In the aftermath of the Newtown shootings, the national conversation on gun control is supposedly getting serious. To me, it looks like both sides are sticking to their familiar entrenchments. Still, there are glimmers of hope that some common-sense gun law reforms can squeak through our dysfunctional political system.
New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo has proposed what he termed "the toughest assault weapons ban in the nation" in a plan that would also ban all high-capacity magazines and require background checks even in private-party gun sales.
Meanwhile, Vice President Joe Biden has taken the helm of a White House task force on gun violence and has suggested policies much in line with Cuomo's. He has met at the White House with survivors of gun violence and gun advocacy groups, such as the National Rifle Association. Attorney General Eric Holder has met with a number of gun sellers, including Walmart, the nation's largest.
One troubling aspect of the public discourse on gun violence is the failure to acknowledge — and to solicit the opinions of — the group of Americans who are the vast majority of the victims of gun violence. They are not the tiny bodies of Sandy Hook Elementary School, not statistically anyway. They are not middle- and upper-middle-class white children, whose parents are now weighing the loony idea of arming the teachers who take classroom attendance.
No. Everyone who listens to nightly local television in America knows where the most likely victims of gun violence live and die. In Kansas City, where I live, it is the predominantly low-income east side of town, with only occasional reports from other neighborhoods.
In 2011, half the victims of homicide in America were African American, the vast majority of them male. The FBI's national crime database recorded 12,664 murders (which doesn't capture the actual number, as Florida and Alabama don't report figures to the bureau.) In nearly 68 percent of the homicides, a firearm was used.
Here are more useful tidbits from the FBI data: The vast majority of murders happen between people who know each other, 54 percent. Only 260 deaths in 2011 were considered justifiable homicides by private citizens, cases where armed people rushed to save the day, as so many gun proliferation advocates envision.
The homicide figures are just one measure of guns' toll. For every death by gunfire, at least another three people are shot, just not fatally. And because this violence tends to cluster in poorer neighborhoods, the impact is heightened. By the time some children complete high school, they will have lost as many classmates to violence as died at Columbine High School.
Yet few of those voices are being invited to comment in the national conversation, not in meaningful ways. To the extent that young black men are considered, it is as a rationale for flooding society with more guns. Read between the lines of what Larry Pratt, executive director of Gun Owners of America, said in a heated exchange with Piers Morgan on CNN. Attempting to rebut Gen. Stanley McChrystal's assertion that assault weapons are unnecessary outside the military, Pratt argued that "the general and his troops are not going to be there to protect the average American, the military nor the police, after social order implodes, after a hurricane, after an earthquake, during riots."
This is paranoia, and it is the predominant motif of the gun lobby, whose unwillingness to compromise is the major obstacle to adopting effective measures to curb gun violence. Background checks on gun purchases, in the eyes of the NRA and other advocacy groups, is tantamount to "blaming" lawful gun owners for gun crime.
The fact is that handguns were used in 73 percent of the murder and non-negligent manslaughter incidents in 2011. Even if you believe that guns don't start out destined for use in crime, obviously that's how many of them end up. After they roll off an assembly line and go to a Walmart or local gun shop, how do they get into the hands of a criminal? Tracking the trajectory of those weapons is imperative.
The commerce in guns — perhaps trafficking is a better word — is shockingly unregulated in this country. Amassing an arsenal outside the scrutiny of the law is a prerogative gun enthusiasts have jealously guarded — and in so doing, they have extended it to criminals as well.
The typical NRA supporter — white and suburban or exurban — does not feel the consequences of this, and does not care to contemplate them. The people we need to listen to now are those who are trapped in the world the gun nuts have made.
Mary Sanchez is an opinion-page columnist for The Kansas City Star. Her email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.