By Marian Wright Edelman
“We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”
–Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote those words in his April 1963 Letter from a Birmingham Jail, in the same passage with his well-known warning that “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” A few months later, Dr. King wrote that the same culture of violence that killed Medgar Evers in Mississippi in June 1963 and four little Black girls in Birmingham in September 1963 had finally killed President Kennedy in November 1963, reminding us that it’s not possible to confine injustice, hatred, or violence to one group or community. What is tolerated in one place will eventually infect and affect everyone.
When many people think about gun deaths in America, the first stereotype that comes to mind is urban gun homicide—a crisis that disproportionately affects the Black community. As a result, too many people assume that despite recurring cases of often labeled “isolated” or “unpredictable” mass gun violence primarily committed by White male shooters, “ordinary” gun violence is mostly a Black problem that is or should be the Black community’s responsibility alone to solve. This is simply not true, although the Black community must mount a much stronger and more persistent voice against gun violence. The fact is that most Americans killed by guns are White, and most Americans who kill themselves or others with guns are White and our nation’s gun death epidemic is not simply a White or Black crisis but an American crisis.
Between 1963 and 2010, 73 percent of gun deaths in America were among Whites—more than 1 million deaths. Large numbers of White parents have borne the terrible burden of losing their child to guns: Whites comprised 62 percent of child and teen gun deaths between 1963 and 2010—exceeding 100,000 deaths.
In 2010, 65 percent of gun deaths among Americans of all ages were among non-Hispanic Whites, as were 34 percent of gun deaths among children and teens. Gun deaths were the second leading cause of death for non-Hispanic White children and teens that year, second only to motor vehicle accidents, and the fourth leading cause of death among non-Hispanic Whites ages 1 to 64 after cancers, heart disease, and non-gun accidents. Eighty-three percent of White gun deaths were suicides, 14 percent were homicides, and two percent were accidents. Among White children and teens, 63 percent of gun deaths were suicides, 26 percent were homicides, and nine percent were accidents.
The state with the highest overall number of gun deaths among non-Hispanic Whites in 2010 was Texas, with 1,620, followed by Florida, California, Pennsylvania, North Carolina, Ohio, Georgia, Tennessee, Arizona, and Michigan. The 10 states with the highest rates of gun deaths among non-Hispanic Whites were Nevada, New Mexico, Alaska, Wyoming, Arizona, Mississippi, Montana, Alabama, Louisiana, and West Virginia.
The total of 31,328 people of all ages who died from guns in 2010 included 20,427 Whites, 7,291 Blacks, 2,943 Latinos, 378 Asian-Americans, and 289 American Indians and Alaska Natives.
Where do all of these deaths leave us? Fifty years later, it leaves us right back with Dr. King: there is no point making gun violence just one group’s problem because we are all caught in an inescapable network of mutuality without a place to hide from pervasive guns and gun violence. Gun violence is a White problem because most gun death victims in America are White. Gun violence is a Black problem because Blacks are disproportionately more likely to be gun death victims. Gun violence is a Latino and an Asian-American and an American Indian and Native Alaskan problem because shamefully children and people of all races are dying from guns.
Gun violence is an urban problem that devastates cities like Chicago, and Detroit, and Tucson, Arizona, and Washington, D.C. Gun violence is a suburban, small town, and rural problem that devastates places like Newtown, Conn., and Conyers, Ga. and Littleton and Aurora, Colorado, and Pearl, Miss. Gun violence is a problem in states with strong gun laws because guns still travel in from states next door. Gun violence is a problem for parents who would never dream of owning a gun and for parents whose guns are stored responsibly and safely because their children share the same playdates and parks and schools and universities and movie theaters and streets as children and adults who do have access to guns and whose family members and friends do not store them safely.
Gun deaths are a tragedy for families whose loved ones are murdered. Gun deaths are a tragedy for families whose loved ones commit suicide. We should take our blinders off because when the 2010 gun death rate for non-Hispanic Whites in the United States was nearly eight times higher than the average gun death rate in 25 other high income countries—and the overall gun death rate for all Americans was seven and a half times higher than the average gun death rate in those countries—and when children are killed or injured by guns every 30 minutes, gun violence is an all-American crisis. Other countries have already made the decision to say no more. It is time for all Americans to stand up, speak up, work together and do the same for our children and all of us.
Marian Wright Edelman is president of the Children’s Defense Fund whose Leave No Child Behind® mission is to ensure every child a Healthy Start, a Head Start, a Fair Start, a Safe Start and a Moral Start in life and successful passage to adulthood with the help of caring families and communities. For more information go to www.childrensdefense.org.