Horrific mass shootings like the ones that occurred last year in Newtown and Aurora grab a lot of headlines, and understandably so. They are among the very worst crimes imaginable, and the amount of devastation a single person with an automatic or semi-automatic weapon can do in a short space of time is so ghastly and overwhelming it defies comprehension.
But actually, mass shootings probably aren’t becoming more common, though often it seems as if they are. In reality, gun violence is concentrated in low-income and urban neighborhoods, and its victims tend to be people of color, particularly young men of color. African-Americans are about 13% of the population, yet in 2010 they made up 56% of all gun-related homicides. Gun homicide is now the leading cause of death of black teens, and the racial disparities in gun violence don’t appear to be going away. One criminologist has estimated that the likelihood that a white male born today will be murdered is about 1 in 158, whereas for a black male it is 1 in 27. As David Cole argued in a recent New York Times op-ed, in this country, it is communities of color who pay an unbearably high price for the paranoid obsessions of a declining subset of crazy old white dudes.
In much of the country, I suppose, it might be possible to be oblivious of the race and class dimensions of the gun debate. But if, as I do, you live in Chicago and even occasionally pick up a newspaper or watch the local news, it’s inconceivable that you could remain ignorant of these facts. Chicago is currently experiencing an epidemic of gun violence. In 2012, 516 people were murdered here, and thus far in 2013 we are exceeding even last year’s rate. A local reporter recently noted that the murder rate here is far worse than it was back in Al Capone’s heyday in the 1920s. Every week, particularly during and right after the weekend, you pick up the paper, see photos of young African-American faces, and read the heartrending stories.
One of the recent ones that really got to me was this one, about 15-year old Hadiya Pendleton. A week before her death, Hadiya, whom friends and family described as an honor student, a majorette and a great reader, had attended President Obama’s inauguration. She was an innocent bystander who was shot dead this Tuesday at 2:30 in the afternoon. Here’s one description of her death:
“As usual, the bad guy aims, but he never hits the other bad guy . . . He hits the one that hurts the most to lose,” said Chicago Police Officer Damon Stewart, 36, Hadiya ’s godfather. “I changed her diapers, I played with her growing up. My heart is broken.”
And then there is the tragic story of a 54-year old Chicago woman named Shirley Chambers. One week ago, Mrs. Chambers lost her 33-year old son, Ronnie, to gun violence. But that wasn’t Shirley Chambers’ first tragic loss. Each and every one of her four children has died as a result of gun-related homicide. In addition to Ronnie, she’s buried 18-year old Carlos, who was shot and killed in 1995; 23-year old Jerome, who was shot and killed in April 2000; and then, 15-year old LaToya, who was shot and killed just three months after Jerome.
In a powerful piece written after Newtown, Garry Wills described guns as our Moloch, a demonic, insatiable god whom we as a culture adore, and to whom we continue to make the ultimate human sacrifice: our children.
Here is Shirley Chambers.