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A two-pronged threat

Gun culture and racism in America

The Emmanuel African Methodist Episcopal church massacre in Charleston, South Carolina shouldn’t shock even a casual student of gun violence in the U.S. But its scale, venue and simple horror is a new low.

America’s Faustian entanglement with “gun freedom” is creating a social and physical landscape we almost certainly don’t want. 

In an address about the Charleston shootings, President Obama said America has more gun deaths than any other developed country.

University of Tulsa history professor Brian Hosner concurred.

“I agree with the president,” Hosner told me through e-mail. “Someday we’re going to have to confront the reality that these mass killings are rare occurrences in other advanced countries. If this bothers us, we will need to move beyond the notion that Americans have nothing to learn from other societies.”

The Charleston outrage is a nightmarish testament to the fact that deep, lurking racial animosity is still an everyday reality in America. In a sickening confection, self-confessed killer Dylann Roof has fused the reckless, imperial impulses at the heart of too many racially-fueled conflicts between bad cops and citizens of color—in Baltimore, New York, Ferguson, North Carolina and here in Tulsa—with the horrific mass killings we’ve seen in Newtown, Virginia Tech, Colorado, Arizona and elsewhere.  

These killings highlight a grim, accelerating “empowerment” dynamic in our country, driven by vast gun availability that offers no barriers to securing pocket-sized (and bigger) dispensers of death. Startlingly, a country already festooned with 300 million firearms will, by several credible accounts, soon have access to home-based gun-making machines—“3D printers” with Apple-like user interfaces. We’re at the cusp of a frightful path that promises anyone with a modicum of resources the “gift” of gun making—a sea change that will defeat even the most stringent gun control measures. 

The lockdown society

Imagine a country in which going almost anywhere—a restaurant, the supermarket, the gym, a church, a music festival—becomes an invasive, TSA-like routine that you repeat as you move through a typical day. For some Tulsans, daily encounters with scanners and security guards became routine long ago at workplaces, in gated communities and on some religious campuses. But these momentary hassles will seem trivial compared to a daily ritual of seemingly endless searches and pat-downs. 

The coming lockdown society is a galloping by-product of 9/11—one that’s quickened by our continued inability to coexist peacefully with one another across the color line.

An enormous amount of cogitation (though sadly, not much action) has gone into fixing our racial divide and rolling back gun violence. Here’s a brief survey of the critical and the creative: 

Move beyond “more guns” mythology // One of the so-called solutions floating around is a cluster of “data-rich” claims made over the past 15 years by economist and gun activist John Lott. The Lott assertion is a simple one: We simply don’t have enough gun users. A gun lobby leader recently blamed Emmanuel church’s Pastor Pinckney because he or one of his operatives should’ve had a gun on hand to “dispense” the 21-year-old who apparently killed him and nine of his congregants. Yet, a bundle of empirical studies strongly suggests that having still more gun users won’t deter mass killings. 

On June 18, Evan DeFillippis (a 2012 University of Oklahoma valedictorian) and Devin Hughes wrote about the previous day’s shooting in Charleston for The Trace, a gun violence watchdog website. 

“Gun-rights advocates have long defended the public carrying of guns on the basis of a widely debunked 1992 study estimating 1.5 million to 2.5 million incidents of defensive gun use per year,” they wrote. “Empirical evidence, however, indicates that defensive gun use may occur far less frequently: According to the Gun Violence Archive, there were only 1,600 verified accounts of defensive gun use in 2014. The best current statistical model, which corrects for numerous weaknesses in Lott’s body of work … suggests that concealed-carry laws may actually increase the rate of aggravated assaults.”

Detect guns in public spaces // Pushing the advanced development and broad-scale use of electronic gunpowder detectors in public spaces would increase transparency and improve public safety. Still in the early stages of development, these fixed scanning sensor arrays (known as electronic noses) and other gun detection devices could communicate with a smart phone app to indicate who in your immediate proximity is packing heat.

 Befriend the other // A society in which children don’t encounter kids unlike themselves is bound to have problems. It appears that Roof never really had any sustained encounters with black folks. His experience, it seems, came mostly from selective exposure—toxic relatives, gonzo websites, TV and movies.

The past decade has given rise to several strategies to expose young Americans to a more diverse cross-section of their fellow citizens. One of the most intriguing, if contentious, notions would require every child to make a one-time community service commitment for a few months to a year. The great historic models here are the FDR/New Deal youth employment efforts. The many arguments against this option come mostly from the libertarian vantage and from right-wing partisans—both see national youth service programs as another instance of big government overreach.

The counterargument of course is that democracy has its costs, and creating a world in which kids (and adults) are less fearful of people unlike themselves is an essential component of a high-functioning modern America.

Alternatively, we might make huge strides through imaginative, focused attempts to get adults from all of Tulsa’s hoods and hangouts to spend time with one another on a regular, sustained basis. But as “Bowling Alone” author and diversity guru Robert Putnam notes, reconciliation campaigns are no picnic. Evidence suggests that difficulties might initially increase as people interact more intensely with their crosstown/interracial compadres. The John Hope Franklin Reconciliation Foundation is doing some of this work here in Tulsa with its periodic gatherings, and the multi-pronged, interracial engagement efforts of All Souls Unitarian Church are also very promising.

Hold gun owners accountable // “Gun freedom” has an enormous cost in America—isn’t it time that gun owners and their powerful allies deal with this reality? A bill was introduced last year in the U.S. house that would require gun owners to purchase insurance. Like all gun-related issues, the politics and particulars of the bill are convoluted. But such insurance policies would likely reduce the human and property costs of accidental discharges and collateral damage from defensive use. Although civil lawsuits sometimes address these losses, mandatory insurance is surely an equity adjustment worth pursuing. 

Want to read more from Ray? Read about his tense encounter with rail cops, or check out his thoughts on nuclear power as alternative energy.