Gun Violence and Human Rights: Welcome to the Family


With two separate human rights committees declaring this year that rampant gun violence in the United States constitutes a violation of our government’s duty to protect life, gun violence finds itself as being but one member in a family of related disorders in our country.  It is beyond coincidence that all disproportionately affect the same victims and that all are fostered by the same hateful and discriminatory ideology held on the political right.  Although other members of this family claim far more lives than does gun violence, it is the dramatic and highly publicized nature of major gun violence events that raises public outrage as well as tens of millions of dollars in funding.  Our country now has the demography to weaponize human rights in our political process.  And gun violence prevention, with its resources and political connections, can accomplish much more than just its own cause, and far more quickly, by simply changing its focus.

This year gun violence learned that it was not an only child but has many siblings, all sharing characteristics acquired from the same set of abusive parents, discrimination and rights infringement.  Is it just coincidence that women, children, and racial/ethnic minorities, all of whom have been cited as being disproportionately affected by gun violence, are the same as those disproportionately affected by many other rights violations (citing but a few, healthcare, education, voting)?  And is it simply coincidence that the same political party that is not only obstructing gun violence prevention legislation, but is working to spread that illness, is the same that is creating and maintaining gender/race/ethnic disparities in many other rights areas?

So, gun violence, welcome to the family.  It’s time you meet your siblings.

The declaration of gun violence as a human rights violation this year was the result of the work of NGOs and individual activists, including this writer, that took the matter before two different human rights committees in Geneva, Switzerland.  Both committees were reviewing US obligations under two separate treaties our country has ratified; one being the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the other the International Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Racial Discrimination (ICERD).  These committees are composed of legal and academic scholars in the field of human rights from many countries, and upon reviewing the evidence, not one, but both declared that rampant gun violence in the United States places our government in violation of its duty to effectively protect the right to life.

Per our own Declaration of Independence, this fundamental right is held to be unalienable (can not be taken away or denied), yet has been stripped from far too many by gun violence.  And this loss of life is not through accident such as with automobile fatalities, but intentional – the willful act of those in possession of a product created to end life; criminal homicides with firearms outnumber justifiable homicides some forty-fold in our country.   To deny gun violence as a rights violation would be bucking the opinion of a host of international legal and academic experts in the field.  But then again the political right does have a knack for engaging in denial when convenient, such as with evolution, the big bang theory (creationism), and climate change.  And there are also those in the gun violence prevention movement who take an isolationist view of their cause while ignoring the broader picture of where the issue fits.

Although advocates repeatedly cite the approximately 30,000 deaths by gun violence each year (using round numbers, about 10,000 homicides and 20,000 suicides), the issue is in the minor leagues when it comes to the loss of life caused by other members of its family.

A research team from Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health estimated that in 2000 875,000 deaths in the US could be attributed to a cluster of social factors bound up with poverty and income inequality – and it’s getting worse.  The researchers found that the number of deaths attributable to low education, 245,000, was comparable to that caused by heart attacks (192,898) which were the leading cause of US deaths in 2000.  Large numbers of deaths were also attributable to other social factors such as racial segregation (176,000), low social support (162,000), individual-level poverty (133,000), and income inequality (119,000).  By comparison 119,000 in the US die from accidents each year, 156,000 from lung cancer… and 30,000 from gun violence.

In a previous article (Wealth and Income Inequality: America’s Moral Crisis), this writer noted that every day in America 2,573 babies are born into poverty.  Yet, while fighting to keep tax cuts in place for the wealthiest of Americans, the Republican Party argued to cut funding for the food stamp program; the total cost of that program being $65 million, less than 1% of the wealth held by millionaire households.  In the state of NC, this writer’s home state, 1 in 4 children is poor, disproportionately affecting children of color (41% of that state’s children of color live in what has been described as tortuous poverty), and 622,000 of that state’s children to not get enough to eat.  And just as gun violence leaves many of its victims impaired, so does poverty.  Although it’s known that children raised in poverty are at greater risk for developing cognitive deficits, researchers have now shown that family poverty affects the rate of human infant brain growth, leading to decreased tissue in areas of the brain important to processing information; this in children up to 4 years of age.

In considering education as a fundamental right, how is it possible that, last year, in the Charlotte-Mecklenburg (NC) school district (home of current NC governor Pat McCrory and newly elected US senator Thom Tillis who led the hard right agenda of that state as House Speaker) 73% of White students scored at or above proficiency with common core standards, yet only 30% of Black students and 35% of Hispanic students did – this within the same district?  Now consider the impact of that on longevity.

Or in considering healthcare as a fundamental right, how is it that the 26 Republican-dominated states initially refusing to expand Medicaid under the ACA held 68% of this nation’s African-American poor – the largest proportion of any other race group (this while the other states that expanded Medicaid held only 32% of our African-American poor, the lowest proportion of any race group)?

Or regarding women’s reproductive rights, consider that the Republican party in multiple states has made it increasingly more difficult for women seeking abortion, even working to declare personhood at the time of conception thus effectively relegating a pregnant woman to the status of being an incubator, only to declare a mother a ‘moocher and taker’ for seeking assistance for her child born into poverty, despite the devastating effects that poverty can reek upon that child – and this while working to defund Planned Parenthood and thus the ability to prevent unwanted pregnancies.

And lest their be any doubt about the insensitivity to human rights and children, know that the United States is but one of only three United Nations member states that have not ratified the Convention on the Rights of the Child, placing our country in the company of Somalia and South Sudan, obstructed by the same right-wing ideology discussed above.  And regarding women, 188 United Nations member states have ratified the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination against Women, but not the United States.

In viewing this inhumane agenda, words attributed to Hunter S. Thompson come to mind: “Human beings are the only creatures on Earth that claim a God, and the only living things that behave like they haven’t got one.”

In examining the whole, is it really just coincidence that nearly half of this nation’s gun homicide victims are African-American, yet they comprise only 13-14% of our country’s population (see paragraph 20)?  Or that women are 11 times more likely to die from gun violence in America than those in other developed countries (note that the ICCPR human rights committee decision also included the issue of domestic violence and guns – see paragraph 10)?  Or that the homicide victimization rate in Latinos in the US is more than twice as high as that for Whites, with most being killed by guns?  Or that Black children and teens accounted for 45% of all child and teen gun deaths in 2008 and 2009 but were only 15% of the total child population?

Again, gun violence, meet and embrace your siblings.

So where’s the outrage about such a massive loss of life borne of discrimination and rights infringement in this land of equal opportunity?  Where are the big bucks, or discussion about the devastating loss of life, or why such low visibility during elections?  Simply put, much of the death from these other areas of discrimination and rights infringement are invisible to us.  Out-of-sight, out-of-mind.  What we do not see can not bother us.  This while major gun violence events, such as Columbine, Virginia Tech, the attempted assassination of Congresswoman Giffords, the Aurora CO movie theatre shooting, and the massacre of twenty youngsters at Sandy Hook Elementary School are transmitted into our homes, interrupting programming… Breaking News!   And we are appalled by what we see, and yet unmoved by what we don’t.  And thus gun violence becomes perhaps the wealthiest member of its family, with tens of millions being donated to remove those who obstruct its cure.  This across the backdrop of an invisible tidal wave of death where millions are being prematurely sent to their graves by the same underlying illness.

The gun violence prevention movement, with all its resources, can, of course, remain playing in its own sandbox.  But then again, if it is interested in winning the grand prize (controlling Congress and thus federal law) it has seen how playing alone has failed to achieve legislation that 90% of America wanted or how that failed to prevent the senate from falling into obstructionist Republican hands despite throwing millions of dollars into the effort.  In numbers, there is strength, as was demonstrated in 2012 when those disproportionately affected by so many rights violations, i.e., women, African-Americans, and Latinos, showed the ability to shape Congress into an entity more representative of our diversity, and thus more sensitive to causes that affect them.  All it takes is for the gun violence prevention movement to redefine its objective from making obstructionist politicians pay the price at the polls into delivering a Congress capable of voting down hatred and special interest pressure.  And little doubt that is best achieved by driving the oppressed to the polls, something that was done poorly by both Democratic candidates and the gun violence prevention movement this past mid-term election.

It is said that background checks represent a ‘common sense’ approach to limiting gun violence.  But, as long as racism exists (and it does), such a preventative measure does not keep guns out of the hands of the Michael Dunn’s and George Zimmerman’s of this world who were conditioned to hold bias against African-American males, a population that can lose its life by simply reaching into its pocket for a cell phone, or driving in the ‘wrong’ neighborhood, or playing music too loudly, or excessive use of force by police, or just walking home after buying some skittles and iced tea while wearing a hoodie.  And are we really proposing as a solution going after unscrupulous gun dealers who are helping to pump guns onto predominately Black economically-depressed urban streets (created and maintained through acts of racial discrimination) without addressing the underlying cause of the violence such conditions create?  It can be argued that is but putting a band-aid on the problem as well as being morally corrupt.  With gun violence affecting so many of the under-represented, attempts to curb it are incomplete without a rights component.

The demographics in our country have reached the point where human rights can be weaponized in our political process, something this writer is attempting to achieve.  Our country is far different from the days of FDR when senior southern senators (in those day Democrats before switching parties in the 1960’s following enactment of civil rights legislation) obstructed the president’s support of legislation that declared lynching a federal crime, despite the efforts of his wife, Eleanor, a champion of human and civil rights.

Today, those who suffer discrimination in our society have the numbers to shape Congress into one that can address much of what ills our country.  And don’t think the Republican party is unaware of this as evidenced by the voter suppression laws it enacts.  But as the numbers increase, attempts to stifle that voice can only accelerate the demise of hateful ideology in our politics, and perhaps even provide a people’s cure for Citizens United.  And it can happen sooner than later if the Democratic Party grows a spine and carries the banner of those it claims to embrace.

Gun violence stepping out of its own sandbox and playing with the rest of its family can help us get there.  That child can learn, as as do others who progress through life, that getting what it wants is often best served by lending a hand to others.