REYES: We are past point of gun control, we need to fix our system


Opinions Column: Free as in Libre


On Oct. 1, at least 58 people were killed and over 500 were injured in a mass shooting committed by Stephen Paddock, a 64-year-old white man, at a concert in Las Vegas. Since news of the mass shooting spread, the dominant conversation in mainstream and social media outlets has been the one that follows almost every mass shooting in the past two decades: gun control. There are numerous issues stemming from the gun control conversation, including but not limited to how Paddock was not immediately labeled a terrorist, the conflation of mental illness and proclivity of violent behavior and crime and the erasure of other violent events in U.S. history more deadly than the Las Vegas shooting when inaccurately labelling it the “worst mass shooting in U.S. history.”

All of these topics are being discussed in depth. How we frame problems contributing to and deriving from gun violence plays a critical role in how we ultimately address them. But many people reduce this extremely complex problem to the seemingly “simple” solution to gun control. Criticisms are centered on the NRA and how legislators should “stand up” to them for those who have been murdered. While it is healthy to mourn and seek justice for those we have lost, we should not lose sight of the fact that country’s history of gun laws, whether favorable to ownership or stricter regulation, have had racist, gendered and ableist impacts in their implementation and enforcement. Furthermore, how we discuss gun violence in this country has international implications, and the narrative that this level of gun violence is only seen in the U.S. is not only categorically false, it negates how the U.S. has contributed to the extraordinary violence being waged in Latin America and the Caribbean. Before deciding if you are either for or against guns, it is crucial we address the systemic causes of violence.

After the Civil War, southern states passed laws known as “Black Codes,” which restricted the economic and civil rights of freed black people, including their right to bear arms. Even though the passage of the 14th Amendment required laws to be “race-neutral,” representatives learned to draft legislation with neutrally-worded language to be applied discriminatorily. A recent example of this is the Mulford Act, a law signed by California’s then-Gov. Ronald Reagan, prohibiting the open carry of guns in public places. Its passage was in response to members of the Black Panther Party carrying weapons into the California capitol building in 1967 to protest police brutality. The following year, former President Richard Nixon signed the Gun Control Act of 1968, banning cheaply-made handguns used mostly by people of color and barring felons and the mentally ill from owning firearms. The crux of these policies is that they purposefully stripped power and autonomy of black people to further those of white people, which has been identified as a mechanism of white supremacy. The fact that the latter two laws were passed by Republicans and actively supported by the NRA demonstrates how powerful policy-making and influencing institutions have altered their stances over time to disarm and incarcerate black people, mainly poor black men.

When we look internationally, it cannot be overstated how the country's role in the proliferation of war and unrest perpetuates gun violence abroad. While the U.S. has a high per capita gun deaths rate compared to other highly industrialized countries, the 2016 figure of 3.85 gun deaths per 100,000 people is 31st in the world and is dwarfed by El Salvador’s figure of 40.29 gun deaths per 100,000 people. Two weeks ago, nearly 200 people were murdered in one week in El Salvador — violence that is directly tied to the presence of gangs, drug trafficking and firearms proliferation from the horrifying and calculated War on Drugs and U.S.-intervention in El Salvador’s government. The global narrative is definitively very nuanced — arguing that U.S. gun violence is “unparalleled” obfuscates its complexity.

Gun violence arises from larger, structural and systemic forces like white supremacy, the patriarchy, the military-industrial complex and imperialism — all working in tandem to reinforce one another and the capitalist economic structure. Those that cite gun control as the answer to gun violence are supporting a false solution that will do nothing to address systemic violence and may ultimately have detrimental impacts on marginalized people at home and abroad. It is past time that our conversation on gun violence addresses these insidious aspects of the governance and nature of our society so that we can uproot violence at its source. We must begin to move beyond superficial solutions and take a systems approach to eradicate all forms of violence for the health, safety and security of the people.

Thalya Reyes is an Edward J. Bloustein School of Public Policy master's candidate for public policy and city and regional planning. Her column, "Free as in Libre," runs on alternate Tuesdays.


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Thalya Reyes

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