Policing Our Imagination

a Black Lives Matter sign
Ferguson Solidarity Washington Ethical Society. Source: Johnny Silvercloud, Creative Commons

On Thanksgiving evening, while many of us were still enjoying or recovering from a day of family and feasting, Emantic Bradford Senior – who is currently battling cancer – was waiting for his son EJ to come help him with his chemo medicine. “He was my best friend,” Senior says, “and my nurse. He treated me like I was his kid.” As EJ got ready to leave his father’s house that night, Senior, as he always did, asked his son if he needed any money. EJ was on his way to join eager Black Friday shoppers at the Galleria in Hoover. Late that night, Senior’s stepson woke him up. “You talked to EJ?” he asked. “Not since he left the house,” Senior responded, rousing himself. He showed Senior his phone, opened to a video posted on Facebook depicting a chaotic scene at the Galleria, shoppers running and screaming in panic. At this point, the Hoover Police Department had released a statement that there had been an altercation at the shopping mall around 10:00 PM and that police had shot and killed the instigator as he fled the scene. We’re “very, very proud” of the response of our officers, the statement said, for “engaging the subject and taking out the threat.” It was 12:30 AM. Emantic Bradford Junior – EJ – had been dead for two and a half hours at this point, but this would not be confirmed to the family until the next morning. Seeing the social media reports, Senior immediately called the Hoover PD to ask if the police had killed his son. “We’ll call you back in 10 minutes,” they told him. Ten minutes went by, no phone call. Senior called back. Again, “Someone will have to call you back.” This went on for a while until Senior finally demanded to know if that was his son – lying lifeless and uncovered on the cold, white floor – in the photos on Facebook. “I’m sorry, sir, I can’t give you any information at this time. You’ll have to call the county.” In frustration and terror, Senior calls the county police – he is put on hold, transferred, put on hold again, until finally a man gets on the line and confirms that yes, EJ is dead. Several hours go by, and the Hoover PD releases another statement: we got the wrong guy. 

EJ had been shot and killed by a police officer who wrongfully assumed that he was the person instigating violence at the mall that night. In the precious hours between the police department applauding the officer’s “heroic” actions for stopping a violent crime and admitting that EJ “very likely wasn’t the shooter,” EJ’s image was misconstrued and misrepresented in the news and on social media – at first, to fit the profile of a killer, and later, as someone who made some bad choices that resulted in his untimely death. There was a desperation to prove that this situation was different, that it was an isolated incident, and that it did not serve as an example of police brutality against people of color. A narrative about EJ’s life and the circumstances of his death was planted, one that justified the officer’s actions and placed the blame on EJ himself. And this is where we end up:

EJ had a gun.

Right…and Trayvon Martin was wearing a hoodie. Eric Garner was hustling cigarettes. How could we know that Tamir Rice was holding a plastic toy and not a real gun? And maybe the most egregious justification of all: Michael Brown “looked like a demon.” There is always some way to extract the wrongful killing of a black man by police officers from the systemic problem of police brutality. There is always something we can point to and say well, this had nothing to do with skin color and everything to do with…fill-in-the-blank. 

But let’s be clear: EJ wasn’t shot because he was carrying a gun (which he was licensed to own and trained to use). EJ was not perceived as a “good guy with a gun.” EJ didn’t brandish a weapon in the sense of acting threateningly with it. He didn’t have to – he was the weapon. And the words of Claudia Rankine ring in our ears:

“Because white men can’t

Police their imagination

Black men are dying”

The unnamed officer didn’t regard EJ as a person in that moment but as a black man with a gun, which in his imagination and under Alabama law, justified three shots to the back, ending EJ’s life. But we can’t help but wonder – to appropriate Matthew McConaughey’s powerful line in A Time to Kill – what would have happened if EJ were white. Even mass shooters – who are nearly always white – are often apprehended by police officers without being harmed. When they do die, it’s usually because they take their own lives. For example, after he opened fire on unsuspecting worshipers at the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, police chased Dylan Roof through two states before they caught him and took him to Burger King to get something to eat. Travis Reinking had a history of mental illness, had threatened violence multiple times, his many firearms had been confiscated – and then returned – before he walked into a Waffle House and shot four people. “He just didn’t seem like a violent person,” one coworker said of Reinking, joining with others who insisted that he was “intelligent and polite.” Reinking fled the scene, and officers chased him into the woods before he was apprehended unharmed. At a movie theater in Aurora, police mistook James Eagen Holmes for a fellow officer because of “the tactical clothing he was wearing.” In other words, he looked like them. But one look at EJ Bradford, and that was it. A black man holding a gun, standing near the victim…bang, bang, bang.  

I imagine that police officer didn’t walk into that shopping mall that night intending to kill a black man. The nature of the situation forced him to make a snap judgement, and according to the official report, it took about three seconds to assess the situation, identify EJ as the target, and take him out. And it wasn’t until his family started demanding answers that they even questioned whether or not they had gotten the right guy. Ultimately, it was concluded that the officer “reasonably exercised his official powers, duties, or functions” when he fired those shots. And in a legal sense, it’s hard to argue with that. But we need some context here – there is a larger problem that must be addressed.

a cardboard sign that reads "We're not anti-police, we're anti-police brutality"
We’re Not Anti-Police, We’re Anti-Police Brutality. Source: Jagz Mario, Creative Commons

The lives of black people in the United States have been and continue to be conditioned and defined by violence – structural, institutionalized, everyday violence and brutal retaliation by the state and other groups against their demands to be seen and heard and regarded as human. Black bodies are weaponized in the popular imagination, associated with crime and danger, and the full participation of black people in society is subjugated by a collective consciousness that centralizes whiteness and systematically excludes people of color. The truth is that compared to white people, people of color are disproportionately killed by police officers in the United States. This is not because all white police officers are explicitly racist but because of where we hold space for black bodies in our broader cultural ethos. What gives police brutality its life force is the same thing that makes it harder for black people to buy houses, get into college and acquire health insurance. This refined yet insidious form of racism resides deep in our collective consciousness, and it engenders the unspoken but deeply felt sentiment that non-whites are threatening and dangerous, that we need the state to protect us from them. 

And where does this come from? When slavery ended, the South (and eventually the rest of the country) adopted slightly more palatable systems of subjugation and discrimination against the newly freed citizenship. The preservation of the white male patriarchy depended on one thing – fear. As long as white people continued to be terrified of black people, white supremacy reigned unimpeded. Over time, laws ensuring civil rights and protections for people of color were slowly updated and selectively enforced. To be sure, these were victories. Progress, however, is not a zero-sum game. As overt ideals and expressions of racism were put asunder on paper, they didn’t go away. Instead, they burrowed down deep inside of our subconscious. On the surface, we developed new ways of explaining the unequal distribution of resources and power and opportunity without ever outwardly implicating skin pigmentation. We relegated black people to conditions of poverty, denied all but a few access to the middle class, and then blamed those left behind for bringing about their own woes. We associated violence in black communities not with poverty and lack of access but with blackness itself. We moved black bodies from the plantation to the prison system, once again denying them their freedom, but this time blaming them for it. Not all of them, of course, but enough to sustain the image and the fear.

Shop owners at the Galleria will tell you that there is a “black” side and a “white” side of the mall. Where do you think the police presence was concentrated that night? When it comes to spaces occupied by black bodies, the police force tends to emphasize the “force” over the policing. And yet…“You just don’t bring guns into a crowded mall,” the Hoover mayor admonished in his statement about the wrongful killing. How ironic. Okay, Mr. Mayor, tell that to the NRA. Better yet, if that’s such an obvious unspoken rule, try to make it a law in Alabama and see how far you get. At the very least, say what you mean: if you’re black, don’t carry a gun into a shopping mall. Because for people of color, certain constitutional rights must be qualified.

This is refined racism: when white people hear of the wrongful killing of a black man by police officers, we latch on to some element of the story that distracts us from the color of the victim’s skin and emphasizes some other factor that explains the officers’ actions. Rather than trying to understand what it means to be a black person in this country, to confront our own implicit biases and to acknowledge our complicity in upholding a racist social order, we look for something, anything, to assure ourselves that this was an isolated and unavoidable incident (at least on the part of the officer). In doing so, we sustain the devaluation of black bodies and black minds and justify the power of the state to marginalize people of color, to treat them as an inconvenience and to perceive them as a threat that needs to be neutralized by whatever means necessary. In situations like this, that is where our minds naturally go. We make our excuses, we qualify our apologies, we blame the victim. The story gets whitewashed. And just like that, Trayvon’s death, Philando Castille’s death, EJ’s death are their own faults.

So how do we change this reality? It is going to take more than providing courses to police officers on racial sensitivity and limiting the use of force. If we truly want to live in a world where the state treats people of all skin tones equally, white people must police their imaginations. We must actively work to decentralize whiteness, aggressively refute the narrative that people of color pose a threat to our society, and unequivocally demand that they be protected rather than forcibly policed. The political justice system won’t change until our collective consciousness changes, until we break ourselves of false equivalencies and false associations around blackness, until we recognize what the enduring legacy of slavery and centuries of subjugation and oppression have done to individuals and families and communities, until we give the black man a chance to be the good guy. We are all stakeholders in this process; if we’re going to move forward as a society, we have to do it together.

The Galleria reopened at six o’clock the next morning, as scheduled, because consumer capitalism can’t be bothered by the death of a black man. The Christmas shopping season went ahead full stride, while Emantic Bradford Senior was left to mourn the death of his son, to contend with his disease alone, to wallow in the pain of never again getting to hear his son call him ‘daddy.’ After two months of investigation, the Attorney General of Alabama ruled that the nameless officer who shot and killed EJ was “justified” in doing so. Under Alabama law, no crime was committed. But EJ’s mama, April Pipkins, leaves us with an important question: “If this happened to your child, would you still call it justice?”

The answer is no, you would call it murder. 

A Peculiar Request: The Right to Life

the beginning of the March for Our Lives. A group of girls holding signs of some of the victims of gun violence
photo by Ajanet Rountree

Paducah, Kentucky.

This is the first school shooting I remember. All these years later, I still remember what I thought once I saw the photos: “How did this happen? Surely this is a random tragedy that will never happen again.” The writing of this blog comes just over five weeks on the memory side of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting in Parkland, Florida and on the same day as the Great Mills High School shooting in southern Maryland. The shooting at Heath High School is a distance memory, eclipsed by Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado, Sandy Hook Elementary in Newton, Connecticut, and Huffman High School in Birmingham, Alabama.

Many conversations and references, in recent weeks, center on the complicated nature of the gun control debate in the United States (US) due to the Parkland shooting and uncharacteristic demands of the teenage survivors. This blog does not directly address those conversations or references. There are many sides to the issue and other blog writers this week gave voice to some of those issues. Therefore, this blog explores the peculiar request of the teenage survivors, which is, seemingly lost among the defense of the Second Amendment.

The right to life.

It seems peculiar that children are demanding adults to protect their lives, to look out for their best interest, specifically when many in the US pride themselves on their pro-life stance. They champion every bill, legislative act, or protest which positions them as the protector of the “rights of the unborn”. As protectors of the unborn, they label women who choose to have abortions and the medical practitioners who perform the abortions as murderers. Some pro-life advocates stand outside Planned Parenthood centers, shouting vile, hurtful words and phrases at patrons and workers. They object to numerous women’s rights issues. All this occurs because of their belief in protecting the innocent, unborn baby who deserves the right to live.

Where are the pro-life advocates joining the protests initiated by the Parkland students who are demanding the protection of their right to life? These children lost their innocence when their classmate murdered their friends and teachers in hallways and classrooms on Valentine’s Day. Many pro-life advocates are standing on the sidelines, protecting their Second Amendment constitutional right to bear arms. Yet, at what point did adults abdicate their responsibility to protect the lives of children to protect their rights to own weapons? Does the “pro-life” label still apply when there is a willful and complicit allegiance to a hobby and lobbying group than to children?

Perhaps a reclassification needs to occur wherein we label pro-birth rather than pro-life.

The Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), in accordance with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) asserts, “A child means every human being below the age of eighteen years… [and] in all actions concerning children, whether undertaken by public or private social welfare institutions, courts of law, administrative authorities or legislative bodies, the best interests of the child shall be a primary consideration.” When the best interest of the child is the primary consideration, how has the brutal transformation of schools and universities continued? It seems implausible that for the last 20 years, parents across the US have sent their children to school with hopes and dreams for the future, only to have to bury their 5-18-year-old days later. The Children’s Defense Fund (CDF) reports “children are learning there is no safe place in America.”

a picture of a sign that reads "Human rights not guns: Right to Life"
photo by Ajanet Rountree
When No Place is Safe and Those Who Can/Should Help, Don’t

The US is the ONLY member of the United Nations to not ratified the CRC.

The cliché ‘no parent should have to bury their child’ seems redundant considering needless tragedies of gun violence. Its redundancy comes from the very real reality that pictures and videos from schools, universities, and playgrounds, as well as the rhetorical thoughts and prayers of government officials has yielded minimal results. Unlike natural disasters like tornados and earthquakes, controlling the impacts of gun violence is possible as evidenced in Australia, Great Britain, and Switzerland. Therefore, it is the normalization of violence in the US which continually isolates us from the rest of the world. Data reveals the hypocrisy of the ill-spoken narrative that children are the future of this country. CDF reveals

  • Children are forced to witness tragic mass shootings that occur with regularity in public spaces including schools, churches, concert venues, community centers, nightclubs and movie theaters.
  • Since 1963, the number of children and teens killed with guns on American soil was more than three times higher than the number of U.S. soldiers killed by hostiles in wars abroad. Nearly 180,000 children and teens died from guns in the U.S. between 1963 and 2015.

With less than 5% of the global population, American civilians own 310 million guns (35-50%) of the global civilian gun-ownership, whereas the US military and law enforcement possess nearly 4 million. The US spends considerably more on defense than on early childhood and education, than every other country with smaller federal budgets.

Children are not a priority in the US.

 Who’s doing the shooting?

Brown et al. analyzed two cases, identified four characteristics, and concluded “school violence is a somewhat distinct form of aggression that should not be viewed through standard lens.” The typical mass shooter is a white male who exacts revenge on those he deems dishonored him in some way. Research identifies this cultural phenomenon as “culture of honor”. In a culture of honor, people favor the death penalty, more tolerant of expressions of aggression as a response to threats/insults, and conflate a high degree of connection with status or reputation. This culture fuels the overall feeling of slight through a lack of interpersonal conflict resolution skills. The culture of honor creates a cultural standard wherein brutality becomes the recommended response to a perceived affront to one’s dignity or reputation; thus, a misguided sense of justice.

This misguided sense of justice positions whites as unapologetic for the behavior of shooters. Mingus and Zopf studied four mass shootings: two with white shooters (Columbine High School and Northern Illinois) and two with non-white shooters (VA Tech and Fort Hood). Using “Racial Formations” by Omi and Winant as a key text on racial projections, Mingus and Zopf assert, “The historical significance of race is important in understanding the way in which race affects any interpretation of shooting rampages.” They find that white privilege allows for the addition of race as a factor when identifying the “abhorrent behavior of non-whites” and the subtraction of race when redirecting “focus away from whites as a distinct population by pathologizing their aberrant behavior”. They conclude that non-whites groups often advocate for themselves as a means of not facing retaliation, even offering an apology in the VA Tech tragedy, whereas being white means never having to say you are sorry.

a picture of a boy holding a sign which reads "books not bullets" during the March for Our Lives
photo taken with permission by Ajanet Rountree
“If they’re old enough to be shot, they’re old enough to have an opinion about being shot”

Reports occur daily of the ‘perceived threat of children’ when confronted by white people who feel a threat to their power or status. These reports extend beyond the scope of school shootings, and the requests to “stop killing us” commenced long before the Parkland shooting. The #NeverAgain movement includes the voices of the seemingly voiceless by including students from Chicago, Newtown, and 11-year-old Naomi Walder of Alexandria, VA. Walder, who highlights the deaths of Black girls forgotten by the media, organized her classmates during the National Walkout Day.

Political satirist and late-show comedy host Trevor Noah challenged the notion leveled by Fox News talking head Tucker Carlson after last week’s student walkout campaign. During a segment, Carlson questioned the validity of students making demands of lawmakers regarding guns by stating, “They’re not citizens; they’re children.” What’s interesting is that children are too young to make demands for gun control but not to find themselves in adult prison or forced into child marriage. Noah responded brilliantly stating, “…if kids are old enough to be shot, they’re old enough to have an opinion about being shot.” When processing the numbers provided by the CDF, it is time someone said something.

  • 7,768 children and teens were killed in the US to gun violence during 2013-2015
  • 113 children under five (5) died from guns in 2016, compared to 65 law enforcement officers killed by guns in the line of duty. Guns were used in criminal acts to kill 62 law enforcement officers while three (3) were killed in gun accidents.
  • In 2016, 43% of gun deaths were among Black children and teens, although they made up only 14% of all children and teens.
  • 1,335 Black children and teens were killed by guns in 2016, one every 6 hours and 34 minutes.
  • The gun death rate for Black children and teens was nearly 4x that of White children and teens and more than 8x that of Asian and Pacific Islander children and teens.
  • Most gun deaths among Black children and teens were by homicide. Most deaths by White children and teens were by suicide.
  • Guns are more often used to cause harm than in self-protection. A gun in the home makes the likelihood of homicide 3x higher, suicide 3-5x higher, and accidental death 4x higher. For each time a gun in the home injures or kills in self-defense, there are 11 completed and attempted gun suicides, seven criminal assaults and homicides with a gun, and four unintentional shooting deaths or injuries.
  • More than half of youth who committed suicide with a gun obtained the gun from their home, usually a parent’s gun.

Given the fact adults consistently prove children are not a priority in this country, children have made an opportunity to make themselves a priority.

a picture of sign with names of some of the victims of gun violence
photo by Ajanet Rountree

Today, millions of children and adults domestically and internationally, participated in the #NeverAgain movement by joining the March for Our Lives protest. The campaign is not to initiate a disarmament; however, it is to reinstate the ban on assault rifles like AR-15 used in several mass shootings, including Las Vegas and Orlando. Additional demands include an expansion of background checks and a rise of the minimum age to purchase. At the core of the demands and the purpose of the protest lies a peculiar request for the most important human right: the right to live.

A right to a life without fear and terror.

A right to a life where adults apologize for hurting, neglecting, and not prioritizing children who are reliant upon them.

A right to a life without the trauma of relieving the horrors of running to save myself.

A right to a life that does not include witnessing my friends and teachers die before my eyes.

A right to a life by enjoying the full scope of childhood and adolescence which includes mistakes that should not end life because of a perceived threat

A right to a life because adults believe that I and my future are worth fighting for… just as they do for the unborn.

March for Our Lives is a pro-life movement.

We Beretta Do Something: Gun Violence, Public Health & Their Discontents

 

doctor-gun. Source: spacecoastdaily.com, Creative Commons

Continuing the Institute for Human Rights’ blog series on gun violence, this contribution illuminates a public health lens, offering an evidence-based analysis and pragmatic solutions to the U.S. gun violence epidemic.

Following the February mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School (Parkland, FL) that resulted in 17 fatalities, mainstream fervor on U.S. gun violence has, once again, returned. Parkland Students have utilized their recent tragedy as a platform to demand an end to gun violence and mass shootings, stressing why their lives matter. According to Amnesty International, the world’s largest grassroots human rights organization, U.S. gun violence is a human rights crisis. Human rights are protected and enforced by international and national policy, and with the U.S. government marshalling many of these treaties and laws, it is, too, culpable of upholding such rights.

The nation’s leading science-based voice for the public health profession, the American Public Health Association (APHA), claims gun violence is one of the leading causes of premature death in the U.S., killing over 38,000 people and injuring nearly 85,000 annually. Gun violence can not only affect people of all backgrounds but disproportionately impacts young adults, men and racial/ethnic minority groups. Recently, Parkland Students teamed with students in Chicago to address inner-city gun violence, a phenomenon commonly overlooked by the media while addressing its threat on young lives. Though most gun violence is not an agent to mass shootings, the APHA claims, in 2017, there were 346 mass shootings in the U.S., killing 437 as well as injuring 1,802.

Furthermore, the American Medical Association (AMA), who leads innovation for improving the U.S. health care system, labeled gun violence “A Public Health Crisis”. At their 2016 Annual Meeting of House Delegates, the AMA actively lobbied Congress to overturn legislation that averts the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) from researching gun violence. The CDC is one of the leading institutions of the Department of Health Human Services (DHHS), working 24/7 to protect Americans from foreign and native health threats, whether they be chronic, acute, curable or preventable, accidental or intentional. Ultimately, the CDC protects U.S. national security and critical science is imperative to addressing health threats.

According to the Union of Concerned Scientists, a 1993 CDC-funded study published by the New England Journal of Medicine found that firearms in the home increased the risk of homicide in the household, as opposed to home protection. This galvanized the National Rifle Association (NRA), a major force in U.S. gun rights and education, to campaign against the CDC and its “anti-gun propaganda”.

In response to this 1993 publication and the NRA’s support, Congress in 1996 passed an appropriations bill known as the Dickey Amendment, named after former Arkansas congressman and NRA member Jay Dickey, which states, “none of the funds made available for injury prevention and control at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention may be used to advocate or promote gun control.” Almost two decades and thousands of tragedies later, Dickey renounced these restrictions in 2015 by claiming, “Research could have been continued on gun violence without infringing on the rights of gun owners, in the same fashion that the highway industry continued research without eliminating the automobile.” Despite this humility, the Dickey Amendment persists, curtailing efforts to address gun violence in the U.S.

a picture of a Beretta handgun
Beretta 9000S. Source: James Case, Creative Commons

In the U.S., a common method to circumvent the argument that guns extrapolate acts of violence is to scapegoat people with mental illness. The American Psychiatric Association (APA), the leading voice and conscience of modern psychiatry in the U.S., recently published a book on gun violence and mental health. Specifically, they address the topic of mass shootings and mental illness.

Some popular misperceptions are:

  • Mass shootings by people with serious mental illness represent the most significant relationship between gun violence and mental illness.
  • People with serious mental illness should be considered dangerous.
  • Mass shooting will be effectively prevented with gun laws focusing on people with mental illness.
  • Gun laws focusing on people with mental illness, or a psychiatric diagnosis, are reasonable, even if they perpetuate current mental illness stigma.

On the other hand, it is evidence-based that:

  • Mass shootings by people with serious mental illness represent less than 1% of all annual gun-related homicides.
  • People with serious mental illness contribute to an overall 3% of violent crimes. An even smaller percentage of them are found to involve firearms.
  • Laws for reducing gun violence that focus on the previously mentioned 3% will be extremely low yield, ineffective, and wasteful of resources.
  • The myth that mental illness leads to violence is perpetuated by gun restriction laws focusing on people with mental illness, as well as the misunderstanding that gun violence and mental illness are strongly linked.

However, a significant caveat related to mental illness and gun violence is suicide. The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP), who funds research and offers education on suicide, claims depression is one of the most treatable psychiatric illnesses yet is seen in over 50% of people who die by suicide. Suicide lays in the shadow of repetitive, media-frenzied mass shootings, while representing nearly two-thirds of gun-related deaths in the U.S. Harvard University T.H. Chan School of Public Health indicate a number of factors that define lethality of suicide methods, including inherent deadliness, ease of use, accessibility, ability to abort mid-attempt and acceptability — all attributable to gun ownership and usage, specifically in the U.S.  To strengthen civil discourse on gun-related deaths and injuries, we must uphold a national platform for suicide prevention, too. If you or a loved one is experiencing a suicidal crisis or emotional distress, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-8255 (available 24/7).

Last year, researchers at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine analyzed data from the Nationwide Emergency Department (ER) sample between 2006-2014 and concluded the U.S. accumulates an annual $2.8 billion in hospitals bills from gunshot wounds, with an average ER cost of $5,254 and approximately $96,000 in follow up care per patient. This study was limited because data was only used for gunshot victims who arrived at the hospital alive; people who did not seek medical treatment or were dead on arrival were not counted. Furthermore, after accounting for lost earnings, rehabilitative treatment, security costs, investigations, funerals, etc., a 2015 Mother Jones report estimated gun violence cost Americans $229 billion annually.

The APHA insists gun violence is not inevitable but preventable, and suggests core public health activities are capable of interrupting the transmission of gun violence. Notable ways to curb gun violence are:

  1. Better Surveillance
    • Increased congressional funding of The National Violent Death Reporting System which is currently employed in 40 U.S. states, D.C. and Puerto Rico.
  2. More Research
    • Lifting restrictions on federal funding for research on gun violence. There is barely any credible evidence on the effect of right-to-carry laws.
  3. Common-Sense Gun Policies
    • Criminal background check on all firearms purchases. This includes gun show and internet purchases.
  4. Expanded Access to Mental Health Services
    • Funding for mental health services has declined, so increased financial support for the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) is advised.
  5. Resources for School and Community-Based Prevention
    • Intervention and preparedness programming to prevent gun violence and other emergencies in communities, namely schools.
  6. Gun Safety Technology
    • Innovation that prevents illegitimate gun access and misuse such as unintentional injuries.

If the above prescriptions are not followed, the tragedies will likely continue. So, it is imperative we support leaders who will encourage gun policy that protects public health and our right to life. Tomorrow, March 24, 2018, people across the world will March For Our Lives, demanding the lives of kids and families, amidst the controversy circling around gun violence, become prioritized.

A march for our lives, your life and mine is exactly what the doctor ordered.

The Responsibility to Protect, Revisited: Gun Ownership in the United States

Tennessee, Tennessee, Ain’t No Place I’d Rather Be

I grew up in rural Northeastern Tennessee, situated 30 minutes from both the Virginia and North Carolina state borders. In my hometown of Kingsport, itself a part of the Tri-Cities, I inherited many traditional Southern cultural mannerisms and beliefs as a growing kid. True to form, I can whip up banana pudding and biscuits and gravy, I sometimes use the word “ain’t”, and I will always hold the door open for others. Southern culture can be a simple one; try sitting on your front porch for the entire weekend – something we in Tennessee consider high entertainment. Tennessee made me a fan of great music (I’m an avid Bonnaroovian), a taste for delicious foods (ever tried Pal’s Sudden Service?), and a reverence of nature. My family, tried-and-true Southern kinsfolk, embody many Southern ideals. Most of these traditions, such as saying, “yes ma’am” and “no sir” are benign. These mannerisms just are – part of the charm of hailing from the South. Tradition is quintessentially Southern.

A photo of the author's family farm in Tennessee.
“Tennessee.” Photo by: Nicholas R. Sherwood

Part of a traditional Southern rearing is a respect for and knowledge of firearms. Almost all members of my extended family know how to operate these weapons using proper gun safety measures. I recall many afternoons as a child refining my marksmanship. This often involved setting up targets (nothing fancy, soda cans would do) across long pastures in the various farms my family owns. All the cousins and our parents would gather ‘round, grilling ribs, searing vegetables, and baking buttery breads. We swam in muddy ponds and hightailed across our properties in four-wheelers. All the while, the children, teenagers, and adults would take turns practice shooting a variety of revolvers, magnums, bolt-action rifles, and muzzleloaders.

This is a Sherwood tradition- we all know how to responsibly fire a weapon.

In my family, gun ownership is a serious endeavor. I vividly remember my uncle and my dad explaining to my sister and me that guns can and do often kill other human beings. To own and operate a gun is to have access to an awesome power, and we only used this power under the strict supervision of properly-trained adults. Firing a gun required two things: every person on the property was safely accounted for and our parents knew beyond the shadow of a doubt that we were mature enough to grapple with the destructive power in our still-growing hands. Today, I am thankful for being desensitized to firearms. I can watch someone shooting a gun and know if they have good or poor form, how to properly handle the weapon, and have the maturity to wield it. Most of the Sherwoods have taken at least one, if not several, Tennessee Hunter’s Safety Courses. This too was crucial to our firearm education. Additionally, many of us have Conceal & Carry permits. This is not to say the Sherwood clan only buys guns just to keep them; we have several avid hunters in our ranks. For us, hunting is a sacred tradition with specific rules we abide by. I was taught never to overhunt in an area – disrupting animal populations would wreck local ecosystems. Thankfully for us, East Tennessee has an overpopulation of deer, meaning local hunters can bag and tag a regulated amount of these animals without destroying the Tennessee natural ecology. In fact, by hunting excess deer, wild apex predators are kept in check and the vegetation deer overconsume is conserved. Descending from a long line of Cherokee Native Americans, instilled in every Sherwood is an understanding that we, like our ancestors, have a responsibility to care for the land around us. Hunting is part of that responsibility.

A Portrait of the Responsible Gun Owner

With this upbringing in mind, when acts of mass gun violence rip through the social fabric of America, I am thrust into a dissonant space. How do I reconcile my upbringing of responsible gun ownership with the dire need to regulate these weapons – for the safety of all Americans? Parsing through these issues, the Institute for Human Rights is currently running a series on gun control in response to the horrific massacres of school-children throughout the United States. It is my intention to show that responsible gun owners do exist, and they too must be a part of this conversation. Moving towards reconciliation of these two issues, public safety and private liberty, I have these questions:

  • What is responsible gun ownership?
  • Is it a regulatory process that educates the general population on gun safety protocols or an ethos of responsibility? Is it both?
  • Does gun control involve federal law, perhaps barring ownership from individuals with moderate to severe psychopathologies, histories of criminality, or a lack of maturity to handle weapons?
  • Is gun control a responsibility to protect the gun owner from his or her own mistakes in handling the weapon, or is gun control a responsibility to protect society at large from individuals with the sole intent to do as much damage in the least amount of time?
  • How do we reconcile the responsibility to protect the most defenseless members of society with the responsibility to protect freedom of thought and behavior?
  • What institutions bar authentic and transformative debates from occurring in the American public sphere and within global civil society at large?

What is undeniable is this: no productive and sustainable progress in gun control will take place without the inclusion of responsible gun owners within the conversation. And all gun owners must accept that governmental limitations on gun ownership is not an existential threat to one’s personal liberty. This limitation is a recognition that an individual’s participation in society requires a widening of responsibility to protect not only one’s immediate family and friends but also the protection of all members in a society. What we are facing here is a tension between individual liberty and the need for a cosmopolitan protection of all members within a society. To resolve this tension, we must first acknowledge that a solution is indeed possible, and that we already have the necessary tools to move towards successful resolution.

Towards this end, we must first define an oft-nebulous construct: responsible gun ownership. I propose a “responsible gun owner” possesses the following qualities:

  1. a working knowledge of local, regional, and national laws that dictate the possession and usage of any and all types of firearms,
  2. a vetting by official state authorities (such as the local police and / or military personnel) on said knowledge of gun possession and usage,
  3. is of sound mental health (yes, this advocates for universal mental health background checks upon purchase of any firearm),
  4. constant usage of a locked gun safe that prevents children and other unqualified persons from accessing firearms,
  5. has undergone a rigorous criminal background check, with a waiting period before firearms can be purchased, requiring an utter absence of violent and harassment-based crimes, such as stalking and intimate partner violence,
  6. an acceptance that gun ownership will always be a contested issue that must be resolved through constant dialogue between all invested parties with concessions on all sides,
  7. a commitment to solution-focused resolution rather than a problem-focused resistance to negotiating gun ownership.

This last point is especially salient. Any meaningful conversation on gun control must arise from a negotiation between second amendment advocates and gun control advocates.

Too often (on both sides of the spectrum) the prevailing narrative of this discourse is a blanket denial of the rights, responsibilities, and needs of all involved parties.

Specific institutions promote this denial and antagonism, thereby promoting a particularly insidious form of structural violence and resistance to civil dialogue. I speak specifically of the National Rifle Association.

A man photographs the National Rifle Association logo.
“NRA” by Bart, Creative Commons.

The National Rifle Association’s Culpability

In the aftermath of the massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, the National Rifle Association (NRA) participated in a town hall on gun policy in America. In attendance were survivors from the high school, Senator Marco Rubio, local politicians, and the NRA’s spokeswoman, Dana Loesch. Ms. Loesch, a one-time contributor for Breitbart News and Glenn Beck’s The Blaze, relied heavily on her familiar stumping strategy: invoking the maternal instinct as an emotional appeal to advocate for gun ownership. She and other members of the NRA assert a broad dissemination of guns throughout American society (their opinion of who deserves such weaponry is inconsistent, to say the least) is one of the most promising methods to protect children and other marginalized groups in America from the “people who are crazy” who possess guns. Essentially, the NRA argues more guns in society increase the chances that “good guys with guns” will deter or kill the “bad guys with guns”. This is, of course, tautological.

Flooding the market with guns would increase the likelihood that these “crazy” people get ahold of a firearm. After all, the NRA has made no serious attempt to advocate for mental health reform in response to calls for tightened gun control. The ‘mental health’ argument has long been a smokescreen of the NRA, a method of distraction to bait the normally health-promoting left a fight on mental health care reform. This bait-and-switch technique is a political gambit used by an inherently political institution, and it does a disservice to responsible gun owners throughout the United States.

Furthermore, it duplicitously reduces individuals with mental health issues to be political pawns; this reduction is utterly dehumanizing and offers no solution to the massive structural issues facing access to mental health care in America.

These theatrics add to the antagonism on both sides of the issue. Of course, a critical question remains regarding why such controversy exists: who stands to benefit from these bitter feuds? The answer is overwhelmingly politicians.

Millions of dollars of contributions from the NRA have fundamentally altered how politicians are able to fundraise, which politicians receive adequate funding to mount serious campaigns, and (this is most concerning) when or if a given politician will advocate for common-sense, widely-supported gun control policies in the face of unspeakable tragedy. This puppeteering is, by its very nature, anti-democratic and antithetical of American ideals. This ability to openly buy politicians, including Presidents of the United States, is an existential threat to American democracy. Add in the suspected ties to Russia and the political jockeying on display during CNN’s Town Hall, and you have a political institution that effectively and openly operates as a site of political nepotism and deception. Topping it all, the National Rifle Association has been linked to white supremacy ideology and it’s spokeswoman, Ms. Loesch, accused of encouraging violence as an acceptable form of response for critiquing the NRA. This dimension of intentional structural violence transforms the NRA from an institution not only engaging in political bribery, but also one that reflects tendencies of homegrown terrorism.

In my opinion and personal experience as a responsibly-trained gun user, the National Rifle Association functions a terrorist organization stoking fear and tribalism, thereby driving responsible gun owners away from the debate table on this issue.

Support for the NRA is a moral failure to denounce election-buying, white nationalism, and foreign meddling in the American political system. This support is an abject failure to protect American society from treacherous forces undermining a functional society, and this failure is far beneath the maturity and discipline typically shouldered by responsible gun owners throughout their mastery of weapons capable of both indiscriminately murdering and responsibly nourishing.

Conclusion

As I have stated, responsible gun owners do exist. These individuals see the inherent danger and power in firearms and acknowledge that controlling this power requires specialized education, careful observation, and highly specific locations where guns may be appropriately used. Responsible gun owners must hold other gun owners responsible, whether leading by example or calling out inappropriate practices as they occur. This responsibility extends not only to other gun owners, but to the American public as well. The conversation on gun control requires an intentional suspension of disbelief from both camps in order to find a middle ground in the issue.

I assert responsible gun owners have the moral responsibility to inclusively and adroitly address the legitimate calls for disarmament in the face of such abject horrors and losses exemplified by the recent school shootings throughout America. Without genuine participation in this exchange, gun owners lose the opportunity to educate the public on successful encounters between liberty and responsibility, and they may well lose their firearms as a result. An unwillingness to come to the discussion table with open ears and clear heads will result in the marginalization of responsible gun owners unless they are willing to make strident concessions in the ongoing debate of gun control. Similarly, gun control advocates must accept that responsible gun owners do exist, and these individuals have a constitutional right to bear arms.

The only way the mayhem will stop, the only way lives can be saved, is if both sides accept the only way towards a meaningful and equitable solution for all involved parties will require an intentional partnership to confront and transform the meaningless violence that currently terrorizes the safety of many Americans – most notably schoolchildren.

The first step in this partnership must be a resounding denunciation and deconstruction of the practices and ideologies of the National Rifle Association. You are not a responsible gun owner if you support the NRA in its current form. Only once the NRA has been disbanded, its latent ideology of political radicalism reconciled, can authentic encounters between gun control advocates and responsible gun owners reshape the horrifying trends of gun violence currently annihilating the safety and wellbeing of schoolchildren and marginalized groups throughout the Unites States.

Where Do We Go From Here? An Event Recap

On Wednesday, February 28, the UAB Institute for Human Rights hosted Dr. Samantha Nutt, founder of War Child, to talk about her experiences working in war zones. During her conversation entitled “Where Do We Go from Here? Stories from the Frontlines of the World’s Major Crises”, Dr. Nutt covered topics from ranging from personal stories from her time in Somalia to gun violence statistics in the United States. You can read more about her background here.

The illicit and licit automatic weapons market is incredibly saturated in Somalia and the United States. In this post, I argue that this oversaturation and easy access creates a gateway for violence.

Dr. Samantha Nutt at the UAB Hill Student Center Ballroom
Dr. Samantha Nutt. Source: Tyler Goodwin, author.

Recap

The talk began with Dr. Nutt explaining how she began working in warzones – she was a volunteer doctor assigned to work in one of the world’s most dangerous countries, Somalia. She was contracted by an organization who was unable to pay her more than one dollar for her services, yet she decided to go anyway. To this day, Dr. Nutt carries with her the four quarters she received as payment.

Living in Somalia, Dr. Nutt met many people who considered this crisis area as their home. She told the story of a woman named Edith, who was a single mother who came to Dr. Nutt for medical assistance. The first time Dr. Nutt met with Edith, she was told of when Edith attempted to take her newborn child to the medical facility that was down the road. On the way there, she was ambushed by a group of boys armed with firearms who would not let her pass until she paid them a toll even though she possessed no money. As a result of being denied access to the medical facility, Edith’s child died due to malnutrition.

After suffering the loss of her child, Edith asked, “Do people where you are from know what is happening? Do they know what we go through?” Dr. Nutt replied with “I am afraid not.” On the international black market, an AR-15 can be purchased for ten dollars or less apiece; this happens in Somalia and many other states, according to Dr. Nutt. The AR-15s found in Somalia are commonly made in the United States. Upon further research, Dr. Nutt revealed that other women in surrounding villages were blockaded from accessing medical facilities by young men wielding guns as well.

Dr. Samantha Nutt giving her lecture with gun violence statistics in the background
Dr. Samantha Nutt with gun violence statistics. Source: Tyler Goodwin, author.

“Globally, we are currently spending about $249 per person on war; that is twelve times more than what we spend on humanitarian assistance across the world.”

Glancing at the statistics, one may assume that, globally, we prioritize the sale of guns and military weapons over the safety and welfare of humans. At home and abroad, we are quick to sell a rifle but question whether or not humanitarian action is necessary at every turn.

Dr. Nutt told of another visit by Edith, immediately after Edith was subjected to an act of violence. Dr. Nutt was in her office with her phone, laptop, water, and other items an average American would consider a necessity. Edith pointed Dr. Nutt’s possessions and said, “all of this is for you. We die for nothing.”

Addressing the faults of a failed state is necessary. Ignoring these issues perpetuates cycles of violence we see in war-torn Somalia, which causes Edith and countless other people to lose their families and threatens their very existence. Education provides the tools to combat issues that threaten peace. With knowledge of what is happening in Somalia, we are indirectly fighting for Edith and the other Somali citizens that say they “die for nothing.”

“We begin to tip the balance in favor of peace when we question the institutions that infringe upon it.”

Dr. Nutt also presented on the massacre in Parkland, Florida, where seventeen high school students were murdered. She mentioned the gun used in the Parkland shooting was the same grade as the ones commonly used in Somalia to block access to health facilities. Bangalore and Messerli of the American Journal of Medicine argue that the easier it is to access firearms, the higher the chances of violence are. With the average price of an AR-15 being about ten dollars on the black market, it is safe to say that these firearms are easily accessible.

In Dr. Nutt’s recent post on the Parkland shooting titled “The Kids are not Alright,” she calls for legislative action within the United States by citing other nations’ gun control legislation:

“…every developed nation that has imposed stricter gun control in the wake of mass shootings saw a precipitous decline in mass shootings and other gun related deaths. In Australia mass shootings dropped by 93% percent after a successful government gun ‘buy-back’ program following the 1996 Port Arthur massacre, which saw 35 people slaughtered. In the United Kingdom, after strict gun control measures were introduced in the wake of the Dunblane massacre of 15 kindergartners, there has not been another mass shooting in the 22 years since. Gun homicides have dropped to one third of their former levels. In Canada, a country with looser gun laws than the UK but tighter controls relative to the United States, gun related homicides are 8 times less per capita than the country’s southern neighbours.”

We have seen the Parkland shooting survivors gather support across the nation and assemble at our nation’s capital. By calling for change, they are calling for their form of peace. This is not to say that all gun owners disrupt that peace, but a military grade assault rifle should not be available for purchase on the black market for ten dollars and should not be available to purchase at your local Wal-Mart.

Dr. Nutt concludes by stating, “It does not matter how much you give, it matters how you give.” In her post mentioned above, she says, “Political candidates who openly advocate for gun control need financial and volunteer support. And those who resist gun control measures should be actively and consistently opposed, until NRA endorsements and contributions are seen as politically toxic.”

Human rights education gives us the tools to prevent acts of violence and teaches us how to fight against it when we see it. Like the students of Parkland, it is our duty to fight for our peace both at home and abroad. By fighting against the oversaturation of guns and regulating the market here in the United States, we can hope that the number of guns circulating through the black market, and ultimately Somalia, will decrease. As human rights activists, it is our duty to fight for peace. So, where do we go from here? We go toward peace.

Peace sign
peace. Source: Ken Swinson, Creative Commons

“Invest in peace, not war.”

To see more upcoming events hosted by the UAB Institute for Human Rights, please visit our events page here.

 

Disclaimer: emboldened quotations were provided by Dr. Samantha Nutt on the February 28, 2018 IHR Event.