Gun Violence: Advocate for Thoughtful, Nuanced Policy

January 2013

In the wake of the school shooting in Newtown, Connecticut, there is a widespread call to end gun violence.  It is intensified by shootings in malls and schools, notably in Colorado and Arizona; gun deaths among urban youth in Chicago; and overuse of guns by authorities, as in a recent car chase in Cleveland that ended with police firing 137 shots at the driver and passenger, killing them.  Debate now focuses on requiring background checks, establishing an assault weapons ban, and limiting access to high capacity gun magazines.  There has been a general call to address mental illness, and some have pushed the idea of arming teachers or placing guards in schools.   

Sometimes much heat signifies nothing.  Gun control advocates are pitted against the National Rifle Association.  Politicians propose quick “fixes” that fail to address deeper problems.  All proposals are complicated by workability, politics, and morality.  What is missing is thoughtful, holistic consideration of the issues surrounding gun violence

Gun Control:  We can extend background checks to gun shows and ask state and federal offices to coordinate information.  This could be beneficial, but its effectiveness needs to be evaluated.  Background checks aren’t working effectively and don’t prevent the use of stolen guns.  We should reinstate a ban on assault weapons and limit access to high capacity magazines, but of course powerful lobbyists withhold political donations when gun and ammunition sales are restricted.  The flurry of activity seems intended to reduce violence, but we cannot be naive about money and political power.  How can we uncouple politics from policy that serves people?

Mental Illness:  Mental illness rarely predicts violence and is sometimes misdiagnosed.  The larger problem is that we’ve deconstructed mental health programs.  For half a century, the U.S. prison population was constant at about 250,000 people.  In the 1980s, we deinstitutionalized the most seriously mentally ill and criminalized low-level drug offenses, pushing our incarcerated population to 2.3 million.  Prison became the primary warehouse for the mentally ill, who rarely receive appropriate treatment and who cycle through the justice system at tremendous cost. 

School Policing:  The cost of placing armed guards in every school in the country would be stunning and would provide only the appearance of safety while further reducing funds available for education.  The U.C.C.’s civil rights partners have documented that when police instead of educators undertake student discipline, arrests for trivial misbehavior increase for LGBTQ youth, youth of color and those with disabilities.  The hostile environment criminalizes students and pushes them away from learning.   

Let us center our discussions on light, not darkness.  We need to support education for our youth, diminish the school-to-prison pipeline, and nourish learning in a creative and free atmosphere.  Our society must provide appropriate treatment for the mentally ill, take them out of prisons, and improve our ability to identify the tiny minority who are likely to become violent.  When new laws are enacted, we must find a way to institute accountability not only among lawmakers, but lobbyists who push the laws.

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