Arms and race

Young African-American and Latino men pay for Americans' right to bear arms
David Cole

IN the days following the Newtown massacre the nation's newspapers were filled with heart-wrenching pictures of the innocent victims. The slaughter was unimaginably shocking. But the broader tragedy of gun violence is felt mostly not in leafy suburbs, but in America's inner cities.

The right to bear arms typically invokes the romantic image of a cowboy toting a rifle on the plains. In modern-day America, though, the more realistic picture is that of a young black man gunned down in his prime in a dark alley. When we celebrate gun rights, we all too often ignore their disproportionate racial burdens. Any effort to address gun violence must focus on the inner city.

Last year Chicago had some 500 homicides, 87 per cent of them gun-related. In the city's public schools, 319 students were shot in the 2011-12 school year, 24 of them fatally. African-Americans are 33 per cent of the Chicago population, but about 70 per cent of the murder victims. The same is true in other cities.

Racial disparities in gun violence far outstrip those in almost any other area of life. Black unemployment is double that for whites, as is black infant mortality. But young black men die of gun homicide at a rate eight times that of young white men. Could it be that the laxity of the nation's gun laws is tolerated because its deadly costs are borne by the segregated black and Latino populations of North Philadelphia and Chicago's South Side?

The history of gun regulation is inextricably interwoven with race. Some of the nation's most stringent gun laws emerged in the South after the Civil War, as Southern whites feared what newly freed slaves might do if armed. At the same time, Northerners saw the freed slaves' right to bear arms as critical to protecting them from the Ku Klux Klan.

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