By R. Tyson Smith
The cruelty of last week’s shooting in Boulder, Colo. goes far beyond the tragic loss of ten more lives because of gun violence. The bigger cruelty is how the coverage of this mass shooting —l ike the coverage of most mass shootings —perpetuates a form of institutional racism that further devalues Black and Brown lives.
After the Boulder shooting, headlines, pundits and elected officials spoke to the senselessness of a young man killing innocent shoppers in this recent disaster. The shooting prompted calls for immediate legislation from President Biden; and Vice-President Harris, with indignation, described the Boulder violence as “tragic…ten people going about their day, living their lives, not bothering anybody.”
While the Whitehouse remarks about the victims hopefully spurs gun safety legislation, this shooting is not at all representative of most gun violence in America. Less than one percent of deaths from gun violence are the result of mass shootings (defined as four or more fatalities).
Roughly 60 percent of gun fatalities are, in fact, suicides, not homicides. Going further, while fatalities generate more headlines than injuries, the fact is that for every one person killed by a gun, approximately four others are injured.
Surviving gun violence almost never means surviving unscathed; outcomes can include brain damage, lifelong chronic injury, or post-traumatic stress disorder. In my work with people who are justice-involved—incarcerated or otherwise—the likelihood of experiencing gun violence firsthand at some point in one’s life is very high.
Philadelphia, like many other major American cities, is undergoing an alarming rise in gun violence. 500 people were killed by guns in Philadelphia last year, and 2021 is on track to be even more violent. At this point, the number of fatalities from the Boulder shooting is about the same number of people who are killed by guns in Philadelphia in every week.
Meanwhile, many of those killed by guns in Philadelphia are of course innocent. Jarell Jackson, a health technician who mentored troubled teens, and Shahjahan McCaskill, a cancer survivor and small-business owner, were best friends who had “built successful lives for themselves” before being randomly killed by gunfire after returning from a vacation together.
In another painful example, fifteen-year-old Antonio Walker, heading out for a workout with his cousin, was shot in West Philadelphia on one of the year’s first warm days. An eleven year old was slain while riding his scooter.
Some tireless local journalists have detailed these tragedies. Rarely if at all, however, do the victims of everyday gun violence in Philadelphia and other cities receive national headlines.
Even though Antonio’s murder was just as senseless as the Boulder shootings, and the violence was just as random, most Americans will never hear Antonio’s name or know his story. They won’t know his flair for fashion and clothing line, prowess on the running track, or medals from the Penn Relays. They won’t even know his name. Almost never do such victims as he prompt comments from the White House.
But are Antonio, Shahjahan, and Jarell less deserving of such collective mourning? After all, they too were just “going about their day, living their lives, not bothering anybody.”
The truth is that these people were killed for no other reason than walking, driving, or recreating in certain urban zip codes that are predominately Black and Brown neighborhoods.
So much gunfire occurs in those neighborhoods that young Black men (between 15 and 34 years of age) accounted for 34% of gun homicides despite being only 2% of the United States total population. In certain neighborhoods, young men of color have come to avoid social life altogether due to the ever-present threat of gun violence and an extensive criminal legal system that aggressively polices them.
So how can we be outraged and incensed by a mass shooting and not this everyday threat from gun violence that’s plaguing our neighborhoods?
One disturbing reason is how Americans tend to cast blame on victims; they suggest victims should have done things differently to avoid such harm. Like domestic violence victims, many of whom also die from gun violence, people ask, “why didn’t they just leave?”
We often apply an individual-level explanations instead of criticizing the societal reasons. Consider how covid shutdowns compounded unemployment and stress at a time when schools and other community programs were closed or online.
This is to say nothing of these same zip codes often struggling with under-resourced schools, inadequate provisions for mental health, and police brutality like that experienced by George Floyd.
In order to address America’s problem with gun violence, we must confront this all-too-common disparity in collective outrage and mourning that appears after mass shootings such as the one in Boulder.
After all, there really isn’t any difference in the enormous loss suffered by families in West Philadelphia and Boulder Colorado.
When one group of gun violence victims garners condemnation while another group doesn’t, it is simply another form of structural racism — adding further injustice to an already unjust reality. It is only right that mass shootings serve as moments to expand our collective empathy and understanding for all gun violence victims, not foreclose on it.
R. Tyson Smith is a sociologist who lives in Philadelphia and teaches Urban Studies at University of Pennsylvania.