National Gun Violence Awareness Day and the Use of Deadly Force
Dawn GodboltDr. Dawn Godbolt is a Health Equity Fellow at the Center for Global Policy Solutions, where she focuses on policy and research developments related to the social determinants of health and health equity. She recently finished her Ph.D. in Sociology at Florida State University and is passionate about reducing health disparities in communities of color.
National Gun Violence Day is upon us, and it’s a poignant time to recall that gun violence touches all Americans, regardless of race, class, or gender. Every day, 93 people die from gun violence; more than half are teenagers and children. These numbers are so alarming that public health officials have long pushed for gun violence to be declared a public health issue, but there are forces resistant to that idea, including the CDC.
I deliberated for a while before writing about this subject, as gun violence is a nuanced issue.
I wasn’t sure if I should write about the NRA and white men’s steadfast belief that the Second Amendment applies only to them. This viewpoint is evidenced by their embargo on gun violence research, refusal to speak out against the armed white “militia” who took over the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, and refusal to acknowledge the disproportionate number of black victims of gun violence at the hands of police officers.
I also considered writing about the CDC’s director’s silence on gun violence as a public health crisis, despite many prominent public health officials imploring him to make statements.
It also crossed my mind to write about last year, when I lived and taught at a university in Florida, when I watched my students mourn their friends who were dancing at Pulse night club in Orlando when a shooter targeted the LGBQT community.
Then, I thought, instead, I should write about white suburban moms who seemingly are only outraged when elementary schools and college campuses are targeted; but Marc Lamont Hill already wrote an analysis of the Sandy Hook shooting and noted that the massacre was framed in public discourse as “things like this don’t happen here,” and suggests “things” and “here” serve to evoke racial differences. I also scrapped the idea when a friend pointed out that if the death of 20 predominantly white pre-school and first-grade children in Newtown, Conn., didn’t stir America’s consciousness, than nothing else would, certainly not the frequent deaths of black and brown kids in cities like Chicago and Washington, D.C.
Eventually, I decided to write about gun violence in communities of color. Not to highlight how underserved and disenfranchised minority communities have been plagued by street wars and gang crime for many years, but rather to discuss police as perpetrators of gun violence. Minority communities are under heightened surveillance by police forces that are predominantly white. This mismatch often results in a disproportionate number of black people dying at the hands of police officers. The chilling fact is that black men ages 19-34 are nine times more likely to be shot by the police than any other group of Americans.
Social media has highlighted the lack of hesitancy police have when using deadly force on black bodies. Look at the officer who fired a gun into a car, with a child in it, to murder Philando Castile, and the officer who shot and killed Tamir Rice, a black child playing with a toy gun in a park. In just the past month, police officers shot and killed three unarmed black teenagers in unrelated incidents, and then completely fabricated the narratives of why the teens were shot.
Alton Sterling. Michael Brown. Daravis Rogers. Terrence Crutcher. The list of names goes on. A study from Mapping Police Violence found that police officers killed more than 100 unarmed black people in 2015 alone. It is clear that black people, particularly men, are a target of gun violence, victims of execution by law enforcement. This is also made clear when a rash of armed whites are apprehended and taken into custody – alive.
The Obama administration released a presidential task force report on 21st century policing that included several recommendations on how police forces could reduce racial profiling and the use of deadly force against black men. However, with the Trump administration, we have seen a reversal in policy initiatives instilled to protect black lives. Removing the “Civil Rights” page from the White House website, and installing Jefferson Beauregard Sessions – a known racist who believes the federal government should not “interfere” in how police departments enforce the law – as the attorney general signals that black people, especially men, will continue to be targeted with gun violence.
I am not discounting gun violence in minority-dense inner cities. Gun violence is a problem in these communities and young black men are frequently responsible. There have been 65 shooting homicides in the D.C. metro area in 2017. Just this past weekend, there were six shootings in one night that left three people dead. It is also worth pointing out that minorities’ distrust of law enforcement, spawned by decades of mistreatment, is a barrier to making these communities safer.
Police intervention adds an additional layer to gun violence when racial profiling and use of deadly force are the default responses of police officers interacting with African Americans during routine traffic stops or when they are called for assistance. This is not okay.
Gun violence is a public health issue. No one should be a victim of gun violence. Not children in schools, people dancing in gay nightclubs, or unarmed black men at the hands of law enforcement officers. Today, on National Gun Violence Day, I implore everyone to give all instances of gun violence their full outrage and attention.