Gun Violence’s No. 1 Target: Black Children

Mass shootings and Chicago get the headlines, but states with lax gun laws are the real problem.

Residents rally against crime in New Orleans in 2007. (Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

In 2012 Chicago’s gun violence helped produce a murder rate of 18.7 deaths per 100,000 Windy City residents, according to federal data. But other communities grew far more violent. In New Orleans, for example, the murder rate reached 53.5 per 100,000.

The share of the population killed in New Orleans and other cities in states with limited gun restrictions actually comes stunningly close to the portion of people killed in recently war-torn, developing countries. And that brand of American violence most often claims children and teens of color as its victims.

In 2009, 43 percent of people who died from a gun injury of any kind were black, according to a CDF report (pdf). The following year, that figure dropped to 36 percent. Still, the death rate for black children because of guns remains nearly five times higher than that of white children killed by guns each year. 

Studies have repeatedly shown that children exposed to violence can have a harder time learning, eating, sleeping, concentrating and controlling their own anger, anxiety and mood. So gun violence not only can take lives but can also beget other social problems.

Despite that evidence, the kind of gun violence killing children, particularly black children, remains poorly understood. Since the 1990s, a lobbying effort led by the National Rifle Association prompted Congress to effectively cut off funding for Centers for Disease Control and Prevention research on the causes of gun violence, gun-buying and sales patterns and the safety of people living in households with guns. The Obama administration took steps earlier this year to restart this research.

Perhaps even worse, the shooting deaths in cities like New Orleans are often dismissed by Americans who blame the victims for “living in that neighborhood,” “hanging out in that spot” or “being involved with crime,” says John Richie, one of the producers of Shellshocked, a documentary about the impact of gun violence in New Orleans. Some have even convinced themselves that the shooting deaths in some communities don’t cause real pain, he says.

The film, released this year, dedicates significant time to highlighting the myriad effects of growing up in a violence-drenched space. The film is creating quite a stir. Shellshocked’s producers have been invited to screen the film at the National League of Cities Conference, a gathering of the nation’s mayors and thousands of municipal officials, in November.

But groups, such as the NRA, that are pushing to relax the nation’s gun laws or are actively lobbying against new restrictions have repeatedly insisted that it is essential that firearms remain within ready reach of ordinary citizens. Weapons in the hands of law-abiding Americans make communities and families safer, they argue.

The groups have used campaign donations and other legal forms of political influence to prevent gun control measures from facing a congressional vote, says the CDF’s Fichtenberg. But a dedicated and vocal group of gun control advocates could force every state in the country to implement significant change, she adds.

“If we could create an army,” says Fichtenberg, “of people who care about the safety of black children [and are] willing to be as vocal at the state level as the small group of extremists preventing these kinds of measures at the federal level, we could create the policy we need in all 50 states.”

Janell Ross is a reporter in New York who covers political and economic issues. She is working on a book about race, economic inequality and the recession, due to be published by Beacon Press next year. Follow her on Twitter.