Gun control is all about gun violence — we can't forget who we're trying to protect

Gun control is all about gun violence — we can't forget who we're trying to protect
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In response to growing activism following the Parkland, Fla., mass shooting, federal and state legislatures have passed a variety of new gun control measures. The 2018 omnibus spending bill established the STOP School Violence Act, which increases coordination between law enforcement and schools, provides mental health crises training for teachers and administrators, and ”hardens” school safety systems with metal detectors, door-locking mechanisms, and anonymous reporting and emergency communication technologies.

Meanwhile, places like Florida, New York, Oregon, Vermont, Washington, and Lincoln, Neb., have enacted new local policies, including bans on bump stocks and high-capacity magazines; raising the minimum gun purchasing age to 21; restricting firearm possession for people convicted of intimate partner violence; and comprehensive background checks.

Florida passed the most controversial of reforms: arming teachers. And just last week, Vermont’s NRA A-rated governor surprised the nation by signing the strictest gun-control laws in the history of his state.


While these developments are celebrated by gun-control advocates and political observers as dislodging longstanding NRA-backed recalcitrance, we still aren't getting to the root of the problem: not simply controlling access to guns, but reducing gun violence. No matter how well-intentioned, these policies can and have produced unjust results, especially for black women and girls.

For example, look what happens when we give law enforcement a larger role in schools. While black students make up 15.5 percent of total enrollment, they account for 33.41 percent of all students subjected to school-related arrests.

This disparity affects black girls at a disproportionate rate, which is probably related to the perception of black girls as less innocent, more adult-like and in need of less protection than white girls of the same age. 

More police in schools will likely result in more girls of color in the school-to-prison pipeline. And I shudder to think of the unintended outcomes of arming teachers.

Another vulnerable population are victims of intimate partner violence. While laws exist to prevent convicted abusers from possessing guns, most only apply to legal spouses and parents, which leaves a so-called “girlfriend loophole.” In other words, a violent husband may be restricted from purchasing a gun, while a violent boyfriend is not. Thankfully, some of the newer laws attempt to eliminate this loophole.

Still, still policies don't address the disproportionate gun deaths of transgender women of color. Approximately half of all transgender people will endure intimate partner violence during their life, yet laws written to keep guns out of abusers' hands often won't protect them.

Part of the problem is the narrow language of “domestic” and “girlfriends,” which allows intimate violence experienced outside of “traditional” cisgender and heterosexual relations to fall through the cracks.

Considering that of the 102 transgender people murdered between 2013 and 2017, 75 were black and half died as a result of gun violence, gun policies must include more inclusive gender language, and law enforcement needs better training at executing these policies.

Another focus of gun control advocates has been mental health urging more services for sufferers and screening for gun buyers. But here, too, the lens is too narrow. The goal targets loners and depressives — the typical school shooter profile — when, in reality, far more kids and families need grief counseling and PTSD treatment.

Researchers at Northwestern Medicine found that 29 percent of their study’s participants in one neighborhood, all black women, lived with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). By comparison, roughly 10 percent of US women experience PTSD during their lives.

We're focused on mass shootings rather than the emotional and psychological pain caused by more frequent forms of gun violence plaguing black communities. Again, part of the problem is bias. Whites have a history of not seeing black people as vulnerable, which limits the imagined reach of reforms. Researchers at the University of Virginia and Northwestern University found that 6 in 10 white respondents choose black subjects as those who are more likely to embody superhuman characteristics, such as withstanding “the pain of burning hot coals” or quelling “hunger and thirst.”

New policies must fund equitable, non-pathologizing mental health treatment focusing on PTSD, grief, and conflict resolution, because, yes, black folks do feel pain.

To be clear, I'm not saying we shouldn't try to mitigate mass shootings. The bullets from assault weapons irreparably tear through the body in ways handguns and hunting rifles do not, and we must regulate access to them. But it's not so simple.

Recall that in 1994 President Clinton signed the Federal Assault Weapons ban into law. It was attached to the larger Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act, which created “zero tolerance” sentencing, encouraged “stop and frisk” policing, and doubled an increasing prison population disproportionately affecting black and Latinx communities. Meanwhile, Congress allowed the assault weapons ban to expire in 2004. 

And while we are taking steps to mitigate the harm of the “lone” gunman, what about the police murders of unarmed black people, especially black women?

The point is, we can't have an effective gun control debate without a comprehensive, intersectional approach to gun violence, which centers the experience of women and girls of color. Otherwise, we risk creating solutions that inordinately harm our most at-risk populations.

Frederick Staidum Jr., Ph.D., is a scholar of race and sexuality in 19th-century American culture and literature at Loyola University Chicago and a Public Voices Fellow with the Op-Ed Project.