Missing the Mark

The reality of the gun control debate in Rhode Island

by Lucas Smolcic Larson

Illustration by Halle Krieger

published April 20, 2018


On April 10, hundreds of people packed the galleries of the RI State House. As the House Judiciary Committee voted to advance two new firearm regulations, some of these onlookers chanted “our votes count!”—a threat to representatives up for reelection in November. The protestors objected to a proposed ban on ‘bump stocks,’ the mechanical attachment that enabled semi-automatic rifles used in October’s massacre in Las Vegas to fire faster. They also denounced the so-called red flag law, which would permit state judges to confiscate legally-possessed guns if their owners were flagged as threats by law enforcement. Red flags could include a history of mental illness or acts of violence, but also the “unlawful, threatening, or reckless brandishing of a firearm” displayed on social media.


April 10 had all the hallmarks of today’s fight over gun control. An overwhelmingly white and conservative faction of gun owners, claiming shooting as their cultural heritage, loudly defended their Second Amendment right to bear arms. Meanwhile, liberal lawmakers and advocacy groups work to pass sweeping gun restrictions, spurred on by the latest mass tragedy. Bridging this chasm is one striking commonality: both misunderstand the very issue at hand.


Kinds of mass violence

The political debate, amplified by the media, portrays mass shootings as the defining tragedy of US gun violence, but these events obscure the bigger picture. In 2015, after a gunman killed nine worshippers at a church in South Carolina, President Obama told the nation, “At some point, we as a country will have to reckon with the fact that this type of mass violence does not happen in other advanced countries…with this kind of frequency.” Politifact labelled his claim “mostly false,” citing a database by researchers Jaclyn Schildkraut and H. Jaymi Elsass that puts the US at a lower per-capita mass shooting fatality rate than Norway, Finland, and Switzerland (although isolated events have boosted these countries’ rates). Difficulties in defining mass shootings complicate cross-national comparison, resulting in some studies which conclude that they are a uniquely American problem and others which cast doubt on this hypothesis.


Everyday US gun violence presents a more clear-cut issue. In 2016, the CDC reported the firearm death rate in the US was about 12 per 100,000, or just over 38,000 victims that year. Sixty percent of these were suicides, which while concerning, contributes to a suicide rate comparable to that of Germany and other EU countries. This leaves about 15,000 homicides. Such a rate of interpersonal gun violence, eight times higher than the rate in Canada and 27 times higher than Denmark’s, sets the US apart from all nations with similar levels of socioeconomic status. But mass shootings figure into only a tiny portion of this violence. Mother Jones’ mass shooting database recorded 71 victims in 2016, representing only .005 percent of total gun deaths. These catastrophic events are a serious problem but, broadly speaking, they are not the problem of gun violence in the US.


Everyday gun violence is an issue of urban racial injustice. The CDC reports about 80 percent of gun homicides in 2016 took place in cities. Despite making up only 13 percent of the population, Black Americans are gun victims at rates that exceed those of whites in all 50 states. In Providence, data presented by Mayor Elorza’s Advisory Council to Reduce Gun Violence in 2017 showed shooting victims treated at city hospitals over the past 10 years have been 32 percent Hispanic and 43 percent Black. Overall, Rhode Island has one of the lowest gun death rates in the US, but gun violence disproportionately harms urban communities of color in the state.


Classical High School student Wilfred Chirinos addressed the neglect of urban gun violence in communities of color at the March 14th Providence Walkout to End Gun Violence. Speaking about the national reaction to February’s Parkland, Florida shooting, he said, “My problem was that the message was focused on gun violence in schools, but little do we speak about the gun violence in communities, in our communities.” What would a broader movement to curb gun violence look like? It would acknowledge the intertwining dynamics of poverty and racism as the real targets of meaningful anti-gun violence efforts, framing the issue as one of social and racial justice instead of political partisanship.


The color of gun control

The gun control movement’s failure to protect urban communities of color from violence is nothing new. UCLA law professor Adam Winkler wrote in The Atlantic, “indisputably, for much of American history, gun-control measures, like any other laws, were used to oppress African Americans.” After the Civil War, Southern states adopted Black Codes that barred Black gun ownership and prompted the confiscation of firearms by bands of white men, the most famous being the Ku Klux Klan.


After the Black Panther Party’s armed members followed law enforcement to observe and guard against police brutality in 1967, gun control attitudes suddenly mirrored those of the post-Civil War South—this time in California. Then-Governor Ronald Reagan responded by signing the Mulford Act, prohibiting the open carry of guns in public places. The next year, President Nixon oversaw the passage of the Gun Control Act of 1968, which banned “Saturday Night Specials,” or cheaply made handguns associated with minority communities. Many historians attribute this sudden energy around gun control to an intent to keep guns out of the hands of Black radicals.


Gun control policies also played a role in the rise of mass incarceration of Black and Brown people in the 1980s. Yale law professor James Forman Jr. explains in his book Locking Up Our Own how, surprisingly, Black politicians worked to criminalize gun possession in their communities with tough-on-crime policy. Responding to high levels of crime threatening African American neighborhoods, Black Washington DC city councilman John Wilson pushed a sweeping ban on handguns and shotguns, along with mandatory minimum sentences for criminals who used guns. His proposal passed, but concurrent calls for addressing crime through social programs from other Black leaders met their end with the political conservatism of the 80s. Forman explains that Black politicians did not realize that their punitive policies, such as mandatory minimums, would go on to drive the disproportionate incarceration of their own communities. Although they fully intended the criminalization of gun possession to help protect their neighborhoods, in the long run these policies again worked against the people gun violence affected the most.


Low-hanging fruit

Today in Rhode Island, attempts to curb gun violence are also accused of discrimination. Take the red-flag law, which passed in the House on April 12th and now awaits a Senate vote. After its introduction, the RI ACLU published a 14-page criticism of the bill stating that “extreme risk protection orders”—the means by which judges authorize the confiscation of guns—allow police to use coercive measures against individuals not alleged to have committed any crime. The bill’s critics cite the vocal support it garnered from the Police Chiefs of Rhode Island and its potential to disproportionally impact communities of color already targeted by law enforcement—effectively making unrestricted gun ownership a white, upper-class privilege.

The bill also faces opposition from guns rights organizations. Brenda Jacobs with the Rhode Island Revolver and Rifle Association told the Independent that red flag orders “circumvent due process” and set a “dangerous precedent.” On the other side of the debate, the Communications Director for the Rhode Island Coalition Against Gun Violence (RICAGV), Kat Kerwin, declined to comment on the bill to the Independent.


Beyond the red-flag law, the liberal gun control agenda in Rhode Island is consistent with the national debate’s focus on mass shootings. Kerwin’s organization endorses three policies: a ban on assault weapons; a ban on high capacity magazines; and the Safe Schools Act, which prohibits firearms on school grounds with exceptions for police, Reserve Officers Training Corps, and sport shooting programs. Kerwin called these efforts the “low-hanging fruit approach” of gun violence prevention, describing the kinds of firearms the RICAGV hopes to ban as “weapons of war.” The assault rifle ban’s national supporters have included President Obama, Everytown for Gun Safety, and more recently the #NeverAgain activists from Parkland.


In 1994, Congress passed a federal assault weapons ban. However, loopholes in the legislation, like the difficulty of defining “assault weapon,” and the 1.5 million assault rifles already in circulation, resulted in studies finding unclear evidence about its life-saving potential when it expired in 2004. Rifles are also responsible for only a fraction of US gun deaths, with handguns accounting for about 70 percent of fatalities overall and making up a similar percentage of mass shooting weapons, according to Mother Jones. Assault-rifle bans might be “common sense” policy for many liberals, but they also play a role in legislative logjams around gun control. Jacobs, a member of the RI Revolver and Rifle Association, explains why her group opposes an assault rifle ban in RI. “We feel that our gun laws are pretty well-balanced in Rhode Island right now,” she told the Independent, describing stringent background check laws, as well as mandatory safety courses required for gun club memberships, concealed carry permits, and a hunting licenses.


“They feel that banning and restricting guns from law-abiding citizens is going to stop crime. It’s not,” says Jacobs. She has a point. There are more than 300 million guns in civilian possession in the US. Comparing this number against 38,000 gun deaths, or even 500,000 gun victimizations, makes it clear: the vast majority of gun owners are not committing crimes. What is more, strict state-level gun regulations suffer when neighboring states adopt more lax measures and illegal guns remain available.


According to Jacobs, it is “the gangs and the people with mental illness that are the problem.” But research by Dr. Jeffrey Swanson, a professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Duke University, finds that curing all cases of schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and major depression overnight would only reduce gun violence by 4 percent. "Most mentally ill people are not violent," he says. Jacobs’ gesturing towards gangs acknowledges the impact of urban gun violence. But “gang” is often code for an overarching image of Black and Latinx people as criminals and a justification for punitive policy, which is problematic given the overpolicing and risk of police shootings these communities already face.


Beyond a selective focus

Kerwin, with the Coalition Against Gun Violence, separated gun violence into two categories: “episodic,” or periodic mass shootings; and “non-episodic,” smaller scale violence that accounts for the majority of gun deaths. When asked why the RICAGV’s policies address primarily episodic violence, Kerwin responded, “I think non-episodic gun violence isn't something that you can legislate,” portraying her organization’s policies, like the assault rifle ban, as only the first step to a more expansive anti-gun violence agenda. The RICAGV does fund groups addressing urban gun violence in a more holistic way, for example helping the Providence Student Union put on the March 14th Student Walkout. It is also considering a future measure to increase the numbers of social workers in schools to support communities where gun violence is prevalent.


“The organizing communities that exist now in gun violence prevention … have been focusing on the episodic side because that’s the gun violence that impacts white communities,” Kerwin acknowledged. She cited evidence of changing norms in the demands of some Parkland student-activists of color during the March For Our Lives. They demand politicians move beyond a selective focus on white victimhood to address racially disproportionate everyday violence. These activists agree that non-episodic gun violence is something that needs to be legislated, urgently so, while also calling for a nuanced approach that does not write-off their communities as criminal.


So what works?

An equitable answer to the racialized impacts of everyday gun violence means moving beyond gun control’s mass shooting paradigm. Gun regulation is one of many policies that could address gun violence—not the only solution. The city of Boston acknowledged this while facing high levels of youth gun-homicide in the 1990s. Its response was an anti-gang violence policy designed by criminologist David Kennedy called “Operation Ceasefire.” Kennedy believes the racialized image of gang members as murderous super-predators masks the fear and social pressure these young men feel. In Boston, he discovered that less than five percent of community members in gang-dominated neighborhoods participated: a tiny circle of people was driving the majority of violence in the city, a finding replicated nationally.


His program began punitively, with a strategy of harshly policing gun crimes, including long sentences for repeat offenders. Then, the city conducted “call-ins,” meetings between gangs, law enforcement, clergy, and local service groups in a safe environment to explain a new “zero-tolerance” policy for gun violence. Officials spoke directly to those at risk for gun violence about the consequences of the crime while connecting them to social services they might need, like housing or employment. Addressing the underlying causes of violence, like chronic poverty, residential segregation, and other forms of structural disadvantage, was meant to decrease shootings.


Operation Ceasefire was enormously successful—at least in the short term. It accounted for a rapid 63 percent reduction in youth homicides, in what was dubbed the “Boston Miracle.” The model was exported to other cities, and a 2012 review of the policy found that seven of the eight cities that had fully implemented Ceasefire saw similar reductions in violence. Ceasefire is known as the “pulling levers” approach because it involves simultaneously pulling all relevant levers of violence: coordinating social services and the relationship between police and communities. Because of this, it falls apart easily when any of the actors involved become less committed. Boston saw a 67 percent rise in homicides in 2001, which Kennedy credits to failures in the continued implementation his plan.


Ceasefire also relies on bringing the weight of the criminal justice system down on gun offenders to set an example for others. Punitiveness has shown itself to the lowest common denominator policy in US criminal justice when politicians disagree about the role of social supports in addressing crime. Ceasefire falls apart if officials lose commitment to the program in favor of harsher measures. Kennedy’s program walks a razor’s edge between supporting the over-policing of communities of color and recognizing the humanity of those engaged in urban violence. It is not easy to pull off, but neither will any effective program against gun violence.


Raise the wage

In Rhode Island, certain lawmakers are taking similarly broad-based approaches to gun violence. Last year, Representative Marcia Ranglin-Vassell formed the Community Response to Joblessness and Gun Violence, a coalition of legislators and community organizations. “I strongly believe that the root cause of gun violence lies in generational poverty and lack of proper representation at all levels of government,” she said in a press release. Ranglin-Vassell listened to Providence residents’ needs and solutions—many of which came down to employment. Her coalition hopes to establish a city-wide job fair, and she also plans to reintroduce a bill for a $15 minimum wage. Ranglin-Vassell believes these policies are a necessary addition to gun control measures targeting mass shootings.


Kat Kerwin indicated the Rhode Island Coalition Against Gun Violence is taking part in Ranglin-Vassell’s efforts. While Brenda Jacobs and the Revolver and Rifle Association did not mention any such endorsements, her organization supports a bill requiring the RI Attorney General to prepare an annual report on rates of gun crime and prosecution. These are small steps—beginnings—to reframing the gun debate in terms of the real problems of violence, their racial inequities, and the multi-faceted policies that will be needed to address them.

Lucas Smolcic Larson B’19 believes gun rights and gun violence prevention aren’t opposites.