In the US we are so used to people being killed by guns that reports on such events are relegated to a few lines in local media or even none at all. It is only people outside the country who are astounded at the high rate of violent deaths and how we do not treat it as a scandalous epidemic that requires an immediate response.
British reporter Gary Younge has a new book that looks in depth at a specific day in America. On Saturday, November 23, 2013, 10 children and teens were killed by guns. The youngest was nine, the oldest 19 and the average age was 14.7. Seven were black, two Latinos, and one white. But this day was chosen by him at random and those numbers do not even represent all the deaths of teens and children that day since there is no national database that records gun deaths. They were just the ones that he could find by scouring local media for news items. In other words, this horrific statistic represents just a typical day in the gun-obsessed, blood-soaked nation that is the US.
In a lengthy interview, he talks about what he learned by looking closely into these deaths and how we rationalize away the carnage that is going on all around us as some kind of aberration when it is not.
Set less than a year after the Sandy Hook shooting, when a lone gunman killed six adults and 20 small children at a Connecticut elementary school, the book aims to capture the dissonance between Americans’ obsession with the all-too-regular spectacle of mass shootings and the “national shrug” with which the relentless stream of gun deaths is met every day. Yet the book is not polemical in the way gun debates often are; it is more simply and powerfully a quiet collection of stories. As Younge writes, “It is not a book about gun control,” though “it is a book made possible by the absence of gun control.”
It’s a book about America. And you can’t talk about America without talking about race, but the way people understand race in America all too often is an exclusive, discrete thing, as opposed to something integral to the country. This was a random day rather than a representative day: way more black kids were shot dead than normal. But there is this very clear racial overlay to the way in which gun deaths are understood. Americans want to find a way to discount these deaths, “because they’re gang related” or “because they happened in this part of town,” and that’s a way of saying, “it’s not just that these people are likely [to die], they’re actually not really people.” It’s like this is happening to a different species.
You see that in some of the comments. After Samuel Brightmon is killed while walking a friend home he gets just 81 words in the paper, and this woman says, “Well I know where my children are, why don’t his parents know where his children are?” His mom knew exactly where he was.
I was on a radio show recently and someone said, “If you took out three or four cities, then this country wouldn’t look so bad.” How do you do that? If you just imagine America without Chicago, St. Louis, New Orleans, Oakland, then what is the rest of America? It’s crazy. They have arranged a way of trying to reimagine America without these people in it.
No other Western country has death like this, because no other Western country has access to lethal weapons in this way. Nonetheless there is this huge pile of tinder onto which these lethal weapons are flowing: segregation, isolation, the lack of youth services, deindustrialization, poverty. There are all these things that come together, so to talk about gun control by itself, in most of these places, is an insufficient conversation. There’s nothing here, there are no jobs, there’s no hope, the schools are terrible, they’re policed like an occupied territory, the kids are going to prison, there are no youth services, the basketball courts don’t work, there are no health services. You get guns into that and of course what you get is this kind of failed state; but you withdraw guns from that and it’s not like what you get is Switzerland or Sweden. You get a failed a state where people aren’t armed.
America does a very good job of telling itself these stories of victories and reinventing itself. In a way, that makes it very easy first of all to forget where it’s been, but certainly what’s still going on. So, Obama is elected in 2008 and people say, “Well this is a post-racial America, this is the end.” And he’s leaving eight years later and black people are still being shot dead in the street and Donald Trump has been elected. But the American narrative is one of this constant sense of reinvention, which is kind of beyond truth really. They’ll say, “We’re done with that, we’ll travel light not only in terms of our historical baggage, but even stuff that’s going on now. We’re just going to say it’s not happening.”
Jill Leovy’s Ghettoside has a very good formulation to this, which is that black communities in America are over-policed but underserved. There are police everywhere until you need them. Their job is not to serve those communities but to control them. There’s very little confidence in police. Pretty much all the families I spoke to just don’t think the system is working for them. They don’t assume that their child’s life matters to the people charged with finding out; they just think they don’t care, and the basis for that is how few people get back to them. Because journalists don’t follow up on these things, there’s no pressure. There’s no political pressure. These people don’t contribute to campaigns, journalists don’t follow up on their stories, they can’t afford lawyers. There’s no pressure on police to do anything, which would not be true if it was a rich person in a fancy part of town.
We are so good at deluding ourselves that things are better than they are. On a personal level, this attitude may be necessary in order simply to get through the day. People who experience a senseless tragedy need to find some silver lining in order to regain hope that things are not really that bad and that life is still worth living. But that same survival technique may not be what is best on a societal level. That might require a hard, brutal look at the reality if we are going to deal with the problem effectively. And in American right now, guns, racism, and economic desperation combine to form a volatile mix that we ignore at our peril.