Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

The Complexity and Urgency of the Problem of Gun Violence

Ted Williams III


March 1, 2013

By Ted Williams III

Hadiya Pendelton is buried nine blocks to the west of my home on the southside of Chicago. I drive past her gravesite almost every single day. Approximately nine blocks to the north of my home is the monument to murdered teenagers erected by CNN hero Diane Latiker and her organization Kids off the Block. Recently, CNN broadcast live from this monument in light of the president’s recent visit to Chicago to discuss the issue of gun violence in the nation. 

I have close friends, family members, and students whose lives have been unalterably shattered by this epidemic. The conversation about gun violence is personal. My community represents ground zero of this issue nationally, and I am increasingly frustrated by the partisan and myopic rhetoric I hear surrounding solutions to this problem by our national leaders. 

Precipitated by the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary, President Obama and Democratic leaders have moved to ban assault rifles, close the gun show loophole and push for universal background checks for all gun purchases. I respect these efforts as step in addressing this crisis. However, it is extremely disappointing to know that even if this entire agenda were passed tomorrow, it would do little to address the crisis we face in cities like Chicago.

According to FBI data, there were 12,664 murders in the United States in 2011 alone. Of these, 6,220 cases used handguns, 323 used rifles of some sort, including assault rifles, and 356 used shotguns. If we also consider the over 19,000 suicides by firearms (69 percent by handguns), we must acknowledge that assault rifles are not our nation’s most significant problem. Even if we eliminated assault rifles completely, America would still have a very serious problem on its hands.

The rarely discussed truth surrounding the issue of gun violence in the United States is that both the left and the right make valid points in their assessments. The left is correct in recognizing that easy access to high powered guns makes it extremely likely that those guns will be used by people desiring to inflict harm on others. Evidence has proven this time and time again.

While stricter sentencing can help (Chicago’s Police Chief recently stated that under New York state’s gun laws, Hadiya Pendleton’s killer would have been serving a three year minimum sentence for gun possession and would have never been free to take her life), the right’s assumption that legally purchased guns do not contribute to this problem is false. Since 2000, more than half of the guns seized by police in Chicago came from other states. A recent University of Chicago study showed that over 1,300 guns confiscated by police since 2008 were purchased at one Indiana store. Thousands of legally purchased guns from other areas land on the streets of Chicago each year and contribute to the city’s widespread crime. Additionally, the false dichotomy between the “good guys” and the “bad guys” in the world represents an ill-informed and elementary understanding of the moral complexities of human beings. Sometimes those who we assume to be responsible and law-abiding have moral lapses with fatal consequences as well.

However, the right is correct in recognizing the fact that creating a new gun law every time that the nation has its collective conscience pricked by some heart-wrenching murder or group of murders does little to change the culture of violence faced by our nation. These measures, while politically customary, are the equivalent of putting a band-aid on a gun-shot wound.

Gun violence cannot be simply fixed by a few gun laws but instead requires holistic solutions. A poor economy, a decimated moral climate, the weakened family structure and poor access to education and mental health services all play a role in producing crime. It is no accident that a recent Forbes study showing the 10 most violent cities in America reflected cities in which this horrible cocktail of social problems was present. When a political group’s response to the tragedies we’ve faced only involves guns, their overly simplistic and patronizing solutions insult our intelligence and bring into question their true commitment to solving this dilemma. 

Changing the current climate will require a seriously non-partisan and thoughtful exploration of the true causes of crime. It will equally offend both sides of the aisle and call for equal concessions on deeply held political positions. There will be no change in this nation without it. While I am disappointed in the tepid policy solutions being pushed, I am heartened that at least a national conversation is occurring. If we miss this opportunity to do something significant now, I am afraid that the violence we see so frequently will persist with no end in sight. My prayers are that our nation can exhibit a level of political and intellectual maturity that will produce long-term solutions and benefits for generations to come. Our children are counting on us.

Ted Williams III is a Professor of Political Science in the City Colleges of Chicago.

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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”