“In 2008, 2,947 children and teens died from guns in the United States and 2,793 died in 2009 for a total of 5,740,” details Protect Children Not Guns 2012 (Children’s Defense Fund), “—one child or teen every three hours, eight every day, 55 every week for two years” (p. 2).
Tragedy is often reserved for single catastrophic events, but cumulative loss is no less tragic, particularly when the lives of innocent children and teens are placed in the context of daily violence.
While the places of mass shootings have become part of the lore of the U.S.—Columbine, Aurora, Fort Hood, Newtown—and while 24-hour news reporting blankets these tragedies, President Obama’s proclaiming “they’re all our children” and admitting American’s failing their children can offer only tempered hope since political leaders and the public remain incapable of confronting and addressing the daily toll America’s gun and violence fetish takes on children—especially at the intersection of race, class, gender, and gun access.
Sacrificing (Some) Children
In “Will Obama Cry for Inner City Youth?” David Muhammad shares an exchange with a friend and then confronts political blindness to gun violence and some children:
“She provided me with the information I was seeking. Then she included a P.S.: ‘What a devastating horrible day in CT. But frankly I wish people cared this much when it was children on the south and west sides of Chicago.’…
“Gun violence in America is a pandemic, but there is no round-the-clock news coverage. No national address from the President with tears. No pledge for urgent change.
“Why? Is it because the children who die on the streets of America’s cities are black and brown? Is it because they are poor? What makes the victims of everyday inner-city gun violence expendable?”
•The 5,740 children and teens killed by guns in 2008 and 2009:
+ Would fill more than 229 public school classrooms of 25 students each;
+ Was greater than the number of U.S. military personnel killed in action in Iraq and Afghanistan (5,013).
• The number of preschoolers killed by guns in 2008 (88) and in 2009 (85) was nearly double the number of law enforcement officers killed in the line of duty in 2008 (41) and 2009 (48).
• Black children and teens accounted for 45 percent of all child and teen gun deaths in 2008 and 2009 but were only 15 percent of the total child population.
• Black males 15-19 were eight times as likely as White males of the same age and two-and-a-half times as likely as their Hispanic peers to be killed in a gun homicide in 2009.
• The leading cause of death among Black teens ages 15 to 19 in 2008 and 2009 was gun homicide. For White teens 15 to 19 it was motor vehicle accidents followed by gun homicide in 2008 and gun suicide in 2009.
• The most recent analysis of data from 23 industrialized nations shows that 87 percent of the children under age 15 killed by guns in these nations lived in the United States. The gun homicide rate in the United States for teens and young adults ages 15 to 24 was 42.7 times higher than the combined rate for the other nations.
• Of the 116,385 children and teens killed by a gun since 1979, when gun data by age were first collected, 44,038 were Black—nearly 13 times more than the number of recorded lynchings of Black people of all ages in the 86 years from 1882 to 1968. Even so, more White than Black children and teens have died from gun violence. (p. 2)
The racial, gender, and class inequities among gun violence, imprisonment, and school discipline policies are stunningly similar. But in each context, political and public discourse remains focused on anything except the fact of the inequities—guns, the Second Amendment, criminals, failing schools and teachers.
The American gaze is both pinpoint and blind.
The NRA’s delayed and commercial response to the Sandy Hook shooting represents both the tragedy of America’s gun fetish—at its roots both a lust for violence and a mania for ownership that has supplanted a faith in liberty—and holds up a mirror to political leadership and the public: “There exists in this country, sadly, a callous, corrupt and corrupting shadow industry that sells and stows violence against its own people.”
Yes, but this distraction about video games from the NRA is more accurately a discription of the NRA.
The incidences of mass shootings, including the ones that massacre children, along with the daily loss of children to gun violence—notably the loss of “other people’s children” who primarily happen to be in poverty, happen to be of color—are the realities America has created and the realities America tolerates.
Countries very similar to the U.S. in most ways have violent video games, TV and movies dripping with violence, and mental illness (all legitimate concerns that have been used to distract from rather than confront gun violence); yet, despite the NRA propaganda designed to boost weapons sales as part of their lobbying for the gun industry:
“By any standards of human and moral decency, children in America are under assault, and by international standards, America remains an unparalleled world leader in gun deaths of children and teens—a distinction we shamefully and immorally choose! The most recent analysis of data from 23 high-income countries reported that 87 percent of children under age 15 killed by guns in these nations lived in the United States. And the U.S. gun homicide rate for teens and young adults 15 to 24 was 42.7 times higher than the combined gun homicide rate for that same age group in the other countries [emphasis in original].” (p. 5; also see chart on p. 31)
The Sandy Hook Elementary shooting left a wake of images of 6 adults and 20 small children, all faces on a tragedy that many will not soon forget. That day was both unimaginable and inexplicable.
But the disembodied and faceless numbers exposing America’s callous disinterest in accumulated gun violence, numbers that mask intolerable damage done to brown and black children living lives of poverty and violence that they did not choose—lives that their parents also lie buried beneath—appear not to trigger the same rhetoric, the same promises of action that mass shootings do, although side by side, the numbers are larger, the toll greater.
Take any child lost at Sandy Hook Elementary or any face of the hundreds of children behind the numbers catalogued by the Children’s Defense Fund and substitute that face, that image for the “one more thing” revealed by the narrator of Ursula K. Le Guin’s “The Ones Who Walk away from Omelas”:
“The room is about three paces long and two wide: a mere broom closet or disused tool room. In the room a child is sitting. It could be a boy or a girl. It looks about six, but actually is nearly ten….
“They all know it is there, all the people of Omelas. Some of them have come to see it, others are content merely to know it is there. They all know that it has to be there. Some of them understand why, and some do not, but they all understand that their happiness, the beauty of their city, the tenderness of their friendships, the health of their children, the wisdom of their scholars, the skill of their makers, even the abundance of their harvest and the kindly weathers of their skies, depend wholly on this child’s abominable misery.”
Like the people of Omelas, Americans and our leaders know gun violence and its toll on children are there, but when will we acknowledge the cost of allowing gun ownership and sales—the promise of profit—to trump the children of the U.S.? When will we confront this failure at the intersection of race, class, gender, and gun violence?
That some people’s privilege is on the backs of other people’s children?
Le Guin’s story ends with the narrator noting that some people, under the weight of knowing about this child trapped in the closet, simply walk away from Omelas. What I find most chilling about this dystopian tale is that the story does not include a single person acting against the inhumanity.
It is there that I find the story hitting too close to home.