The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

What the ‘black-on-black crime’ fallacy misses about race and gun deaths

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My social media timelines of late have been filled with outrage over the police killings of unarmed black citizens, but after a violent Fourth of July weekend around the nation that left several children dead, I noticed an uptick in snarky posts asking: “What about black-on-black crime? Why aren’t you protesting about that?”

The “what about black-on-black crime” rejoinder usually is meant to imply that African Americans are indifferent to the thousands of young black men — and increasingly, black children — who are slain every year in gun violence. It insinuates that black people blithely accept killings by our own that have racked some communities for decades and take to the streets only when white police officers are doing the killing.

Long before the March for Our Lives and the Black Lives Matter movement dominated the headlines in recent years, African Americans were marching in crime-ridden neighborhoods to protest the killings. Davon McNeal, an 11-year-old fatally shot in Washington, D.C., on July 4, had just left an anti-violence community event when he was hit by a bullet. The event was put together by his mother, Crystal McNeal, who works as a “violence interrupter,” a job that has been created in several urban areas with a goal to mediate neighborhood disputes in an attempt to break the cycle of retaliatory killings. Black citizens have formed hundreds of such organizations to save teens so often caught up in that world. Black artists have written songs and made movies, urging youths to stop the violence.

In the last month, people in the U.S. have started to look more critically at how we deal with race and incorporate anti-racism into our everyday lives. (Video: The Washington Post)

Many black people, desperate to stem the homicide rate that spiraled in the ’90s, even supported the Clinton crime bill, although some now criticize it as having hurt the black community more than it helped. A Gallup survey in 1994 found that nonwhite citizens favored it to a greater degree than white citizens, 58 percent compared with 49 percent.

As a group, African Americans are consistently more likely to be concerned about crime than white Americans. They also are the staunchest supporters of tougher gun-control laws, with 72 percent saying that controlling gun ownership is more important than protecting gun rights, compared with 40 percent of white people.

White men, in fact, are the demographic most likely to oppose gun-control laws of any kind, although statistics show that they might benefit most from them.

That’s because the majority of the gun deaths in the United States are not homicides but suicides, and white men account for 74 percent of them. More than 288,000 white males fatally shot themselves between 1999 and 2018, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Having access to a gun substantially increases the risk of death by suicide. In other words, if white men didn’t have so many guns, they would be much less likely to die.

Despite the evidence, 60 percent of white Americans say gun ownership does more to protect people from crime than to put their personal safety at risk (35 percent), according to Pew. Black people by a similar margin (56 percent to 37 percent) say that gun ownership does more to endanger people’s personal safety.

While most violent crime has fallen dramatically since the early 1990s, gun violence began rising again in recent years. In 2018, the most recent year for complete data, more than 22,000 Americans intentionally killed themselves with a gun, and about 11,000 people were gun homicide victims. The suicide numbers inched up from the previous year, while homicides were down slightly.

Efforts to reduce firearm deaths have been hindered not by community indifference but by a Congress afraid to cross the National Rifle Association and gun rights supporters. Federally funded research into gun violence solutions ground to a halt after lawmakers passed the Dickey Amendment in 1996. The provision, pushed by the NRA, cut funding for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s study of the issue out of fear that it would be seen as federal agencies advocating for gun control.

Even faced with repeated mass shootings that have killed hundreds of innocent people, including schoolchildren, Congress has refused to act. However, last year, $25 million was approved to study gun violence, the first new funding in two decades, but it was half of what had been requested. That it took 20 years to get even that relatively small amount is an indication of how strongly Republicans and some otherwise liberal Democrats fear offending white voters in swing states more concerned with protecting Second Amendment rights than saving lives, including their own.

Suicide affects white males in nearly every age group, with numbers beginning to rise in the late teen years and peaking in the mid- to late 50s. But the rate remains high even among men in their 70s and 80s. The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention says that suicide most often is the result of treatable mental health issues and is related to brain functions that affect decision-making and behavioral control. As with the homicide rate, however, the reasons behind suicide are more complicated than a single issue. “Life stresses combined with known risk factors, such as childhood trauma, substance use — or even chronic physical pain — can contribute” to someone taking their life, the AFSP said.

Similarly, research has found that many young black men — the group most likely to be perpetrators and victims of gun homicides — suffer from a condition similar to PTSD, brought on by repeated exposure to violence, extreme poverty, high unemployment, drug and alcohol abuse and other social ills that create a sense of hopelessness. A 2017 report in the Guardian newspaper found that much of America’s gun homicide problem “happens in a relatively small number of predictable places, often driven by predictable groups of high-risk people, and its burden is anything but random.”

With so much media focus on urban homicides — many local news outlets keep a running tally — suicide, which kills twice as many people, gets comparatively less coverage. Some argue that suicide is a private matter that doesn’t affect the broader community. Prevention experts discourage news media outlets from reporting intimate details of suicide cases because research has found that can lead to imitation in vulnerable people. But even general news stories about suicide have tended to focus more on the increasing rates among other demographic groups than on white men’s stark overrepresentation in the statistics. That seems to be changing now as the numbers climb. Still, the result of such historically lopsided coverage is that the public face of gun violence in this country is that of a young black man rather than a middle-aged white one.

“Reporting the truth about who’s committing suicide would require acknowledging that the contemporary narrative — in which men in general and white men in particular are a universally privileged class and have no legitimate problems — is false,” columnist Armin Brott wrote last year in a health and wellness newsletter.

When white men respond to their life circumstances with gun violence, it’s treated as a public health problem, brought on by mental illness and stress. When black men do, it’s portrayed almost solely as a criminal issue, caused by lawlessness and moral failing. The multiplier in both epidemics is lawmakers’ blind devotion to the NRA. Zealously protecting their right to bear arms has come at a huge cost, and as quiet as it is kept, it’s not just the black community that is paying.