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Bill of Rights with an orange filter that reads: Guns make us less equal and less free
Gloria Pan's picture

June is Gun Violence Awareness month, when it is time to wear orange to help build public awareness of gun violence in our nation. But at a time when shootings regularly dominate the headlines, when one in five Americans have direct experience of gun violence, and when guns have become the leading cause of child death, is any effort to build additional public awareness even necessary?

One aspect of guns and gun violence that absolutely deserves more awareness, however, is the role firearms play in violating civil rights, making all of us less equal and less free. From the dawn of America’s history, firearms have been used to dominate, oppress, and subjugate – first as guns were turned against indigenous and enslaved people, and then as they were pointed at Black and other minority populations through the Jim Crow era all the way to the present day. 

Like a poison pill, the role of firearms as a foe of equality and freedom was embedded in our revered but imperfect founding documents. In the Bill of Rights, the intent of the 2nd Amendment was not in fact to guarantee the arming of Minutemen militias, but rather to guarantee the arming of slave militias to ensure Southern states would join the new nation (an historic fact increasingly being brought to light by serious scholarship). In short, the Second Amendment was included in the Constitution for the same reasons the Three-Fifths Clause was included: to preserve the institution of slavery. 

Today, there are close to 400 million guns in civilian circulation, more guns than people. The relentless push by gun manufacturers and their 2nd Amendment allies to sell even more guns worsens the already unequal burden of gun violence on non-white and minority communities. Black people are 10 times more likely to experience gun violence than whites, Latinos are twice as likely to be shot to death than whites, and LGBTQ+ people are more than twice as likely to be a victim of gun violence than their cisgender and straight peers. 

Hate-motivated mass shootings that target people because of their race, religion, or identity – such as at the Oak Creek Sikh temple, the Pittsburgh Tree of Life synagogue, the Orlando Pulse nightclub, the Charleston Mother Emanuel church, the Buffalo Tops supermarket, the El Paso Walmart, and at Atlanta spas – have seared terror onto too many communities and onto the public consciousness. And tens of thousands of hate incidents happen every day, from simple name calling to physical intimidation and threats. How many of them occur at the point of a gun?

Guns and gun violence are a deadly burden unequally shared, but everyone is impacted – every single one of us. Guns make all of us less free by exacerbating many of the issues we struggle with as a society, including:

Voting Rights: Voters and election workers increasingly face intimidation and threats of violence, obstructing the right to free and fair elections. Right-wing groups have formed to send armed “election monitors” to stand over ballot boxes, and more than half of American states do not explicitly ban firearms at polling locations. 

Immigration: The free flow of American firearms to Central and South America has fueled the violence driving asylum-seeking mass migration to the U.S. Southern border. Seventy percent of firearms recovered from crime scenes in Mexico are from the United States. Anti-immigrant sentiment is flaring in our country, escalating the likelihood of hate and violence against those who don’t “look American.” 

Health Care: Each year in the U.S., firearm-related injuries lead to roughly 30,000 inpatient hospital stays and 50,000 emergency room visits, generating more than $1 billion in initial medical costs and making health care more expensive for all of us. Medical spending increases an average of $2,500 per person per month in the year following the injury, with patients likely to require continuing care around mental health and substance use disorders, adding to the health care burden.

Mental Health: The never-ending parade of news headlines about gun violence only adds to our fear and anxiety. Our children are already in the middle of a mental health crisis. Feelings of anxiety and stress, which get in the way of learning, are made worse by the fact that students are regularly reminded by active shooter drills at school that they are not safe.  

As millions of guns continue to be sold into our communities and homes, we are living our lives in a rising ocean of firearms. The sheer number of guns around us and the bullying and deadly culture around gun ownership are steadily eroding our personal and public safety, and worsening our struggles to be equal and free. The political opposition to comprehensive gun policy reform remains immovable, firmly rooted in patriarchy and white supremacy. We need to challenge and begin dismantling that opposition, starting with 1) banning assault weapons and high-capacity magazines, and 2) repealing PLCAA, legislation that has shielded the industry from responsibility for their role in spreading gun violence. 

This June, let’s fully recognize that gun violence is a civil rights issue. We need to see with eyes wide open the role firearms play as an enemy of democracy. Guns and gun violence are holding back our nation’s journey to a more just and perfect union. It’s long past time to change that.

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