(The Root) — Shortly after the Jovan Belcher tragedy I was asked on a television program whether or not the NFL player’s high-profile murder-suicide and sports announcer Bob Costas’ courageous comments about gun violence in the incident’s aftermath would have any impact on gun control in America. I answered that they would not. The reason? Because as I noted during that interview, historically our country has only addressed the issue of gun violence when it touches the lives of those with whom our leaders are most likely to identify. Rarely are those likely to be incidents involving people of color suffering domestic violence or teens of color from low-income communities who are victims of urban gun violence.
Instead the gun tragedies that have actually moved our elected officials to significant action on gun control have been those incidents in which victims are most likely to remind our leaders of their own friends, families and communities, incidents like the 1993 shooting on a Long Island Rail Road train, which killed commuters from New York’s professional class or the 1999 Columbine High School shooting, which made gun control the cause célèbre of white suburban moms, culminating in the Million Mom March in 2000.
Now it appears another incident is poised to finally move our leaders to action once again, 13 years after Columbine. The murder of 20 children and six adults in the quiet and normally safe enclave of Newtown, Conn., on Dec. 14 is forcing a conversation about gun control that the shooting of 26 residents in one night in Chicago this summer — resulting in the deaths of two teens and injury of 24 others — could not. As previously noted in an analysis by the now-defunct the Daily, more Chicago residents, many of them urban youth, were killed by gun violence in the first half of 2012 than American soldiers were killed in Afghanistan during the same period.
Just think about those numbers for a moment.
Yet I don’t recall elected officials of either party making the rounds of the Sunday morning news shows, explicitly to urge action in honor of those kids. But that has happened in the wake of the Newtown tragedy, just as it happened briefly in the wake of the Aurora, Colo., movie theater tragedy. But the difference between the incident in Aurora and the latest one in Newtown is that Aurora took place months before an election, a time in which very few politicians, including the president, feel their most politically courageous, particularly when it comes to provoking the ire of the political giant that is the National Rifle Association. As I wrote at the time, apparently there are four branches of government: the executive, the legislative, the judicial and the NRA. Perhaps it would have been more accurate for me to write that the NRA was the most influential undeclared candidate in the presidential race, not to mention every Senate and House race, too.
Now with the election safely in the rearview mirror, here’s hoping our leaders will drum up a bit more courage before another tragedy unfolds. Some already have begun to.
After Columbine, some newly inspired gun-control activists, many of them upper-middle-class mothers from predominantly white communities, expressed regret to mothers of color for not being involved in the fight for gun control earlier, when gun violence claimed the lives of kids who didn’t grow up in leafy suburbs and whose deaths were not likely to garner extensive coverage on the nightly news. The activism ignited by Columbine resulted in more stringent gun control laws and more diligent enforcement of existing laws, particularly on the state level.
Now, more than a decade later, the cycle appears to be repeating itself. Here’s hoping that this time around, the activism the Newtown tragedy sparks will have long-term impact on communities like Newtown nationwide, and as a result, also impact urban communities that appear on the outside to have little in common with the tony Connecticut suburb, but are now united in the shared tragedy and heartbreak of young lives cut short by gun violence.