of households owning guns.

The number of gun and ammunition sales in this country has also risen by alarming rates. The Des Moines Register reports those numbers “skyrocketed in June” 2020 following George Floyd’s murder and the Black Lives Matter (BLM) protests. Estimates are that gun sales increased by 150% since the COVID-19 pandemic began. Gun sales all around the country have been at record levels since last year. The National Shooting Sports Foundation “estimates that 8.4 million people bought their first firearm in 2020”. Unprecedented demand has created an “ammunition shortage” to fill and use those guns.

Simultaneously, the past year has brought erosion of community. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, many schools, workplaces, and places of worship shut down. Community connections were lost; families were isolated in their homes; social trust in the system deteriorated. Community connection leads to increased concern for others through a developed sense of community for all. Disconnection thus leads to less commitment to social justice. Concurrently, the murder of George Floyd and the BLM protests have raised awareness about the treatment of black and brown people by police, as well as contributed to heightened resistance to systemic racism. Ironically, the racial upheaval of last year has also increased resistance to acknowledging systemic racism as illustrated by states banning the teaching of Critical Race Theory in schools. Increasing polarization of the political sphere was also exacerbated by the election fall out and the US Capital riots of Jan. 6, 2021. And yet, all too many of us think violence and see racial differences. Violence is stereotypically attributed to racialized others. However, the rise in gun violence may have another source—the sheer number of guns in our society.

Why are we not making the connection between shootings and gun sales? Violence breeds violence. If we continue to believe that human life is expendable in order to ensure our safety the numbers of shootings will rise. If we continue to conceptualize safety as an individual experience, we will fail to make the world safe. If we continue to conceptualize others as the enemy rather than our sisters/brothers we will continue to fear and mythologize about “those people” coming to get us. If we continue to divide rather than connect, we will continue to see more shootings. The racialization of violence must be debunked and deconstructed.

Last month my book group read Jonathon Metzl’s Dying of Whiteness (2019). Metzl does a fabulous job of connecting racialized fears of whites and the increasing numbers of deaths of white people—not by the mythologized racial other but all too often by their own hands. In the book, Metzl unpacks the racial disparities of gun violence including the overwhelming numbers of white men who commit suicide by gun. He concludes, “The data overwhelmingly suggests that more guns mean more deaths, particularly for the very people whose privileges and potencies Man Cards and pro-gun policies claim to restore” (108). Not only is Metzl accurately depicting gun violence as largely male, but it is disproportionately white. Importantly, the rates of homicide are vastly intraracial, meaning whites are far more likely to be killed by other whites, and blacks are more likely to be killed by blacks. The fear of a racialized other coming after us is largely a myth, unless we are talking about police violence. Black men are disproportionately killed by police; they are about 2.5 times more likely to be killed by police over the life course than are white men.

I have written before about love as the antidote to increasing violence and disconnection. I don’t think the message is understood by many, at least not those rushing to buy their own guns. The way to end the violence is not by arming ourselves with guns. We need to invest in community and making connections, in education and curiosity, not guns (whether they are owned by individuals or police). Rather than arming ourselves and “protecting” our individual homes we should open the doors and invite those strangers in. We need to (re)create community by crossing the borders and boundaries that we so dearly draw around our property and “blood” family. We are all kin, and we all inhabit this earth with each other. Creating safety for others will increase our own. Community and connection are better building blocks to a future than guns and ammunition.

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  • September 6 2021 at 11:45 am
    Gereon Kopf

    Profressor Kunkel, thank you very much for your thoughtful analysis of an epidemic problem. Your suggestion to use "love as antidote" and to put our energy into community-building sounds very promising!

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