Placing Gun Violence into a Human Rights Framework: Our Moral Imperative


Over 40% of gun homicide victimization in the United States emanates from only 13% of its population – our African-American community.  Most of today’s most popular proposed interventions do not address the root cause of much of this violence – racial discrimination which involves a complex web of rights infractions.  Additionally, the loss of African-American lives to gun violence is but the small visible tip, a break-through event, of an enormous underlying (and largely invisible) human rights atrocity in the U.S. that has claimed millions of lives and that will continue to claim millions more until our country begins to address discrimination in a serious fashion.   Today’s gun violence prevention movement has developed the organizational structures, political connections and deep financial pockets to impact both Congress and public opinion.  The use those resources to inject human rights into our political dialog, along with the voices of Congressional allies, becomes a moral imperative for our leaders.


My last article on placing gun violence into a human rights framework as a way to politically impact Congress received much positive response, but no stated commitment (so far) from those involved in the gun violence prevention movement who have the political connections, the finances, and the organizational structures to bring this dialog forward.  In some, not all, cases the silence is deafening with unreturned calls and/or lack of response to e-mails from a prominent political strategist, the office of an influential Congressman, and a representative of one gun violence prevention advocacy group that is throwing millions of dollars into backing political candidates.  A representative of another advocacy group stated that the gun violence is ours to solve, not the UN’s, and to that I fault our government in failing in its obligation to organize public awareness and education programs on the Convention (treaty) and its provisions.

The rulings in Geneva this year on the issue of rampant gun violence in the U.S. do not dictate legislation nor interference with our legislative process.  They simply point out that our government is failing in its obligation to protect the right to life; and that is fundamentally different from simply stating that gun violence is awful.  That right was fundamental to the formation of our country – our unalienable (can not be taken away nor denied) right to life.   That right is embedded in our Declaration of Independence, we fought for our independence and established a government to secure that right.  The infraction of that right very much becomes ours to address, and even shame those who would deny that right to so many through ignorance, ideology, and special interests that line their pockets.  In fact, the committee rulings should be held as nothing short of an embarrassment for our country.  This is where the dialog needs to begin in both our state and federal legislatures if we are to address gun violence in a comprehensive fashion – it should direct our legislative efforts.  And for politicians who are not willing to take a stand to protect that fundamental right for our women, children and people of color, let them pay the price at the polls.

If the goal is to reduce gun violence in our country, over 40% of gun homicide victimization is found just 13% of our population – our African-American community.  And the underlying cause of much of that violence, racial discrimination, is fundamentally different from that which is driving many of today’s proposed interventions.  In fact, it becomes apparent that any solution to gun violence in the African-American community would be incomplete and inadequate without also addressing racial discrimination – an illness that has plagued our country since colonial times and that is included amongst the darkest pages of our history.

Also, as detailed below, the well-documented shortfall in African-American life expectancy relative to white America indicates that gun violence is but only one small part, a breakthrough event, of an underlying and largely invisible massive loss of life in that community, totaling into the millions, that is attributable to the devastating effects of discrimination.  Are we as a country really willing to address just one small element of that loss of life while turning a blind eye to the rest?  We seem to have developed quite a track record of doing so.

This article argues that attempts to reduce gun violence in this country are both inadequate and incomplete without a human rights component, not just to the benefit of our African-American population, but by extension to other disproportionately affected groups such as women, children and Hispanics.  Today’s gun violence prevention movement, as well as its Congressional allies, have the capability to bring human rights into our political dialog – it becomes a moral imperative for our leaders to do so.

Gun Violence Prevention Initiatives vs African-American Gun Violence Victimization

Amongst the laundry list of gun violence prevention initiatives dominating the discussion these days are such things as the need for universal background checks, cracking down on straw purchases, concerns about military-style semi-automatic weapons and high capacity ammunition clips, and putting pressure on corporations to keep guns out of restaurants, stores, and coffee shops.

These initiatives have largely been borne of truly tragic and high profile events that often involve disturbed individuals who used firearms in random acts of violence to inflict mass casualties.  Included in recent times are such events as the Virginia Tech shooting, the attempted assassination of Congresswoman Giffords, the Aurora CO movie theatre shooting, and the massacre of 20 young children and six educators at Sandy Hook Elementary School.  In fact,  it was the outrage following the Sandy Hook massacre in December 2012 that precipitated the attempt, and failed attempt, at gun control legislation in the US senate in Spring 2013.

Such events are truly senseless acts of violence that leave people at a loss as to why the shooters would inflict such devastating pain on so many.  So, to help keep ourselves safe we looked to measures that would help keep guns out of the hands of dangerous individuals, placing restrictions on certain weapons and high capacity ammunition clips that are capable of inflicting mass casualties in short order, and limiting exposure to guns in public places that pose risk to the public.

What follows is a sampling of statistics regarding gun violence victimization in our African-American population as was detailed in our shadow report that was filed with both the US Department of State and the Office of High Commissioner for Human Rights in Geneva, Switzerland:

  • For the year 2011, African-Americans represented 13 percent of the US population but over 50% of its homicide victims with firearms being the murder weapon in over 80% of the cases.
  • African-American males are almost seven times more likely to die by firearm homicide that white males.
  • Homicide has been cited as the second leading contributor to the shortfall in African-American life expectancy versus their white US counterparts.
  • African-American children accounted for 45 percent of all child and teen gun deaths in 2008 and 2009 but were only 15% of the total child population.
  • The leading cause of death among African-American teens aged 15-19 years in 2008 and 2009 was gun homicide as opposed to white teens in the same age range where it was motor vehicle accidents in 2008 and gun suicide in 2009.
  • The rate of gun injuries in 2009 was ten times higher amongst African-American children and teens than it was for white children and teens.
  • Additionally, in a recent report published by the Violence Policy Center, in 2012 African-American females were murdered at a rate nearly two and a half times higher than white females, with handguns being the murder weapon in the majority of cases.

It becomes clear that the gun violence victimization in our African-American community is fundamentally different from that which is motivating the gun interventions cited above.  The gun violence in this population is not the result of random and senseless acts of violence but, as detailed in our report, is intimately linked, both directly and indirectly, to the effects of racial discrimination through several mechanisms.  Included are overt acts of violence driven by racial hatred, shootings that involve implicit (subconscious) racial bias, and shootings in predominately black economically depressed urban areas throughout the country (our report detailed Chicago and New York City as examples), created and maintained by discriminatory practices, that become breeding grounds for violence where African-Americans not only become both victims and perpetrators of gun violence, but where African-American males become further stigmatized as being dangerous thus further reenforcing implicit racial bias (a vicious cycle).

Although we might be able to conduct a background check as to whether someone has a past record of violent behavior, such precautions, minus an existing criminal background, will not keep guns out of the hands of those who harbor racial hatred or who have been conditioned to perceive African-American males as being dangerous.  And are we really, as a country, taking the stance that tightening up gun and ammunition sales in troubled urban areas is an adequate intervention without also addressing the underlying factors that contribute to the violence?  Any attempt to limit the gun violence in our African-American community is incomplete without also addressing racial discrimination, which involves a host of human rights issues.  And the grossly disparate effects of gun violence in that population leave no doubt that our government is indeed failing in its duty to effectively protect their right to life.

But what we are witnessing with loss of life to gun violence in our African-American population is but the visible tip of an unfathomable and largely invisible loss of life in that community due to racial discrimination, where millions have prematurely died and millions more will until we begin the process of eliminating racial discrimination in our country.

A Human Rights Atrocity of Enormous Proportions

The shortfall in African-American life expectancy versus white America is well-documented.  At the turn of this century two independent data sets (an evaluation of nearly 18 million deaths across across all 50 states and the District of Columbia between 1997-2004 by UCLA researchers and government issued life expectancy data) both gave the same result:  African-American males and females were demonstrating on average a shortfall in life expectancy of about 7 and 5 years, respectively, versus their white American counterparts.  I wanted to understand that shortfall in terms of the number of lives affected rather than its typical expression as a few years difference which tends to trivialize the matter.  When that shortfall is applied to a population of 35 million African-Americans (2000 census data – the closest time point to the life expectancy data), it resulted in a total of 210 million lost years, which in turn equates to nearly 3 million full life expectancies.  But as individuals would be dying at some fraction of full life expectancy, the total number of affected individuals would be anticipated to be considerably higher.

This effect is multi-fatorial (many contributing factors), all consistent with the effects of racial discrimination (deficiencies in medical care, nutrition, education, employment, housing, etc) and is seen across all stages of life as reflected in such things as increased infant mortality, teen and young adult violence, and a host of chronic health conditions that manifest later in life.  And there is growing body of evidence that just the stress of living in a race conscious society results in repeated and prolonged exposure to naturally occurring stressors (e.g., cortisol and adrenaline) that can lead to premature aging and chronic health conditions (as even discussed in the lay press).

What is so insidious is that much of this death is invisible to us, we don’t see it – these individuals just quietly slip away.   What I hold to be an ongoing human rights atrocity of enormous proportions in our country goes unnoticed; these millions of lost lives do not cross our TV sets as do images of mass graves and other overt signs of atrocities.  That is with the exception of gun violence where morbidity and mortality are readily tabulated and there is no doubt about the cause of death or injury.   And, yes, some of these deaths (such as Trayvon Martin and Jordan Davis) do cross our TV sets and most become appalled without understanding that these are but one manifestation of a much larger picture.

So when we witness highly publicized shootings, such as with these two young men, it needs to be understood that what we are witnessing is a breakthrough event, one that can be seen, that is but one part of a much larger loss of life driven by racial discrimination in our country.  And to not address that is morally reprehensible.

Concluding Remarks

A number of recent events have occurred that create enormous opportunity for both the gun violence prevention and human rights movements.  There are the Geneva rulings citing the loss of life to rampant gun violence in our country as a failure of our government’s duty to effectively protect the right to life – a fundamental and foundational right in our country.  And following the spectacular failure of our Senate to pass any piece of gun violence prevention legislation in 2013, powerful groups were created that have the organizational structure, political connections, and deep financial pockets to impact Congress.

The machinery is in place to bring human rights into our political dialog through the gun violence prevention initiative to the benefit of both movements.  And this can be done without jeopardizing the legislative objectives of the gun violence prevention movement.  In fact, as detailed in my last article, it could only help.   With human rights being injected into our political and social dialog we can more effectively initiate the longer-term process eliminating discriminatory practices that tear at the very fabric of our diverse society.  We can begin the process of creating equality for all and forming a more perfect union.

This opportunity must not be missed, and it very well might be if not initiated before the intensity of this election season passes.  Let’s have our politicians debate the unalienable right to life in women, children and minorities against the Second Amendment arguments of the gun lobby and its Congressional supporters.  I believe it evident how that will sit with large and important voting blocks that have shown the capability of carrying elections.

We can only hope that these groups, and their Congressional allies, will take the step.  It is nothing short of a moral imperative for them to do so.