Magazine | February 20, 2017, Issue

Gun Culture in Black and White

The experience, and danger, of firearms varies by race

On December 17, 2015, a young Tennessee boy named Zaevion Dobson died a hero. Zaevion lived in Knoxville, Tenn., in one of its worst neighborhoods. He was 15 years old, a high-school football player, and universally hailed as a good kid, son, brother, friend, and teammate.

The last night of his life, he was hanging out with friends in his neighborhood when shots rang out. Three men had started firing into a crowd in apparent retaliation for an earlier gang-related shooting. Zaevion acted instantly, grabbing two girls and shielding them with his body. The fatal bullet struck him instead of them, and he died on the scene — apparently never regaining consciousness after his heroic act.

Zaevion was one of thousands of young black men who die from gun violence, but his heroic story rightly touched a nerve. The Knoxville police officer who announced his death broke down in tears. In Tennessee, his story spread like wildfire on social media, and soon the national networks picked it up.

Grown men are rarely as selfless as Zaevion. Greater love hath no man than to lay down his life for his friends, and the story of Zaevion’s Biblical sacrifice resonated at the highest levels. President Obama paid tribute to him, and ESPN rightly gave him its Arthur Ashe courage award. Michael B. Jordan narrated a powerful short documentary about Zaevion’s life and death, and Zaevion soon became a symbol of the movement to stop gun violence in America’s inner cities, and — yes — to impose gun control.

It is often said that where you stand depends on where you sit. In other words, your political opinions aren’t formed simply out of a rational, dispassionate ether from which you distill the pros and cons and philosophical implications of various policy proposals. Instead, political ideas often come from lived experience, from your family, friends, and neighborhood. As much as we like to think we’re immune to the bias of our experience, we’re not.

To test this hypothesis, let’s ask the following question: Are you afraid of gun violence? If you’re white, the answer is almost certainly an immediate “No.” As a general rule, when white people die to guns, it’s by their own hand. According to a 2015 Brookings Institution study, 77 percent of white gun deaths are from suicide. Only 19 percent are homicides. Even when you combine homicides and suicides, the white-male death rate from guns is approximately 16 per 100,000. For white women, the rate is less than five per 100,000.

If you’re black, on the other hand, it is entirely rational to immediately answer that yes, you are afraid of gun violence. If a white man dies from gunfire, the odds are that he pulled the trigger himself. If a black man dies from gunfire, the odds are that someone else pulled the trigger, usually another black man.

A staggering 82 percent of African-American gun deaths are homicides. Only 14 percent are suicides. The overall gun-death rate for black males is roughly double what it is for white males, and for black males between the ages of 20 and 29, the rate is approximately 89 per 100,000. As the Brookings study points out, this nearly matches Honduras’s overall murder rate, and Honduras is the murder capital of the world. Or, as Brookings scholars Richard Reeves and Sarah Holmes put it: “In 2013, firearm deaths accounted for over 11 percent of all years of potential life lost among the black population, but less than 6 percent of all years of potential life lost among the white population.”

Now let’s add an unexpected twist: Gun deaths are lowest in the population that owns the most guns. Fully 41 percent of white households report owning a gun, compared with only 19 percent of black households. Among white Americans, there are more guns, but there’s less crime. Among black Americans, there are fewer guns, but there’s more crime.

So is it any wonder that, say, a suburban white southerner is completely mystified by the notion that the world would be rendered safer if the law were changed to make it harder for him or his family to purchase a gun? After all, gun homicide is utterly alien to his experience, and people are generally not afraid of suicide in the same way that they are afraid of murder.

The gun in such homes is almost always a positive addition to family life. It helps protect from intruders, it allows hunters to hunt, it’s a valuable tool for teaching kids responsibility and autonomy, and — let’s be honest — it’s fun to shoot. Thus, it’s no wonder that 62 percent of white Americans “view guns as doing more to protect people” than endanger their safety and that 61 percent believe it’s “more important to prioritize gun rights over gun control,” according to a 2014 Pew survey.

For black Americans the numbers are substantially different. While a small majority — 54 percent — believe that guns do more to protect than endanger, only 34 percent believe it’s more important to protect gun rights.

Conservatives who look at the problem of gun violence in black communities often have a quick response. “Rather than trying new gun control, why not try enforcing existing laws first?” After all, there is ample evidence that federal officials can be extraordinarily lax when it comes to gun crimes, especially in cities where the death toll is highest. As recently as 2012, the districts encompassing Chicago, Los Angeles, and New York ranked last in federal gun-crime enforcement per capita.

The National Rifle Association estimated that federal gun prosecutions under Obama declined 40 percent from the Bush administration’s 2004 peak. But even this peak wasn’t high, with only about 2 percent of gun crimes prosecuted in the years 2000 to 2002. As it is, a person can lie with impunity on gun-purchase forms without meaningful fear of prosecution. A Washington Free Beacon report based on a Department of Justice inspector-general audit noted the low prosecution rate: “Between 2008 and 2015, the FBI denied 556,496 gun purchases following background checks. During that time period, the report shows that only 254 false statements were even considered for prosecution, amounting to a 0.04 percent prosecution rate.”

To compound the problem of non-enforcement, it’s clear that criminals get most of their guns through illegal means. For example, a 2015 gun study by Duke and University of Chicago researchers found that Chicago criminals “obtain most of their guns from their social network of personal connections.” In addition: “Rarely is the proximate source either direct purchase from a gun store, or theft. Only about 60 percent of guns in the possession of respondents were obtained by purchase or trade. Other common arrangements include sharing guns and holding guns for others.”

In other words, criminals aren’t walking into gun shops or gun shows but rather are seeking weapons from people they know and trust — people who know full well that they’re giving or selling a gun to someone who can’t legally own it.

But remember the principle articulated earlier: Where you stand depends on where you sit. In a black community already dealing with the profound social costs and political consequences of mass incarceration, a demand from afar that prosecutors start rounding up, say, a gang member’s girlfriend or uncle is likely to trigger deep resistance. Relations between the police and the community are already strained, in part because of the Black Lives Matter movement. Add in a mandate for more law enforcement, and the answer to “Why not enforce existing laws?” is simple: It’s easier said than done.

But that brings us to a fundamental flaw of the gun-control movement. African Americans already have lower gun-ownership rates. They are already afflicted with mass incarceration to such an extent that existing gun laws are left largely unenforced. So when progressive gun controllers march with community activists, the answer that gun controllers bring to the table is . . . more gun laws with more criminal penalties? If mass incarceration is a problem, won’t progressive gun control exacerbate it?

Moreover, if existing law isn’t a deterrent, is there any evidence that additional measures, such as imposing background-check requirements on private sales, will deter a criminal’s “social network” from handing him a gun? After all, it’s already illegal to give the criminal a gun, and it’s already illegal to put the illegally owned gun to its intended criminal use. Does the gun-control lobby really think that adding just one more statute will deter crime and prevent one gang member from giving his gun to another?

So how should conservative defenders of gun rights approach black Americans? There are no simple answers, but any answer must be grounded in a degree of sympathy and understanding. At the same time, one can’t shrink from the difficult truths. While the vast majority of African Americans are law-abiding, a number of black communities have a real problem with criminality, not with gun ownership. And criminality requires a legal, cultural, and spiritual response.

Given the unrest in cities from Ferguson to Charlotte, and given the alarming spike in murder rates over the last two years, it’s easy to forget that we already have a blueprint for crime reduction. National crime rates, including crime rates in the black community, are still well below what they were in the worst years of the crack epidemic, in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

It’s a mistake to attribute all the crime reduction to better policing or harsher sentencing practices. Yes, black leaders rallied to support tough anti-crime measures. Yes, cities such as New York pioneered new policing techniques that made a profound difference in the city’s worst communities. But that ignores black communities’ acts of love and concern — the person-by-person outreach to struggling and at-risk youths, which saved countless lives.

In the early 1990s, I was part of an inner-city mentoring ministry not unlike the more famous Big Brothers Big Sisters programs that one sees nationwide. I did what I could, but it was immediately apparent to me that our well-intentioned efforts paled in comparison with the work of the black churches and volunteers from within the community. In two years, I saw the tide turning with my own eyes. Cops helped. Getting some of the worst offenders off the streets helped. The church helped more.

While there are black men and women who have responded to the violence in their communities not just by lawfully arming themselves but also by launching legal challenges against draconian, unconstitutional, and utterly ineffective urban gun-control laws, wonkish arguments about gun ownership and crime rates don’t move the masses. So it is incumbent on gun owners to defend gun rights while also advocating policies and institutions that are proven to reduce crime and stanch the flow of blood in the streets.

Zaevion Dobson is a symbol. For everyone he’s a symbol of heroism. For everyone he’s a symbol of the cost of crime and violence. For some he’s a symbol of the need for gun control. But we don’t want Zaevion to be a symbol. We wish he could be playing football instead. We wish he could still be hanging out with friends on winter nights. Criminals took Zaevion out of this world, and there can still be too much crime in communities with few guns when it’s those criminals who own the weapons.

The conservative response to black progressive calls for gun control should be rooted holistically in the insights of the conservative worldview. We cannot respond to heartfelt cries that “our kids are dying” with a callous single-issue answer such as “Don’t take my gun.” Instead, our response should call us back to the best of conservatism, an ideal that urges individuals to build the civic institutions, the “little platoons” that stand as a firewall against criminality and for the family. We cannot underplay the real fear and the all-too-real dangers on the streets, and we cannot pretend that it’s possible to simply transfer, for example, white rural and suburban gun culture into urban environments. Cultures are built over generations, and they’re rarely changed — at least not directly or immediately — by political argument.

Cries for gun control will lose their potency when crime loses its potency. That is the project that truly matters, and that is the task that responsible conservatism — with its emphasis on the power of the community and the family — is best equipped to undertake.

David French — David French is a senior writer for National Review, a senior fellow at the National Review Institute, and a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom.

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