Last week's mass shooting in San Jose, California where eight people were killed at the Valley Transportation Authority rail yard affected us all. When will this madness end, we wonder. How close will it to come to our home?
America has always been a country rich with a history of rich celebration and deep condemnation of guns. Today the Covid-19 pandemic has changed the way America looks and feels forever. The way we work, shop, learn and gather in public is forever altered. For Black America one of the things we have seen is a sharp spike in violence coast to coast. Too many of our teens and young adults have more time, less money and more stress in their life. When these three things mix they create a deadly cocktail on the streets of Baltimore, Oakland and Tampa, Florida. Mass shootings and hood violence splash across our screens at a seemingly never ending pace. So when do things change, and how can we get some sustainable change?
For President Biden, the time for gun reform is now. "Whether Congress acts or not, I'm going to use all the resources at my disposal as president to keep the American people safe from gun violence," Biden stated recently. "But there's much more that Congress can do to help that effort."
There are fears that as Covid-19 restrictions ease and we return to normal activities, our nation’s gun violence norm will also return with a vengeance. Gun research organization, Everytown, recently shared some of the following data:
- Gun sales have surged during the coronavirus pandemic. Based on the number of background checks, Everytown estimates that 22 million guns were purchased in 2020, a 64 percent increase over 2019.
- Black Americans are nearly twice as likely as white people to die from COVID-19. They are also 10 times as likely to die by gun homicide as white people. The disproportionate impact of both the virus and gun homicide on Black communities reflects and intensifies the United States’ persistent racial inequities.
Recently, cities such as New York, Chicago, St. Louis, and Philadelphia have seen significant spikes in gun violence, with nearly 96% of shooting victims being either Black or Latino, and only one percent being white. This increase could be attributable to the relative ease with which youth can obtain firearms—and it is the ease of access that Biden seeks to address. As all this plays out, there are culture wars happening on social for the minds of the American people.
BLM vs. NRA
Within Congress and among special interest groups, none are as influential in the gun control debate as the National Rifle Association (NRA). With a history of stalwart resistance to new legislation and guns, the NRA has been on a social media blitz in the last few years. In support of its interpretation of the second amendment, they promote the value of guns at almost any cost. Perhaps most irritating to the NRA over the past year or so, has been the open push back from the Black Lives Matter Movement.
Even before the pandemic took hold, BLM had been gaining momentum, taking non-violent resistance to the streets. Their calls for justice seemed to strike a negative chord among gun rights activists, for whom the police represent a universal public good that is beyond reproach. As the pandemic wore on, BLM voices continued to rise and garner increased media attention.
This attention did not go unnoticed by the NRA with former spokesperson, Dana Loesch. She appeared in a number of pro-law enforcement, pro-gun ad campaigns between 2017 and 2019. The most emotionally jarring of which, appeared on YouTube and called for a united response with a “clenched fist." BLM countered with a poetic video response of their own, swapping footage of heroic cops for images of Dylan Roof, who was responsible for the 2015 massacre of 9 Black worshippers at a church in Charleston, South Carolina. The narration sent a powerful message to policy makers: “They use their guns to assassinate Black people. They use their schools to funnel Black students through a school to prison pipeline. They use their state institutions, bought politicians, business conglomerates, and white supremacist domestic terrorists to incite violence over and over again.”
The BLM video goes on to make an appeal for change: “When the NRA issues a public call to their constituents, inciting violence against people who are constitutionally fighting for their lives—we don’t take that lightly. We know that we are not safe, but we are not scared either. We will continue to produce media, teach students, march, and protest to not only protect the First Amendment as fiercely as the NRA protects the second, but to protect our lives from gun-toting racists...When the NRA issues a public call to their constituents inciting violence against people who are constitutionally fighting for their lives —we don’t take that lightly."
The NRA has maintained a public and political posture that steadily negates the BLM nonviolent organizing. To many they also seem to encourage police and white citizens to violently attack BLM members, fringe supporters or anyone not backing Trump-aligned policies.
Scenarios like the recent shooting in San Jose shine a light on subtle aspects of the gun violence epidemic that were previously ignored. One of the things that keeps coming up is the issue of mass shootings being connected exclusively to white males. For instance, from 1982 to 2021, white men led the nation in mass shootings. There were also Black, Latino, and Asian mass shooters highlighted in the study. So, while it is improper to say all mass shooters are white, it is not improper to say that America has a problem with white mass shooters. This fact does not sit well with the NRA or its Republican supporters. They appear to consistently duck conversations on such statistics. Additionally they often look the other way on issues surrounding corruption and criminality where police abuse the country.
In music, they say life often imitates art. That phrase makes one think back to the almost prescient lyrics of the rapper Ice Cube, whose 1990 release Endangered Species, speaks directly to gun violence. The song, featuring Public Enemy frontman Chuck D, suggested the idea that young Black teenagers topped the list of endangered animals on the planet. That song is just as relevant today as it was 31 years ago; and in the intervening years, Black victims have continued to feature on the nightly news.
In 2012, we saw 17-year-old Trayvon Martin killed by George Zimmerman for the crime of being Black, wearing a hoodie, and having the gall to walk through a neighborhood that Zimmerman felt Martin should not have been in. In 2020, Ahmaud Arbery was likewise killed with impunity for simply jogging through a neighborhood in Glynn County, Georgia. A trio of white men who also objected to Arbery exercising his right to live, breathe and move about the city freely. There have been so many others, with each death weighing on our national conscience.
Despite the fact that they account for only 0.2% of gun deaths in America, their impact is so horrific that they act as a rallying point for gun control advocates, the president included.
After the March 2021 Atlanta Spa Massacre, which left 8 Asian women dead, President Joe Biden announced his intention to stop the proliferation of untraceable “ghost guns”, to support evidence-based community violence intervention programs, and to stop gun trafficking. President Biden further asked the Senate to take action on legislation that would close what is known as the Charleston loophole, making guns harder to get. He is also pushing for a federal ban on assault weapons.
President Biden is committed to bringing change, but Washington remains the slow-moving political machine it always has been. And though the Democrats hold a slim majority in the House and Senate, the path to gun reform legislation is not a straight line. Many Republicans remain entrenched, such as Senator Mike Rounds of South Dakota, who just this May posted a provocative statue of a man with a dog holding a rifle, with words daring President Biden to “come and take it,” adding, “Careful, she [the dog] bites too.”
We have to wonder how many more mass shootings—how many more innocent lives— will it take for our lawmakers and grassroots activists to bring the violence to an end.
Adisa Banjoko is an author and historian based in the SF Bay Area and London. He also hosts @BishopChronicles Podcast on all major platforms.