Gun Bans Aren't the Only Answer to America's Violence Problem

We must address poverty and inequality if we hope to curb America's violence problem.

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With New York State legislature laying down the law on gun control, and with the White House taskforce announcing similar measures, it is clear that the National Rifle Association isn't ruling this roost—at least at the state legislature and executive branch levels. The verdict is still out on Congress, however, given the NRA's heavy financial influence over the years.

Despite recent meritorious attempts to keep assault weapons, high capacity magazines, and online and gun show sales to a minimum, all this talk of gun safety will still fall short of significantly curbing violence. Slowing the 100,000 gun-related injuries per year, 30,000 of which result in death, won't happen from a simple upgrade in gun controls and gun safety, though that'd surely help. 

[See a collection of political cartoons on gun control and gun rights.]

At the root of gun violence, however, is something much more insidious. The mass shooting by a middle class person with mental illness is the exception to the rule. To be clear, America needs an assault weapons ban, as there's no good self-defensive reasoning for military grade weaponry on our streets. America needs to ban high-capacity magazines and the easy access to ammunition online. America needs better background checks and better mental health data, and we need to better fund the perpetually under-resourced National Instant Criminal Background Check System and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. America needs to make gun trafficking a federal crime; it's remarkable that it isn't. And both political parties are to blame for preventing this from happening and for allowing gun numbers to grow to 300 million, a 50 percent increase from 200 million in merely 15 years. 

Here's where the real work is needed, however, in preventing gun violence. 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.

[The Gun Control Debate, in Plain English]

A gun is often used to undo the damage done by shame or guilt. 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.

Improving the equitable distribution of resources, then, is necessary for Americans to get ahead, get insured, get educated, and get a job, all of which helps with getting respect. 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, or The Equality Trust's data in the United Kingdom. The findings are consistent.

This is the softer side of preventing violence but to ignore it is a fool's errand. 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.

[See a collection of political cartoons on the economy.]

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


Adjunct professor at George Mason University's School for Conflict Analysis and Resolution
Senior fellow at the French American Global Forum
Senior aide to a Democratic member of Congress