Having identified the problem, but without being able to envision any political remedy, Williams grudgingly understands the ubiquitous presence of guns as a banal fact of death in this country. Herein lies the central challenge for the national gun-control movement: It has rallied many good people who are doing good work, but it has failed to connect with the communities most keenly affected by gun violence. Indeed, the people who need it most—low-income communities of color—are the very ones we hear from least.
Segregation is a serious barrier to empathy. So when poor black and brown people are shot dead in areas deprived of resources, the media, the police, and a sizable portion of the political class are confirmed in their view that these are dysfunctional places where dysfunctional people live and die. It doesn’t challenge their worldview; it confirms it.
“If you’re a reader of The New York Times, then a child who is shot by a stray bullet during a gang shooting is not easy for you to imagine,” says Dan Kois, the culture editor of Slate, who in 2013 ran an online, crowdsourced death tally to record all the people who were shot daily. “Sandy Hook was easy for people to imagine.”
When there are mass shootings, the nation’s attention becomes concentrated on the issue. National gun-control advocates come to the fore and make the case for the kind of common-sense laws that would keep more Americans safe. But most people who are shot dead do not die in mass shootings—and most children and teens who are shot dead are not that young and not that white. Indeed, most people who are killed by a gun use one to kill themselves, and many of the remaining deaths come in the form of routine interpersonal violence. So the readers of The New York Times (and The Nation, for that matter) are going to have to broaden their imaginations if they’re going to mount an effective, sustainable challenge to the gun lobby.
While there is a racial component to this–and a decidely non-trivial one–I think there’s also an urban versus suburban/rural divide. Overwhelmingly, in urban areas, homicides are caused by handguns–it’s not like the movies where every hardcase has a long-barrel semi-automatic. That’s what people in cities, regardless of race, worry about: someone pulling out a hidden handgun and shooting you over something stupid (an argument or a robbery), not some spree shooter. Instead of a fist fight or even a knife, someone pulls a trigger, and, bang, you’re dead. People in the suburbs, unless they’re truly paranoid, don’t worry about this. Yet handguns, far and anyway, are the leading cause of death, not assault rifles (not saying people should have easy access to those either).
But we won’t get a handle on gun violence until we get serious about handguns.