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November 3, 2008

Beyond the Inner City

There has always been one argument for not getting involved in the gun control issue that has confused and frustrated me. As I travel around the country, I often hear people say that gun violence is primarily an, “inner city, gang-related” problem.

This argument is deeply flawed on multiple fronts. First, it is factually incorrect. The FBI reported 14,860 total murders in 2005, only 850 of which were gang killings. That year, the ten states with the highest rates of gun death per capita in the U.S. were Louisiana, Alaska, Montana, Tennessee, Alabama, Nevada, Arkansas, Arizona, Mississippi, and West Virginia—all predominantly rural states.

Secondly, there is a racial bias that is inherently embedded in the argument—suggesting that black Americans are the main victims and perpetrators of gun violence—therefore whites need not take the issue seriously. Out of the 31,446 gun deaths that occurred in America in 2005, 21,958 of the victims were whites. In terms of gun homicide, 5,266 of 12,352 victims in 2005 were white. The Department of Justice reports that from 1976 to 2005, 86% of white murder victims were killed by whites. Finally, there were more than 17,000 gun suicides in the U.S. in 2005, and 15,681 of these victims were whites. That’s a great deal of white on white gun violence that some would like to sweep under the carpet.

The sheer lunacy of the “inner city argument” was highlighted for me last week with news of yet another heinous shooting. I was aghast when I learned that eight-year-old Christopher Bizilj had died while shooting a fully automatic Uzi at a gun show in Westfield, Massachusetts. Westfield has been described as “a small city with the close-knit feel of a rural New England town” with a population of approximately 40,000.

I still remember, too, a seminal event that pushed me to become involved in gun violence prevention. On August 1, 1966, a white student at the University of Texas at Austin shot and killed 14 people and wounded 31 others from the observation deck of the University's 32-story administrative building. The gunman went on this rampage shortly after murdering his wife and mother as they lay sleeping.

Such shootings are just one small indicator of the inclusive nature of gun violence in America. These deaths, injuries, physical and psychic trauma affect all of us—regardless of age, race, class or geography.

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