What Will Gun Control Do for Inner City Violence?

Meaningful talk on gun control in the United States must include what to do about violence in our impoverished inner cities.

Shoes placed atop school desks are part of a memorial to 20 Chicago Public School students killed by gunfire since last September, displayed at a rally in downtown Chicago, Tuesday, April 1, 2008. Several hundred students, joined by politicians, school officials and church leaders, attended the rally to call for stiffer gun control measures.

In the aftermath of the horrific shooting in Newtown, Conn., many Americans have found themselves wondering what could be done to prevent such tragedies in the future. Stricter gun control legislation, better mental health services, and less emphasis on violence in movies and video games have been proffered as solutions. What much of the debate misses, however, is that high-profile massacres like the one at Sandy Hook are a drop in the bucket of this country's true gun violence epidemic: the one in our inner cities. On net, taking steps to keep weapons out of the hands of the deranged—if there even are ways to keep people bent on wreaking havoc from acquiring the tools with which to do so—would actually do little to save lives.

This is because the overwhelming majority of people who die in gun-related homicides are not murdered by crazed strangers in schools, malls, and movie theaters. Most of the nonsuicide gun deaths in this country happen in densely populated, lower-income urban environments like New Orleans, Detroit, and Washington, D.C. Here, gangs and poverty are the proximate causes of the violence, not a lack of access to counseling.

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

It is poor and minority Americans who are disproportionately affected by gun violence. The Brady Campaign estimates that 21.5 African-Americans per 100,000 population died in a firearm violence in 2007, more than twice the rate for white Americans According to the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, African-Americans make up 13 percent of the population but account for a staggering 54 percent of all firearm murders.

People who enter into the gun debate without understanding this reality tend to be attracted to policies that make them feel good because "something has been done" to make firearms slightly harder to come by. Rarely do they take the time to weigh how much those policies would actually do to combat the problem on the ground. In fact, addressing the incentives that lead young people in our inner cities to gravitate toward crime—incentives like the ability to gain money and status by trafficking in drugs when few other opportunities are available—would do more to begin to address the gun violence endemic in America than any of the well-intentioned but likely ineffectual "gun control" laws that could be passed.

[Read the U.S. News Debate: Should High-Capacity Ammunition Magazines Be Banned?]

Ending the drug war and legalizing drugs is probably the single most dramatically positive step that could be taken to rehabilitate these places, because without a black market to sustain and enable them, much of the rationale for gangs to exist at all dries up. Yet the conversation since Newtown has been devoid of honest dialogue over what we could do to stop the drug trade from being the most promising method of social advancement for our most vulnerable young people.

No meaningful debate about guns can ignore the fact that our impoverished inner cities are the true ground zero of homicides in this country. And no meaningful debate about our inner cities can overlook the hard truth that much of the violence they're afflicted with is itself a product of drug prohibition, which makes the youths with the least to lose perfect candidates for careers in crime.

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  • Corrected on : A previous version of this blog post misstated the deathrate for African Americans due to firearm violence in 2007. The Brady campaign estimates that 21.5 African Americans per 100,000 population died due to firearm violence in that year.