Here is the fourth of four student final reflection papers for my Sociology of Guns seminar. You can read about the background to this writing and the first reflection here, and read the second and third reflection papers as well.
As I noted before Christmas, I am teaching this course for the third time in the spring semester of 2017 (beginning January 10th), and hoping to do a better job of posting about the course as I go, though with a couple of major writing projects looming, no promises!
Revisiting the Question: The Role of Guns through an Updated Urban Lens
by Julia Rootenberg
The gun debate is one that I used to listen to from the outskirts. It is not because I didn’t care, I certainly did, but I figured that my voice would get lost in the deafening screams that are typical of such a polarized issue. What’s more, I have always been irked by people who are clearly uneducated about something but continue to contribute their uninformed commentary.
I have found this to be particularly endemic within liberally-leaning groups in the gun debate. There is a vicious cycle at play here: liberal people tend to know less about guns (due to less interaction with them, perhaps as a result of geographical location). The less exposure to guns a person has, the more difficult it is for him or her to see merit or value in its existence.
I admit that I am guilty of this myself. Because I never went out hunting or skeet shooting with my family or received a gun for Christmas (although in my case it would be Hannukah), my limited exposure to and, subsequently, limited knowledge of guns pushed me farther away from understanding them. The only context in which I heard about guns was violence: mass shootings and shootings by police. After one such event received inordinate amounts of press attention, I would engage in discussions with my family or friends about the tragedy and how “something” needed to be done about it. But, these discussions never imparted any new knowledge; they only reinforced how opposed to guns everyone around me was.
Here, it is important to note that I grew up surrounded predominantly by liberal and upper class families. The parents of my friends tended to be lawyers or psychiatrists or investment bankers – these people had no experience with rural, conservative America, and many of them refused to step down from their ivory towers to do so. Throughout this course, I have realized that this geographical divide is more significant than one might think. For example, gun ownership in New York City was unheard of amongst my family and friends. Growing up, the only people I could definitively say used guns were police officers, and this made sense.
However, through my research on justifiable homicides by police, the once clear-cut partnership of police officers and guns raised many questions. I was unaware of the systemic safeguards that are in place which allow for police officers to shoot at unarmed people with minimal repercussions. For example, local law enforcement agencies voluntarily submit reports to the FBI regarding justifiable homicides. Therefore, it is virtually impossible to determine an accurate number of how many people are killed by the police each year in America. This is concerning, to say the least, and contributes to a lack of accountability. Additionally, through my research I learned the impact that racial bias and stereotyping have on many shootings by police.
The intersection of race and crime has always been fascinating to me. Through my work at the Bronx Defenders, a public defenders office in the South Bronx, this summer, I saw firsthand how the NYPD disproportionately targets low income people of color. While meeting with clients, I heard countless stories of interactions with police officers that quickly turned from neutral to hostile. I met the family members of unarmed men who had been shot and killed by police. I listened to them tell stories of the pain and suffering that came as a result of a police officer firing their gun. Their pain was genuine and their angry words were justified. However, as a result of my research, I gained insight into how unconscious biases can affect a police officer’s split-second decision to shoot or not shoot at a suspect. Moreover, I learned that the rhetoric used the courtroom and at rallies and protests, which positioned the NYPD as brutes with badges, was not entirely accurate. Police officers are not all inherently bigoted or racist. They are tasked with an enormous burden: to bravely enter into sometimes violent and dangerous situations risk their own lives for others. This is no easy job, and it becomes even more complicated when weapons, specifically guns, are involved. Although my advocacy for accountability and control is unwavering, I am now more willing to acknowledge the difficult and often times instantaneous decisions that police officers have to make.
Fatal shootings by police, and guns in general, aren’t going anywhere. In response to this, a number of news publications, most notably the Washington Post, have started compiling their own nationwide data on the amount of shootings by police each year. With increasing recognition, the area of research regarding biases in policing is quickly expanding. I will keep up with newly published research on the topic in order to stay informed about findings and the policies and reforms that may follow. However, in the future, I want to take a more internationally comparative approach to how I view guns and police shootings. Although I will most likely eventually reside in New York City, or another city in the Northeast, I plan to spend some time in Europe shortly after I graduate from Wake Forest. There are massive disparities between Europe and America with regards to fatal shootings by police, and I am interested to see what role police accountability, training, and racial biases play in European countries.