Beyond Newtown: The Larger Tragedy of Guns and Kids


The release of the Newtown Report on the eve of the Thanksgiving holiday is a poignant reminder of the uniquely traumatic tragedy that befell a small, bucolic Connecticut town a year ago this month. Hopefully, our anemic response to the abominable act of gunning down first graders and kindergartners in their classrooms, will happen only once.

But there's an equally large tragedy that happens perennially, and to which our response is inadequate.

In America’s urban underclass neighborhoods, the number of kids slaughtered at Sandy Hook Elementary School—20—is, on average, the same number of young people who die in gun homicides in America's urban neighborhoods every four months.

That's one Newtown every four months.

While there can never be enough attention paid to the Newtown victims, the larger epidemic of gun deaths affecting children across America—most of them black or brown—attracts disturbingly little concern.

Why? I believe there's an assumption among most Americans that residents of these at-risk neighborhoods are okay with this level of violence.

Sadly, that reflects a feeling that we don't view these poor communities as important enough to warrant a high level of concern—that the populations in these neighborhoods just expect this kind of trauma, are used to it and, therefore, we don't need to get alarmed by it.

While there may be a racial element to this indifference, what seems to drive it more than anything else is a class-based indifference.

It's a more complex “them-and-us” otherness.

There are still schools in Watts and East LA and Chicago where kids can't walk to school without fear of gunshots or gang confrontation.

There are neighborhoods in this country where children can't attend class without fear of being recruited by gangs; where they can't enjoy afterschool activities without putting their lives at risk. Through monumental efforts, the level of violence has declined in some of these neighborhoods, but it's still unacceptably high.

The chance of dying from stranger gun violence in Watts has plummeted from the astounding 1 in 250 during the crack wars of the late 1980s to less than 1 in 800 today. But that is still thousands of times higher than the almost zero chance that my neighborhood enjoys.

One major driver of safety insecurity in these neighborhoods is mass incarceration.

Entire groups of young or adult males have been shunted into a largely unnecessary pipeline that removes them from their homes and families for non-violent drug offenses and leads them directly into a criminal justice system that a justice of the United States Supreme Court called “criminogenic.”

The impact of that is hard for middle-class Americans to understand. Years ago I surveyed the Jordan Downs housing project [in Los Angeles] to see if there were any units without a family member in prison.

There were none. Every single unit had a male member of the family in prison.

When that happens in a community, the sense of safety and security that children need disappears. With few adult male figures in evidence—except uniformed police—the perpetrators of violence have free reign.

Safety is the first of all civil rights. And freedom from violence is the first of all freedoms. For kids in urban-blight neighborhoods across America, these rights and freedoms are meaningless.

A RAND Corporation study of 4,000 poor L.A. kids, conducted in the 2000-2001 school year, found that one-third them exhibited post-traumatic stress levels that were higher than the troops returning from the Fallujah battlefield in Iraq.

Traumatized, stressed-out kids can't learn, can't focus, can't hold a memory.

These are children who cannot learn because of the violence that they are surrounded by: gunshots, peers and older teens carrying guns, gangsters constantly recruiting. They live in fear all of the time. The result is stunted development and broken lives, broken families, broken communities—a never-ending string of tragedies.

How long can those of us who are safe turn a blind eye to this reality?

How long will we continue to ignore the root causes of the problem—the policies of failing to guarantee the most basic security for a disturbing number of American kids?

Vice President Joe Biden, who headed the interagency working group established after the Newtown shootings to investigate ways of curbing gun violence, asked for suggestions from our organization, The Advancement Project.

We asked Biden to first recognize that for poor kids of color, there is a Newtown every four months, all year, every year.

We asked him to consider reinstating school nurses, who are often the first to see the simmering problems with kids, and providing mental health care through school doctors. We suggested addressing the root cause of a youth culture of death— kids embrace violence when they see no future except prison and gangs. We suggested jobs that disappeared be reinstated and ending mass incarceration.

Of course, these policies, would require a Marshall Plan for urban and rural underclass America, something I’ve heard exactly two politicians address.

Short of that, we should at minimum secure the first of all civil rights–safety. In Los Angeles we have begun that quest with comprehensive gang reduction and prevention coordinated with aggressive police reform, a mayoral level Office of Gang and Youth Development, professionalized gang intervention, healthy reentry strategy and neighborhood investment for wrap around safety.

Los Angeles' gang zones have never been safer, but we have a very long way to go and it is unclear whether Los Angeles politicians understand what it takes to sustain such a complexly coordinated and long-term strategy.

The Newtown shootings should have fundamentally changed our national approach to gun control and mental health. They didn't.

But just as importantly, they should have prodded all Americans into an examination of the kind of gun violence that afflicts our poorest neighborhoods every day.

Right now, we are not even having that discussion. And America's most troubled communities assume that the majority think it's fine for them to suffer the kind of stress and violence associated with living on a battlefield.

Unfortunately, they're right—and that's every American's tragedy.

Connie Rice ia a civil rights attorney and co-director of the Advancement Project in Los Angeles.

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