Gun Violence Is the Civil Rights Issue of Our Time

We betray the legacy of the civil rights movement—and fail to value black life—if we don’t take steps to end gun violence.

Residents of Chicago’s West Garfield Park neighborhood march on Sept. 5, 2012, in Chicago after 15-year-old Telessia Shields was shot in the abdomen while walking home from school.
Residents of Chicago’s West Garfield Park neighborhood march on Sept. 5, 2012, in Chicago after 15-year-old Telessia Shields was shot in the abdomen while walking home from school. Frank Polich/Getty Images

Fifty years ago America redefined its social, political and cultural landscape by guaranteeing civil rights—and voting rights the following year—for all citizens, irrespective of race or background. A half-century later, too many young people of color, especially black boys and young men, are routine victims of gun violence.

And stemming this rising tide of gun violence is the civil rights issue of our time.

In the 21st century, mass shootings have become stunningly common, their frequency corresponding with the availability of guns nationally. From suburban enclaves to inner cities, rural America to Midwestern prairies, shooting sprees have tragically scarred high schools and colleges; movie theaters and malls; churches, synagogues and mosques. The media obsession with high-profile mass shootings means that ordinary gun-related murder no longer merits national attention.

Yet every day, gun violence is also literally destroying parts of the black community in America. Cities such as Chicago, Boston and Newark, N.J., face an epidemic of gun-related homicides that are overwhelmingly affecting black men. Street shootings in urban areas where black men and women are the victims have become so commonplace that they rarely make the news at all. Father’s Day weekend in Chicago saw two new gun-related deaths, including the killing of a 17-year-old boy, marking the Windy City as ground zero in an epidemic of shootings that would otherwise be treated as a national crisis if white Americans were being murdered at similar rates to black Americans.

In the aftermath of many of these tragedies, President Barack Obama has spoken eloquently about the need to strengthen gun control at the national level, and congressional failure on this score illustrates the power of the National Rifle Association-led gun lobby as well as the cowardice of contemporary politicians.

Grassroots organizations such as the Dream Defenders have responded by organizing community-based campaigns to halt the violence, and the heroic behind-the-scenes, block-by-block organizing capable of transforming communities and changing lives remains underfunded and, too often, unacknowledged.

Hypocrisy animates our discussion of gun violence. The proliferation of guns in poor neighborhoods across the nation is symptomatic of a larger crisis of American democracy, one in which rampant inequality is the norm and in which it’s easier to get access to guns than to a high-quality public school. Political conservatives hide behind the Constitution, brandishing a definition of the Second Amendment so broad as to suggest that every man, woman and child in the nation should carry a loaded 9 mm. From this perspective, the root cause of gun violence is not that too many Americans have guns but that not enough law-abiding citizens carry them. Certain states have bought into this warped logic, allowing patrons to bring loaded firearms into restaurants and public places.

Liberals bear a share of the failure in this discussion, too, with the racial dimension of liberal outrage seen in the gulf between media interest after a mass killing—in which the victims are mostly white and affluent—and after the everyday shooting deaths that occur in urban America.