Gun Violence: “Our Children” versus “Their Children”

Gun Violence: “Our Children” versus “Their Children”

March 2013

As congressional Democrats, facing a united Republican opposition, dismantle their once ambitious gun-control package—the assault weapons ban is the latest to go—it appears that little meaningful reform will emerge from horror and outrage at last December’s Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre.

The legislative inertia is all the more frustrating, because we never had a real debate over gun violence—who’s really getting shot, by whom, and where. Only a gingerly muted discourse over the tiny fraction of gun killings politicians were willing to raise.

Politicians, led by President Obama and followed by everyone else, fixated on mass shootings and school shootings, which are horrendous but account for 1 percent and one-tenth of 1 percent, respectively, of all firearms deaths.

After protests from urban leaders, street shootings in inner cities were added to the discussion—but only those by youths. According to FBI and Centers for Disease Control tabulations, that’s another 2 percent of all gun killings.

Occasionally, a commentator would mention suicides and accidents resulting from unsecured guns in the homes—but again, only those by children and youths, which together account for around 2 percent of firearms fatalities.

Then, as the Violence Against Women Act came up for renewal and was briefly stalled by Republicans, murders of women by their husbands and boyfriends became an issue—another 3 percent of gun deaths.

Of course, the 10 percent (at most) of America’s gun lethality that leaders and media commentators were willing to engage includes 3,000 terrible, tragic killings. It’s not clear that putting the other 28,000 annual gun fatalities up for discussion would have moved the public or legislative debate.

But for once, we might have had a truly open, far-ranging assessment of the mammoth price firearms extract in American society. One place to start might be the strange omission in the White House’s Domestic Violence Homicide Prevention initiative newly released by Vice President Joe Biden.

The administration announced a dramatic commitment to fund programs to reduce assaults and murders of women by their husbands and male partners. “On average, three women a day die as a result of domestic violence, and for every woman killed in a domestic violence homicide, nine more are critically injured,” the factsheet states.

Thanks to decades of activism led by women’s rights groups, American society has evolved from viewing spousal abuse as a private, even proprietary, matter between husband and wife to one that demands a strong law enforcement response to household violence, mandated in the recently renewed Violence Against Women Act.

Yet, the White House’s domestic violence prevention campaign, including the latest initiative, embodies a glaring omission that seems doubly curious amid the heightened concern for “protecting our children” after the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre.

According to the administration’s Child Maltreatment reports, children and teenagers suffer domestic violence at levels similar to women. Around 700 to 1,000 children and teenagers are murdered every year by violence in their homes, 30 to 50 times more than are killed in schools.

Young people murdered at home generate headlines (“Massachusetts father shoots children before killing himself,” “Connecticut teen fatally shot by dad called good kid,” “Father shot wife, children before killing himself“) but little policy attention.

Domestic violence against children also demands urgent attention because children under age 10 are the only group that has not shared Americans’ dramatic decline in murder victimization, Centers for Disease Control tabulations show. While adult women’s murder rate has fallen by more than 50 percent over the last 30 years, the murder rate of younger children has stayed virtually the same.

Yet, the president and other interests fail to acknowledge that the hundreds of thousands of children and adolescents who are substantiated victims of violent, sexual, and psychological abuses every year also are victims of domestic violence, sometimes involving guns.

A rape by high school boys, a gay teen allegedly “bullied to suicide,” a public shooting by a gang member win prolonged national outrage. But the much larger numbers of rapes of children and teens by stepfathers or mothers’ boyfriends, gay teens’ suicides after abuses by drug-addicted parents, the shootings of entire families by a troubled grownups get no attention or only fleeting notice.

The president expressed heartfelt sorrow at the Sandy Hook slaughter and repeated vows to protect “our children” from gun violence. But there remain troubling indications that by “our children,” the president and other interests mean only the small fraction victimized by school shootings, other mass shootings, and other “young people.”

As a presidential candidate in 2008, Obama lamented “too many young lives being claimed by violence” in Chicago and demanded that “our collective anger through collective action” be directed at “an entire generation of young men in our society who… go out and shoot each other.”

An entire generation? Set aside the latest FBI and CDC reports showing that today’s young men of all races, in Chicago and elsewhere, display the lowest levels of murder and homicide (including with guns) in decades; that five in six murdered children and youths are slain by adults, not other kids; and that offenders under age 18 commit just 4 percent of the country’s murders.

How could a presidential candidate committed to egalitarian views blame all young men for the shootings committed by a tiny fraction? How could a leader seriously concerned about murdered young people ignore the large majority caused by older assailants?

Obama as president doubled down on his theme of youthful murderousness. After the mass shooting in Aurora, Colo., last July, he gave a speech to the Urban League that flatly blamed gun violence on “children” with “a void inside them.”

The only kind of violence Obama cited was “when a child opens fire on another child”—a tragic phenomenon, but one that accounts for perhaps 1 percent of all murders. Add in all other murders by youths plus all mass shootings, and the total being discussed comprises around 5 percent of the nation’s gun homicides.

After Sandy Hook, the president continued his narrow message that gun violence is just a problem of mentally troubled youths incited by a “culture of violence” of explicit video games and popular media. That is, we must protect “our children” from “their children.”

The president and other interests firmly identify with parents and families, which seems to rule out acknowledging that most violence victimizing and killing children is inflicted by parents and within families. No major constituencies have stood up to political leaders on behalf of children and youth like the women’s movement did for female victims.

Groups calling themselves “youth advocates” should tell the president and other leaders: stop stigmatizing young people as violent, broaden concern to talk about 100 percent of violence (not just the politically-easiest 5 percent), and specifically include children and teenagers as victims of domestic violence by parents and family members meriting strong government initiatives.

Some strategies such as multi-agency task forces targeting at-risk families, strictly prosecuting domestic violence, and barring convicted abusers from getting guns would help child victims. Other distinct aspects of children’s victimizations require their own measures, such as specialized interviewer training and secure foster placements.

In 1983, Congress designated April as Child Abuse Prevention Month, annually marked by the White House (including Obama’s) with an unheralded, boilerplate proclamation. The president could use its 30th anniversary to change the debate on gun violence by pointing out that, while teenagers show the biggest declines of any age in murder arrest, violent crime arrest, and gun fatalities in recent years, younger children and many teens continue to suffer by far the most serious violence threats in their own homes.