Waiting for the War on Guns

Laws have been made to end drug trade and terrorism. So why don't mass shootings inspire change?

Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

(The Root) -- James Holmes, the suspect in the Aurora, Colo., movie theater shootings, which killed 12 and wounded nearly 60 more, purchased 6,000 rounds of ammunition online in four months. He was captured with automatic handguns, assault rifles, magazines (which allow multiple firings without pause), tear gas and other military-style weaponry in his apartment. All of it was purchased legally, and in some cases without a background check. Yet somehow Holmes failed to spark the interest of local or federal authorities. No FBI red flags, no Homeland Security surveillance, no wire taps or "no-fly" lists.

The fact that Holmes was able to amass his arsenal without rousing suspicion reflects a racial bias at the heart of existing American gun-enforcement policies: how present laws might aid and abet white male criminal behavior. Beyond Second Amendment arguments, which have flooded the airwaves, a more basic consideration should be the misguided view the country has of who fits a "criminal" profile. Who counts as a "terrorist"? And what constitutes a "suspicious" character?

The tragic events of Sept. 11 gave birth to a "war on terror" that frames Muslims -- whether domestic or foreign-born -- as the enemy within. Even Hindus and Sikhs from India are targeted, simply because of their appearance and brown skin. Trillions in taxpayer dollars have been committed to defeating this elusive enemy -- from lower Manhattan to Afghanistan, Iraq to Pakistan.

Similarly, the war on drugs has left a legacy that criminalizes African-American and Hispanic males, leaving them subject to search and seizure, and denying them the Fourth Amendment protections most Americans take for granted. Some of our media, politicians and law enforcement apparatus have colluded to ensure minority communities are over-policed and that blacks, in particular, are the main suspects. And like the war on terror, this 25-year drug war comes at a high price. Billions are spent targeting, policing and prosecuting minorities, despite statistics that show white Americans are more engaged in the illegal trade of guns and drugs. Press reports focus on gun violence in the inner cities of Chicago, Detroit and Los Angeles, but independent studies confirm that per capita rates of gun violence are the same across rural and urban communities -- from small-town Montana to Newark, N.J. 

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The Tuscon, Ariz., mass shooting in January 2011 -- which killed six and left Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.) and 11 others severely injured -- was committed by Jared Loughner, a 22-year-old white male who had a similar profile to Holmes: quiet, reserved and seemingly apolitical.

As in the Holmes case, media reports immediately focused on whether mental illness, depression and isolation were the root cause. There seems to be a desire to humanize white perpetrators in a wildly different way from the manner in which suspected Muslim terrorists are automatically demonized, and African-American males -- even when innocent -- are unjustly criminalized. Is the mitigating factor in crime, punishment and perception always race?

Far too many similar cases exist. Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, the 18- and 17-year-old killers in the Columbine High School massacre of 1999, were also young, disaffected white males -- immediately characterized as outcasts and victims of bullying. Entries in Harris' diary would later reveal he aspired to hijack planes and crash them into New York City -- the same kind of destructive designs that would bring down the World Trade Center just two years later.

Other infamous characters, Timothy McVeigh and his two co-conspirators -- all white males -- orchestrated the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, which was the deadliest domestic terrorist attack before 9/11, claiming 168 lives and injuring more than 800. McVeigh was dismissed as an anomaly and a scientific madman.

There are infamous mass shooters, of course, who are not white, the most recent examples being the 1993 Long Island Railroad shooter Colin Ferguson, a man of Jamaican descent who murdered six train passengers, and the Beltway sniper John Allen Muhammad, an African-American, Louisiana-born Army veteran. Each case presents an instance -- as in other mass shootings -- in which a mentally unstable person has access to guns and does irreparable harm. But both Ferguson and Muhammad lived in an America where they were far more likely to be policed for potential crime simply by virtue of their black skin. And in both cases, handguns or rifles were used. Neither had stockpiled a cadre of military-style weapons. If they had -- as did their white counterpart in the gun-liberal state of Colorado -- one can imagine that laws would have been amended.