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America, The Violent
Reflecting on brutality, trauma and the need for change
Decades ago just after college, then living in a low-income neighborhood of Philadelphia, I was mugged three times in less than three months. Once knocked to the ground by a group of attackers wielding knives, once at gunpoint by a man who came up from behind me and pulled out from under his jacket a sawed-off shotgun, and, the third time, well, I began to fight and yell before he was able to pull any weapon out of his bag.
After this third incident, I began to seriously imagine buying a gun, carrying it in the streets—and using it if anyone messed with me again. I was on edge. I felt unsafe. I was not going to take it anymore. I was not about to become a vigilante, but I had to do something to lower the threat, even if that answer risked escalation.
My ultimate decision? I moved away. I had to lessen the daily toll those violent episodes were taking. To this day, I’m still jumpy if I hear footsteps accelerating toward me from behind. (Another physical battle years later with a gang of muggers in New York—grabbing me from behind, covering my mouth so I couldn’t breathe as they searched my pockets, preparing myself for a possible stabbing—didn’t help.)
I’m lucky. I was not badly hurt or worse. And I had the resources to move somewhere else. Many people don’t. Likewise, some people make the stronger decision to stay and address the problem in their neighborhood. I was not prepared to do that.
The depraved beating and murder of Tyre Nichols demands us to ask—once again—what can be done. Many of you shared your insights to Saturday’s question: Can we ever change our culture of violence? One comment among many powerful responses has caused me pause, asking whether we can rethink the meaning of freedom to include the notion that real freedom must include freedom from violence. I can tell you with my limited experience in Philadelphia, the last thing I felt amid the ongoing danger was free.
The last thing I would do is equate my experience, as a privileged white male, with what Tyre Nichols must have felt when those jacked-up cops came upon his car or any of the horrific minutes that followed. Nor do I think any male fully comprehends what many or most females feel in a world where rape and domestic violence puts them disproportionately at risk. Several women readers here noted that ongoing sense of danger in public life.
But while this terrible moment in Memphis demands us to reflect on police brutality, as well as the systemic failures of policing, this also should be a point when we pause to look at America’s culture of violence and ask ourselves: Is there something that can be done to turn the tide?
What follows is a brief sampling of data and related observations detailing this culture of violence that defines America. I share it with the recognition of the need for change.
Police violence: According to the data gathering of the Mapping Police Violence project, 1,123 people were killed by police in the first 11 months of 2022, with Black people 2.9 times more likely to be killed than white people in the U.S. This includes being fatally shot, as well as a result of the use of chokeholds, batons, tasers or other means.
Gun-related deaths: Already in this first month of 2023, the Gun Violence Archive has counted 3,366 gun-related deaths, including homicides, defensive uses and unintentional deaths (1,452) as well as suicides (1,914). And in 2022 overall, there were 44,296 gun-related deaths, including 20,206 homicides, defensive use and unintentional deaths as well as 24,090 suicides. Those numbers included 314 children ages 0-11 and 1,361 teenagers 12-17.
More guns than people: By 2018, Americans owned an estimated 393 million guns, according to a report of the Swiss-based Small Arms Survey, representing 120.5 firearms for every 100 residents. Since then, including in 2020 amid the pandemic, gun sales have increased at a record pace.
Guns at home: Four in 10 U.S. adults say they live in a household with a gun. Republicans and Republican-leaning Independents are more than twice as likely (44 percent) as Democrats (20 percent) to own a gun. This is according to Pew Research in 2021.
Grasping the big problem: Eight in 10 Black adults say gun violence is a “very big problem.” So do six in 10 Hispanic adults, while Pew Research reports only four in 10 white adults view gun violence similarly. Two-thirds of those living in urban areas see gun violence as a major problem, as compared with half of suburbanites and a third of those living in rural areas.
Mass shootings: No community is immune from the threat, not with mass shootings (four or more people killed or injured) exceeding 600 for each of the last three years. That’s 648 in 2022, 690 in 2021 and 610 in 2022—nearly double the total in previous years documented by the Gun Violence Archive.
As much as all this data represents those directly harmed, it doesn’t begin to show the wider impact for families, friends, neighbors or even strangers who witnessed the carnage. It’s worth noting the remarkably composed comment from Tyre Nichols’ mother, who said she would pray for the five police officers charged with the second-degree murder of her son and their families that they “disgraced”—and who will live out their lives in the shadow of the crimes perpetrated.
Consider the fact that a reported 332 people were killed or wounded by shootings on K-12 school properties in 2022. Now consider how many tens of thousands of schoolchildren, schoolteachers and staff and families were harmed and even traumatized by having these terrible acts in their midst. When my daughter graduated high school several years ago, she told me she felt grateful that she made it without facing a school shooting (although she suffered an untold number of shooter drills).
As the Center for Violence Prevention at Children’s Hospital in Philadelphia notes, “Mass shootings that occur in schools are rare events relative to other gun violence. However, mass casualty events in schools can have a profound impact that pervades every aspect of school, family and community life.”
And the broader impacts are also clear, the Center notes, not only at the time of an incident but possibly throughout life:
Children and adolescents exposed to violence are at risk for poor long-term behavioral and mental health outcomes, such as depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder, regardless of whether they are victims, direct witnesses, or hear about the crime. Research has also shown an association between exposure to violence in childhood and an increased likelihood of experiencing intimate partner violence as an adult.
Bear with me as I share this factual summary from the Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion on the impacts of crime and violence. This unit of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services notes the effects can be felt by those who witness these acts directly, indirectly or even hearing about them from other residents. They also cite the disproportion:
The national homicide rate is consistently higher for Black adolescents and young adults than their white counterparts. Low-income neighborhoods are more likely to be affected by crime and property crime than high-income neighborhoods.
And what are the types of violence and their consequences?
Types of violence include, but are not limited to, child abuse and neglect, firearm violence, intimate partner violence, sexual violence, and elder abuse. In addition to the potential for death, disability, and other injuries, people who survive violent crime endure physical pain and suffering and may also experience mental distress and reduced quality of life. Specific examples of detrimental health effects from exposure to violence and crime include asthma, hypertension, cancer, stroke, and mental disorders.
Looking in from the outside, BBC News reported last week on the reality and consequences of gun violence in America, noting that 79 percent of the killings are gun-related in contrast to 4 percent in the U.K. The story also cites an October 2022 Gallup poll that found 57 percent of Americans want stricter gun laws versus 32 percent who prefer gun laws kept as they are.
Yet while a 2021 Gallup poll noted that 91 percent of Democrats support stricter gun laws, only 24 percent of Republicans do. The conclusion of BBC News: “Gun violence is a fixture in American life—but the issue is a highly political one, pitting gun control advocates against sectors of the population fiercely protective of their right to bear arms.” No kidding.
As I suggested in Saturday’s discussion on changing our culture of violence (I urge you to read the thoughtful reader responses if you haven’t already), the scale of the challenge to shift our culture is no small task, especially as long as it’s intertwined with our current political divisions, the obsession with maintaining the 2nd Amendment as a sacrosanct justification for bearing every kind of firearm (including assault rifles), minimizing the responsibility to ensure personal safety in the face of 2nd Amendment freedoms, and profound questions about the violent nature of humans and the scale of man’s inhumanity to man.
Culture change requires confronting the pieces, including guns, toxic masculinity, murder-filled popular entertainment, militarized police forces and failed training, leaders that are modeling cruelty and promoting violence, and larger societal issues that exacerbate stress and motivate people to act out violently. It means (to name a few) electing leaders dedicated to stricter gun laws, continuing to lessen the power of the gun lobby, seriously rethinking the role of police and policing, expanding the Supreme Court with justices that may revisit the 2008 Heller case that expanded the individual right to possess and use firearms. The effort must also be about electing more leaders who energetically model empathy and kindness—and for each of us to do the same.
But this is just the beginning of what a shift in mindset entails, recognizing the historical nature of American myth-making around gun violence in the Old West, the bloody history of Western expansion and the genocide of Native Americans, and an American identity wrapped up with military power and control made clear by defense spending that exceeds the next nine countries combined.
What I do know is the impact of violence is carried for a lifetime. My wife will tell you that, even during my trip to New York City this month, walking in a relatively safe neighborhood, she noticed that I was looking around skeptically at the people coming up behind us. I didn’t realize it; the ripple effects never fully disappear.
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