Another Perspective

Race, Guns … And Hollow Gestures

Predictably, the murder of a New York City councilman last July has resulted in a spate of new gun control bills. It's a pointless exercise.

By 10.6.03

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Predictably, the murder of New York City Councilman James Davis in City Hall last July by a deranged political rival has resulted in a spate of new gun control bills. The proposed laws would, among other things, compel rifle and shotgun owners to buy liability insurance, require gun dealers to collect background information on buyers of ammunition, and restrict sales of rifles and shotguns to one gun every 90 days.

It's a pointless exercise ... even though, let me add, it will have no effect whatsoever on me: I don't own a gun, have never owned a gun, have never fired a gun and have never even held a gun in my hand. Nor do I subscribe to the National Rifle Association's argument that the Second Amendment's guarantee of a right to bear arms is necessary to safeguard individual liberty. The NRA often quotes Noah Webster in this regard: "The supreme power in America cannot enforce unjust laws by the sword because the whole body of the people are armed." But Webster lived 200 years ago, in an age of muskets and bayonets, and the lesson of Waco a decade ago is that stocking your cellar with stuff that goes boom won't scare away the feds; it'll only increase the likelihood, if the feds do show up, of the stuff going boom underneath you.

Such disclaimers are necessary because gun control advocates tend to paint even slightly dissenting voices as bug-eyed militia geeks decked out in camouflage fatigues, crouched in a backyard foxhole in the hope that some innocent passerby --preferably a minority -- will stumble onto their property. It's a useful rhetorical ploy because the reality is that gun violence is overwhelmingly a function of illegal guns. Relevant statistics are difficult to come by for the entire United States, but in Canada, for example, at least 97 percent of all handgun murders are carried out by illegally obtained guns.

Even worse for gun control advocates are statistics that indicate that the availability of guns actually prevents crime. For example, England has much tighter gun control laws than the United States. Is it merely a coincidence, then, that American thieves tend to avoid late-night break-ins during which the residents are more likely to be home -- and perhaps armed? Only 13 percent of all burglaries in the United States are "hot" -- i.e., occur when the victims are home; by contrast, in England the rate of hot break-ins is 50 percent. So either British thieves are much dumber than their American counterparts, or the implicit threat of armed response does indeed deter such confrontations.

Again, I'm not suggesting running out and buying a Luger based on the data. All I'm saying is that legislation of the sort being proposed in New York City, which targets legal purchases of guns and ammo, is unlikely to have much impact gun violence.

That doesn't mean gun violence cannot be reduced. Indeed, there's an obvious way to do it. Start with a 10 year, non-negotiable prison term -- to run consecutively, not concurrently, with the judge's sentence -- for anyone convicted of using a gun to commit a crime.

And if the gun is discharged during the crime, make it 20 years.

And if the bullet actually strikes someone, make it 35 years.

No early release, no exceptions, no mercy.

Such legislation would very likely curb gun violence -- both indirectly, by deterrence, and, directly, by putting away criminals for large stretches of their life expectancies. But it will never get passed. Not at the local level, nor the state level, nor the federal level.

Why?

Because -- and here is where gun control politics and racial politics intersect -- it would entail building many more prisons and filling them with a disproportionately large number of black males, who, for whatever socio-economic reasons, continue to commit a disproportionately large number of gun crimes. That fact alone guarantees that the NAACP, the Congressional Black Caucus and the American Civil Liberties Union would fight tooth and nail against it.

To be sure, black communities would stand to gain the most from a mandatory penalty system for gun crime since they are disproportionately victimized by gun violence. But history suggests that the communities themselves would tenaciously oppose it. Tragically, this is the signature achievement of decades of racial demagoguery: Even though the vast majority of black citizens are hardworking, law-abiding members of society, they have been brainwashed, browbeaten and culturally cowed into believing that their natural constituency is made up not of other hardworking, law-abiding members of society but of a ragtag minority of sociopaths who superficially resemble them.

It's a dispiriting phenomenon since it guarantees that every effort to reduce gun violence in black communities will, in the end, alienate black citizens in one of two ways, either: 1) by failing, which will be interpreted as intentional neglect; or 2) by succeeding, which will be interpreted as institutional racism. The great exemplar of the latter phenomenon, of course, is the mayoralty of Rudolph Giuliani. When Giuliani was elected mayor of New York City, homicides in the city averaged over 2,000 per year. In the course of his two terms, the murder rate dropped to around 650 per year -- and every year blacks, who represent only a quarter of the city's population, comprise roughly half the homicide victims. That comes to approximately 8,000 lives spared as a result of Giuliani's policies, 4,000 of them black.

Furthermore, contrary to perception, the drop in violent crime did not come with a rise in police violence. Under Giuliani, city cops were killing fewer civilians per year than during the previous administration; in fact, cops were firing fewer bullets at fewer people in fewer incidents than at any time for which data were available. Yet, mind-bogglingly, prior to the attacks of September 11th, Giuliani's approval rating among black New Yorkers hovered at 9 percent. Had he been eligible to run again for mayor -- he was ousted by term limits -- Giuliani would have confronted the grisly racial paradox at the core of contemporary politics: The more black lives he saved, the more black votes he could count on against him.

The gun control proposals currently under consideration in New York City constitute a senseless cosmetic legacy, a knee-jerk effort to honor the memory of a bright young councilman gunned down inside City Hall. Ultimately, the gesture is as irrational as James Davis's murder. Whether the legislation is adopted or defeated, gun violence will continue to bedevil inner city black neighborhoods. Black people will continue to suffer disproportionately. But the charade can serve to remind us that the great albatross around the necks of black Americans is not racism. It is race loyalty. Until they collectively reason their way beyond it, their own politics will continue to undermine their best interests.

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About the Author
Mark Goldblatt teaches at Fashion Institute of Technology (SUNY). His latest novel, Sloth, was published last year by Greenpoint Press.