Skip to main content

America's gun problem is not a race problem

By David Frum, CNN Contributor
January 16, 2013 -- Updated 1042 GMT (1842 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • David Frum: Typical American gun murder isn't like Newtown massacre
  • He says conservative commentators wrong to distance whites from problem
  • Gun industry, gun laws affect all Americans, Frum says

Editor's note: David Frum, a CNN contributor, is a contributing editor at Newsweek and The Daily Beast. He is the author of eight books, including a new novel, "Patriots," and a post-election e-book, "Why Romney Lost." Frum was a special assistant to President George W. Bush from 2001 to 2002.

(CNN) -- Massacres such as Newtown are horrifying and heart-rending. They are also nothing like the typical American gun murder.

The typical murder has one victim, not many. The typical murder is committed with a handgun, not a rifle. And in the typical murder, both the perpetrator and the victim are young black men. Blacks are six times as likely as whites to be the victim of a homicide. Blacks are seven times as likely to commit a homicide.

The horrifying toll of gun violence on black America explains why black Americans are so much more likely than whites to favor gun control.

David Frum
David Frum

Conversely, fears of being victimized by violence explain why so many white Americans -- especially older and more conservative white Americans -- insist on the right to bear arms in self-protection. They see gun violence as something that impinges on them from the outside. They don't blame guns for gun violence. They blame a particular subset of the population. And they don't see why they should lose their right because some subset of the population abuses theirs.

A writer I greatly admire, Rod Dreher, an independent-minded conservative, gives voice to such feelings in an article posted this weekend on the American Conservative website. Dreher expresses himself forcefully and frankly. That frankness should be welcomed, because the more clearly a mistaken idea is put, the faster we can reach a better understanding.

Dreher wrote:

"Yesterday the Baton Rouge Advocate published a lengthy analysis of the 2012 murder stats in the city. Take a look at this PDF of one of the inside pages. Last year, 83 people died by homicide in Baton Rouge. Of that number, 87% were black, and 87% were male. Two-thirds had been in trouble with the law before, and one-third had been in trouble with the law for drugs. The median age of victims: 26.

"Of the perpetrators, the median age was 22. Get this: 96% of them were black, and 90% were male. Almost two-thirds had previous arrests. One out of four had a drug record.

"Most of the murders took place in the poorest parts of the city.

Walden: U.S. needs effective gun laws
Taking aim at the gun debate
Biden ready to give Obama gun findings
Doubts about new gun legislation

"What can we learn from these statistics? That murder in Baton Rouge is almost entirely about young black men from the poor part of town killing other young black men from the poor part of town. It's mostly a matter of thugs killing thugs."

If you look at the world that way, gun control must seem a pointless diversion from the real problem: not guns, but one particular group of gun owners. Somebody else's problem. But life is not so neatly separated.

Guns offer equal opportunity tragedies. More than 8,000 white Americans had to be treated for nonfatal gun injuries in 2008. Eighty percent of those who commit suicide with a gun are white males. The gun that the suburban family buys to protect itself from "thugs killing thugs" ends up killing its own: One important new study finds that a gun kept in the house is 43 times more likely to kill a household member than to be used in self-defense.

Thugs killing thugs? Maybe. But many of those seeming thugs are carrying guns for the same reason that people who consider themselves respectable carry them : in a futile quest to protect themselves with greater firepower. One person can find safety that way. But if two people carry firearms, a confrontation that might otherwise have ended in words or blows ends instead with one man dead, and the other man on his way to prison for life.

Louisiana sends more people to prison than any other state, at a total cost of almost 7% of its state budget. Prison is always expensive, but the incarceration of murderers costs the most, because they remain in prison to the end. The oldest of Louisiana's prisoners cost the state almost $80,000 a year, including their health care.

Widespread gun ownership means not only more gun killings, but also more gun maimings and cripplings. The National Rifle Association's Wayne LaPierre hailed the ability of a "good guy" with a gun to stop a "bad guy" with a gun. Sixty seconds later, however, that bad guy may need a wheelchair for life. We can't dismiss these human costs as pertaining to only somebody else. They are all part of us.

Yet the urge to subdivide runs strong among Americans. Monday on Fox News, the popular conservative commentator Ann Coulter claimed that the murder rate among white Americans is as low as the murder rate in Belgium. "So perhaps it's not a gun problem," she concluded. "Perhaps it's a demographic problem."

But countries cannot dismiss the sufferings of great blocks of their people by dismissing some "demographics" as unworthy of attention.

If you ignore America's poor, you can make all kinds of problems disappear from view. Not counting the poor and minorities, the country does not have an obesity epidemic. Not counting the poor and minorities, the United States has perfectly adequate schools. Not counting the poor and minorities, America would have a higher average income.

Likewise, not counting hurricanes, America would not have so many natural disasters. Not counting divorces, America would have more intact families. Not counting wars, America would have a smaller public debt. But what's the point of this exercise? The people who make up America count as Americans, and their problems count as America's problems. Their problems do not occur in isolation, but are manifestations of failures to which all Americans contributed together.

Those young men in Baton Rouge who are killing each other in such horrific numbers do not manufacture their own guns. They did not organize the gun trade that brings the guns to their town. They did not write the laws that prevent their town government from acting against guns. They carry guns -- and misuse guns -- thanks to a national system of gun regulation that makes guns easily accessible to those least likely to use guns responsibly.

The gun laws intended to put guns into the hands of "good guys" are the laws that also multiply guns in the hands of "bad guys" -- bad guys who might not have become such bad guys if the guns had not been available to their hands.

The price of redefining gun violence as an issue pertaining only to "those people" -- of casting and recasting the gun statistics to make them less grisly if only "those people" are toted under some different heading in some different ledger -- the price of that redefinition is to lose our ability to think about the problem at all.

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter.

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of David Frum.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
April 22, 2014 -- Updated 2247 GMT (0647 HKT)
Q & A with artist Rachel Sussman on her new book of photographs, "The Oldest Living Things in the World."
April 22, 2014 -- Updated 1958 GMT (0358 HKT)
Martin Blaser says the overuse of antibiotics threatens to deplete our bodies of "good" microbes, leaving us vulnerable to an unstoppable plague--an "antibiotic winter"
April 22, 2014 -- Updated 1737 GMT (0137 HKT)
John Sutter asks: Is it possible to eat meat in modern-day America and consider yourself an environmentalist without being a hypocrite?
April 22, 2014 -- Updated 1538 GMT (2338 HKT)
Sally Kohn notes that Meb Keflezighi rightly was called an American after he won the Boston Marathon, but his status in the U.S. once was questioned
April 22, 2014 -- Updated 1256 GMT (2056 HKT)
Denis Hayes and Scott Denman say on this Earth Day, the dawn of the Solar Age is already upon us and the Atomic Age of nuclear power is in decline
April 21, 2014 -- Updated 2036 GMT (0436 HKT)
Retired Coast Guard officer James Loy says a ship captain bears huge responsibility.
April 21, 2014 -- Updated 1708 GMT (0108 HKT)
Peter Bergen says the latest strikes are part of an aggressive U.S. effort to target militants, including a bomb maker
April 21, 2014 -- Updated 1345 GMT (2145 HKT)
Cynthia Lummis and Peter Welch say 16 agencies carry out national intelligence, and their budgets are top secret. We need to know how they are spending our money.
April 21, 2014 -- Updated 1235 GMT (2035 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says President Obama knows more than anyone that he has much at stake in the midterm elections.
April 22, 2014 -- Updated 1255 GMT (2055 HKT)
Eric Sanderson says if you really want to strike a blow for the environment--and your health--this Earth Day, work to get cars out of cities and create transportation alternatives
April 21, 2014 -- Updated 1408 GMT (2208 HKT)
Bruce Barcott looks at the dramatic differences in marijuana laws in Colorado and Louisiana
April 18, 2014 -- Updated 2047 GMT (0447 HKT)
Jim Bell says NASA's latest discovery supports the notion that habitable worlds are probably common in the galaxy.
April 18, 2014 -- Updated 1817 GMT (0217 HKT)
Jay Parini says even the Gospels skip the actual Resurrection and are sketchy on the appearances that followed.
April 18, 2014 -- Updated 1752 GMT (0152 HKT)
Graham Allison says if an unchecked and emboldened Russia foments conflict in a nation like Latvia, a NATO member, the West would have to defend it.
April 18, 2014 -- Updated 1311 GMT (2111 HKT)
John Sutter: Bad news, guys -- the pangolin we adopted is missing.
April 21, 2014 -- Updated 1825 GMT (0225 HKT)
Ben Wildavsky says we need a better way to determine whether colleges are turning out graduates with superior education and abilities.
April 18, 2014 -- Updated 1026 GMT (1826 HKT)
Charles Maclin, program manager working on the search and recovery of Malaysia Flight 370, explains how it works.
April 18, 2014 -- Updated 1250 GMT (2050 HKT)
Jill Koyama says Michael Bloomberg is right to tackle gun violence, but we need to go beyond piecemeal state legislation.
April 17, 2014 -- Updated 1845 GMT (0245 HKT)
Michael Bloomberg and Shannon Watts say Americans are ready for sensible gun laws, but politicians are cowed by the NRA. Everytown for Gun Safety will prove the NRA is not that powerful.
ADVERTISEMENT