Skip to main content

The forgotten victims of gun violence

By Bassam Gergi and Ali Breland, Special to CNN
December 27, 2012 -- Updated 0237 GMT (1037 HKT)
 Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, center, and other area officials call for stronger gun regulations at a news conference last week.
Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, center, and other area officials call for stronger gun regulations at a news conference last week.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • While America was mourning Newtown victims, guns were claiming lives elsewhere in U.S.
  • Authors: Media focus on mass shootings, but continuing violence also needs coverage
  • They say inner cities suffer an epidemic of gun killings, and young are particularly vulnerable
  • Authors: There is a day-by-day slaughter of children that must be stopped

Editor's note: Bassam Gergi is studying for a master's degree in comparative government at St. Antony's College, Oxford, where he is also a Dahrendorf Scholar. Ali Breland studies philosophy at the University of Texas at Austin.

(CNN) -- On the Sunday after the Newtown massacre, President Barack Obama traveled to Connecticut to comfort the grieving community. As the president offered what he could to the town, other American communities, in less visible ways, were grappling with their own menace of violence.

In Camden, New Jersey -- a city that has already suffered 65 violent deaths in 2012 , surpassing the previous record of 58 violent deaths set in 1995 -- 50 people turned out, some bearing white crosses, to mourn a homeless woman known affectionately as the "cat lady" who was stabbed to death (50 of the deaths so far this year resulted from gunshot wounds.)

Bassam Gergi
Bassam Gergi

In Philadelphia, on the same Sunday, city leaders came together at a roundtable to discuss their own epidemic of gun violence; the year-to-date total of homicides is 322. Last year, 324 were killed. Of those victims, 154 were 25 or younger. A councilman at the roundtable asked, "How come as a city we're not in an outrage? How come we're not approaching this from a crisis standpoint?"

Ali Breland
Ali Breland

The concerns go beyond Philadelphia. In the week following the Newtown massacre, there were at least a dozen gun homicides in Chicago, Detroit, Baltimore and St. Louis alone. In a year of highly publicized mass shootings, inner-city neighborhoods that are plagued by gun violence have continued to be neglected and ignored.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, large metropolitan areas account for more than two-thirds of deaths by gun violence each year, with inner cities most affected. The majority of the victims are young, ranging in age from their early teens to mid-20s, and black.

To track these violent deaths, many communities and media organizations have set up agonizing online trackers -- homicide watches or interactive maps -- that show each subsequent victim as just another data point. These maps are representative of a set of issues far larger than the nameless dots suggest.

In the immediate aftermath of Newtown, as politicians and public figures across America grapple with the horrible truths of gun violence, far less visible from the national spotlight is the steady stream of inner-city victims.

Illegal firearms confiscated in a weapons bust in New York\'s East Harlem is on display at an October news conference.
Illegal firearms confiscated in a weapons bust in New York's East Harlem is on display at an October news conference.

The media is fixated, and with justification, on the string of high-profile massacres that have rocked the nation in Aurora, Colorado; Tucson, Arizona; Virginia Tech; and now in Newtown. Yet in many of America's neighborhoods most affected by the calamity of gun violence, there is a warranted exasperation -- residents are tired, tired of the ubiquity of guns, tired of fearing for their children's safety, tired of being forgotten.

Fiery debate over guns in America

Critiquing a narrow media focus doesn't deny the horrible, tragic nature of the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School; mass shootings, however, make up only a small fraction of America's shockingly high level of gun crime.

Fareed Zakaria's take: Gun control

In his study "American Homicide," Randolph Roth showed that while the overall risk of being murdered is higher in America than it is in any other first-world democracy, homicide rates vary drastically among groups.

89 guns per 100 people in the U.S.

According to Roth, if current trends are maintained, one out of every 158 white males born today will be murdered, but for nonwhite males it is likely one of every 27 born today will be murdered.

Morgan and others debate gun violence

The stark difference in these racial trends can be traced to the high levels of racial segregation in America's cities, which have created a spatial barrier between poor inner-city youths of color and more mainstream America -- a barrier that is often responsible for the lack of media and political attention paid to inner-city problems.

Many experts claim that actually it is the spectacular nature of mass shootings that naturally magnifies media coverage and explains the resonance of these tragedies to the broader public. Inner-city violence on its own, however, does not suffer from a lack of awful, spectacular violence and calamity. In fact, the gruesome nature of violence in inner cities has contributed to widespread social desensitization to gun violence. How then do we explain the differing public responses?

Become a fan of CNNOpinion
Stay up to date on the latest opinion, analysis and conversations through social media. Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion and follow us @CNNOpinion on Twitter. We welcome your ideas and comments.



An indicator of the difference of attention levels lies in the tone of the public rhetoric in the wake of mass shootings: "This was supposed to be a safe community," and "This kind of thing wasn't supposed to happen here."

These statements imply that in America's leafy-green small towns and suburbs, gun violence is a shocking travesty; it strikes against America's perception of what is acceptable. In contrast, gun violence in the American metropolis has been normalized, and the public and media display a passive indifference toward the lives of inner-city youths.

This normalization of inner-city violence is due in part, to the isolation and segregation of America's ghettos from wider America, but it is also due to a sense that the victims of inner-city violence are responsible for their own condition.

As Robert Sampson, a professor at Harvard University, has highlighted, the gun violence in American cities is born out of neighborhood characteristics such as poverty, racial segregation and lack of economic opportunity. This shortened explanation for the high levels of inner-city violence has often been mistaken to imply that it is the direct choice of inner-city residents to remain either in poverty or in their segregated community that leads to their victimization.

In reality, the victims of inner-city gun violence are the victims of a dual tragedy. The first is that the poverty and segregation, which play a crucial role in spurring the downward cycle of crime, are the result of social arrangements predicated on longstanding oppression and prejudice.

Through a complex mix of violence, institutional arrangements and exploitation, black Americans were pressured into ghettos, which are the hotbeds of contemporary gun violence. Their inability to escape their conditions is not a choice but rather the byproduct of continued structural discrimination. Slowing the tide of inner-city deaths through gun control is therefore a modern-day civil rights issue.

If the refusal of America's national politicians to move on gun control before Newtown represents a political failure and a paucity of American will, then the disregard for the lives of inner-city youths stricken by gun violence on a daily basis is an illustration of the limits of American compassion.

The slaughter of young children en masse should be a moment of reckoning for any society, but there is a day-by-day, child-by-child slaughter occurring in America that has gone on too long and is yet to be reckoned with.

If Newtown should teach us anything, it is that all of us in America share this same short moment of life, and that we all seek to ensure safety, security and prosperity for our children.

As Vice President Joe Biden and the presidential task force meet to negotiate about what new gun laws to recommend, they must look to Sandy Hook Elementary and beyond. We need to protect the children of Newtown from the threat of future gun violence, but the children of Chicago and Camden and Detroit deserve the same long-term security.

We may not be able to ensure absolute security for America's children, but through smarter policy America can surely save more of its children from gun violence.

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter.

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the authors.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
September 1, 2014 -- Updated 1221 GMT (2021 HKT)
Carlos Moreno says atheists, a sizable fraction of Americans, deserve representation in Congress.
August 31, 2014 -- Updated 1625 GMT (0025 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says Democrats and unions have a long history of mutual support that's on the decline. But in a time of income inequality they need each other more than ever
August 31, 2014 -- Updated 0423 GMT (1223 HKT)
William McRaven
Peter Bergen says Admiral William McRaven leaves the military with a legacy of strategic thinking about special operations
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 1611 GMT (0011 HKT)
Leon Aron says the U.S. and Europe can help get Russia out of Ukraine by helping Ukraine win its just war, sharing defense technologies and intelligence
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 1724 GMT (0124 HKT)
Timothy Stanley the report on widespread child abuse in a British town reveals an institutional betrayal by police, social services and politicians. Negligent officials must face justice
August 30, 2014 -- Updated 0106 GMT (0906 HKT)
Peter Bergen and David Sterman say a new video of an American suicide bomber shows how Turkey's militant networks are key to jihadists' movement into Syria and Iraq. Turkey must stem the flow
September 1, 2014 -- Updated 1554 GMT (2354 HKT)
Whitney Barkley says many for-profit colleges deceive students, charge exorbitant tuitions and make false promises
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 1434 GMT (2234 HKT)
Mark O'Mara says the time has come to decide whether we really want police empowered to shoot those they believe are 'fleeing felons'
August 28, 2014 -- Updated 1432 GMT (2232 HKT)
Bill Frelick says a tool of rights workers is 'naming and shaming,' ensuring accountability for human rights crimes in conflicts. But what if wrongdoers know no shame?
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 0243 GMT (1043 HKT)
Jay Parini says, no, a little girl shouldn't fire an Uzi, but none of should have easy access to guns: The Second Amendment was not written to give us such a 'right,' no matter what the NRA says
August 30, 2014 -- Updated 1722 GMT (0122 HKT)
Terra Ziporyn Snider says many adolescents suffer chronic sleep deprivation, which can indeed lead to safety problems. Would starting school an hour later be so wrong?
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 1330 GMT (2130 HKT)
Peggy Drexler says after all the celebrity divorces, it's tempting to ask the question. But there are still considerable benefits to getting hitched
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 1849 GMT (0249 HKT)
The death of Douglas McAuthur McCain, the first American killed fighting for ISIS, highlights the pull of Syria's war for Western jihadists, writes Peter Bergen.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 2242 GMT (0642 HKT)
Former ambassador to Syria Robert Ford says the West should be helping moderates in the Syrian armed opposition end the al-Assad regime and form a government to focus on driving ISIS out
August 27, 2014 -- Updated 1321 GMT (2121 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says a great country does not deport thousands of vulnerable, unaccompanied minors who fled in fear for their lives
August 27, 2014 -- Updated 1319 GMT (2119 HKT)
Robert McIntyre says Congress is the culprit for letting Burger King pay lower taxes after merging with Tim Hortons.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 2335 GMT (0735 HKT)
Wesley Clark says the U.S. can offer support to its Islamic friends in the region most threatened by ISIS, but it can't fight their war
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 2053 GMT (0453 HKT)
America's painful struggle with racism has often brought great satisfaction to the country's rivals, critics, and foes. The killing of Michael Brown and its tumultuous aftermath has been a bonanza.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 1919 GMT (0319 HKT)
Rick Martin says the death of Robin Williams brought back memories of his own battle facing down depression as a young man
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 1558 GMT (2358 HKT)
David Perry asks: What's the best way for police officers to handle people with psychiatric disabilities?
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 1950 GMT (0350 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says it's not crazy to think Mitt Romney would be able to end up at the top of the GOP ticket in 2016
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 2052 GMT (0452 HKT)
Roxanne Jones and her girlfriends would cheer from the sidelines for the boys playing Little League. But they really wanted to play. Now Mo'ne Davis shows the world that girls really can throw.
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 2104 GMT (0504 HKT)
Kimberly Norwood is a black mom who lives in an affluent neighborhood not far from Ferguson, but she has the same fears for her children as people in that troubled town do
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 2145 GMT (0545 HKT)
It apparently has worked for France, say Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider, but carries uncomfortable risks. When it comes to kidnappings, nations face grim options.
ADVERTISEMENT