The gun control debate often plays out in monolithic fashion in this country. The traditional understanding is that there’s one overarching problem — gun violence — that can be addressed by a more or less uniform set of solutions: better background checks, improved technology, etc.
This approach makes a lot of sense. Many researchers argue that we should treat gun violence as just as much of a public health issue as a criminal justice one. That is, after all, the way we successfully reduced deaths from things likeautomobile accidents, cigarettes and the like.
But one shortcoming of this approach is that it elides over the sometimes drastic differences in how different populations experience gun violence and gun ownership in their lives. The Brookings Institution’s Richard Reeves highlighted one stunning example of this in a recent blog post: Among whites, 77 percent of gun deaths are suicides. But among black Americans, 82 percent of gun deaths are homicides.
This is an important distinction because the growing suicide rate has effectively canceled out the nation’s declining rate of gun-related homicides, resulting in a national gun fatality rate that has been stubbornly stagnant since the late 1990s.
In addition to how they experience gun violence, black Americans and white Americans hold divergent attitudes about gun ownership. About 41 percent of white households own guns, compared to just 19 percent of black households, according to a 2014 Pew survey. And white Americans (62 percent) are more likely than black Americans (54 percent) to say that gun ownership does more to protect people than endanger personal safety.
Those different experiences partly explain their divergent views: Whites (61 percent) are nearly twice as likely as blacks (34 percent) to say it’s more important to protect gun rights than to control gun ownership, according to the Pew Research Center.
Most strikingly, black parents (39 percent) are nearly twice as likely as white parents (22 percent) to say they worry about their child getting shot, according to a recent Pew study. When it comes to their kids, black parents worry more about shootings than about drug or alcohol use or depression. Among white parents, the opposite is true.
Gun rights advocates often correctly point out that gun violence springs from many different sources: Suicide among older white males in the heartland is a fundamentally different issue than homicide among young black men in urban areas. This observation suggests that bringing down gun deaths would require a multi-pronged public policy approach rather than a monolithic one-size-fits-all package.
But the debate over gun violence has become so polarizing that many lawmakers — particularly at the federal level — have simply done nothing.