The tragic case of Trayvon Martin, the 17-year-old boy fatally shot in a suburban Orlando, Fla., neighborhood last month, has rightly galvanized certain quarters of the country. It has become a symbolic commentary on race, class and justice. But it should also offer a window into a larger, universal question: Where is the meaningful gun-policy debate in America?
Trayvon, of course, is the Miami teen who was killed on Feb. 26 after a confrontation with George Zimmerman, a 28-year-old neighborhood-watch volunteer. Florida authorities have declined to charge Zimmerman — who was licensed to carry a weapon — in Trayvon's death because Zimmerman claimed self-defense.
On Monday the U.S. Justice Department announced that it will open an investigation into the case. The White House, meanwhile, has said that it will not wade into a "local law-enforcement matter." Still, a family mourns, and a country tries to make sense of it all.
The case is a consequence of our thirst for guns. Consider this: Every three hours somewhere in America, a child dies as a result of gun violence. Between 1979 and 2007, the number of firearm-related deaths (pdf) among black youths rose 61 percent — even as it fell 54 percent among young whites. If you're a black male between 15 and 19 years of age, you're nearly five times as likely as your white peers to be killed with a gun.
Recorded gun sales continue to rise, even as violent-crime rates have fallen to the lowest levels in decades. In rural, suburban and urban communities — particularly black ones — gun violence not only remains a problem; it's also a war. Weapons are too easy to get: Nearly 40 percent of gun sales in the United States occur without a background check. It's impossible to know if the person sitting next to us on the bus, or in class, is carrying a gun.
Many of the solutions rest with parents and individuals. The responsibility also lies with policymakers. As mayor of New Orleans in the late 1990s, Marc Morial boldly sued gun manufacturers and trade associations partly to stem the flow of weapons into the city. Several black members of Congress have taken leading roles in addressing the prevalence of guns.
Here's some contrast: On March 13 a trio of senators, led by Alaska's Mark Begich, introduced a measure to allow people to carry concealed weapons across state lines — even into states like New York and New Jersey, which don't recognize out-of-state permits. Much of the 2012 presidential race has been a reality show (see: Mitt Romney, dog, Seamus) with the occasional foray into meaningful policy questions, like how to create jobs that pay decent wages. So it's not entirely surprising that the issue of guns has slipped off the radar.
Some of the responsibility in steering the conversation toward the prevalence of guns in this country rests with President Obama. In his August 2008 nomination speech, then-Sen. Obama deftly addressed the complexity of the gun debate, saying, "The reality of gun ownership may be different for hunters in rural Ohio than they are for those plagued by gun violence in Cleveland, but don't tell me that we can't uphold the Second Amendment while keeping AK-47s out of the hands of criminals." He campaigned with a pledge to reinstate the Clinton-era ban on assault weapons, which expired in 2004. It's unclear where the administration stands on the issue.
Shortly after the January 2011 shooting of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, the president wrote an op-ed in the Arizona Daily Star noting that his administration has expanded certain gun rights — for instance, allowing people to carry weapons in national parks and wildlife refuges. Activists at groups like the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence are carefully holding their breath. Dan Gross, the group's president, says of President Obama: "He has called for a national conversation on the gun issue, but his voice hasn't been heard."
Part of the president's calculus hinges on a reluctance to irritate certain segments of the electorate, particularly in swing states like New Mexico and Nevada, where skepticism about government intrusion is deep. There's understandable fear of a backlash from the influential gun-rights lobby.
Nevertheless, here's what Obama could do: Pledge not to sign bills like Begich's, should it ever pass Congress. He could explicitly call for new legislation requiring background checks on all recorded gun sales. "Having the president approach it like that," Gross says, "could make an immense difference in helping to make this a safer nation."
The president alone can't break our love affair with guns. But it's hardly unreasonable to expect him to play a more muscular role in shaping the debate. Ultimately, we bear the responsibility for keeping our streets safe for children like Trayvon Martin.