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To Understand Gun Violence, Talk to People in the Trenches

Mainstream discussions about gun violence have largely excluded the voices of survivors and perpetrators.

Utkarsh Tiwari | Unsplash

If you’ve tuned into the news lately, you’ve probably heard that gun violence has been on the rise amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Shootings increased by more than 30 percent across the United States in 2020, with nearly 4,000 additional firearm homicides and more than 9,000 additional firearm injuries taking place last year compared to 2019. We’re seeing the escalation of an epidemic that even in normal times claims almost 40,000 lives each year, including suicides, and costs the nation an estimated $280 billion annually.

Gun violence is “expensive pain,” to borrow a phrase from rapper Meek Mill, whose hometown of Philadelphia is on pace for a record high in homicides this year. And we all pay a price: Researchers have concluded that nearly everyone in this country will know at least one victim of gun violence in their lifetime.

But in many Black communities, the recent rise in gun violence is much more than a topic covered in news reports. It’s a fixture of daily life, and Black men in particular continue to suffer disproportionately. Despite comprising less than 7 percent of the total U.S. population, Black men have regularly made up over 50 percent of gun homicide victims each year. We don’t have complete demographic data for the last two years, but early indications suggest this share may have only grown.

If you’re viewing this problem from the outside in, it’s possible to get the impression that there are simple ways to address this epidemic — by blanketing neighborhoods with police or cracking down more harshly on gun possession. There are certainly plenty of voices in academia, law enforcement, and the media who have earned their reputations as “experts” by advocating for measures like this.

But framing gun violence as solely a law enforcement problem only further criminalizes and weaponizes Black and brown bodies. And as we’ve seen with firearms task forces in poor communities of color like Baltimore, a police-first approach can give way to corruption and abuse, which further compounds this issue by breeding additional distrust of law enforcement.

The prevalence of these narratives only shows how painfully uninformed the mainstream discussion remains around gun violence and its causes, effects, and potential solutions. Most analyses of gun violence are what we call “flyovers,” done at 30,000 feet, with little understanding of the context and ecosystem in the most affected communities. These portrayals are often absent the voices of the survivors and perpetrators of gun violence — those most affected by a disease that continues to infect the nation.

This brand of research is myopic at best and lazy at worst. It’s like trying to understand the fabric of a complex interpersonal issue by looking at satellite images.

It doesn’t have to be this way. As Black gun violence researchers and ethnographers, we have spent our careers getting close to what’s happening on the ground. We live in the trenches, proximate to human suffering, and it’s this direct contact that forms the basis of our research. Although we use some sociological and criminological theories in our work, our analysis also incorporates the theories generated by the street scholars whose lives are intertwined with the issues we’re tackling. Their theoretical frameworks are far more insightful than the 30,000-foot theories broadcast from the ivory tower.

After all, if you want to understand what’s driving this recent increase in shootings, shouldn’t you ask the people who’ve been living through it?

Slim’s theory

In Fall 2020, while filming our award-winning docuseries “Life After the Gunshot,” which centers on the lives of young Black male survivors of gun violence in Washington, D.C., we asked a cast member named Slim why he thought 2020 was on pace to be his city’s most violent year in decades.

Slim grew up in a Southeast D.C. neighborhood notorious for high rates of gun violence. He had witnessed shootings throughout his life, and had been shot in two separate incidents, the last in 2019. When we brought up the recent violence, Slim explained that since COVID hit, it had become difficult for people to sell and buy drugs. The supply on the street had quickly dried up.

Though we knew drug prices were increasing, Slim’s theory expanded on this idea. With borders closed and ports backed up, the vast underground network that delivers drugs to communities across America had snarled nearly to a halt. As the supply decreased, the cost of drugs on the street surged. With more pent up demand from consumers stuck at home and often socially isolated due to COVID restrictions, the few sellers who still had access to drugs were able to do brisk business.

But just as it had with the mainstream economy, COVID sent shockwaves through the labor market in the underground economy.

For many people in poor communities across the country, selling drugs is a job. It is a means of economic survival. Market fluctuations in the drug economy threatened that survival, as people lost jobs or saw their income drastically reduced. For the low-level dealer who got by selling drugs, COVID potentially squeezed them out of the game. Now, only those individuals with connections and access to the limited supply of drugs were making money, and even they were paying a premium price for product. Others with no connections to the supply would have to find a new occupation. But where does one go when they lose their job in the illegal economy?

As the destabilization of this ecosystem gave way to mounting community violence and trauma, more young people decided to carry guns. In the end, this is a rational choice for individuals forced to navigate a precarious environment, where the threat of victimization is constant, whether by robbery, or an argument or slight that can lead to being shot. We’ve heard this narrative numerous times from young people: “I carry a gun because I’m on defense.” But someone is always on offense.

Beyond the flyover

Are we saying that Slim’s theory is an all-encompassing answer to a question that others have been unable to answer? Not quite. But Slim does offer a perspective that a flyover analysis could never capture. Although some attempts to explain the recent increase in gun violence have identified COVID-related economic stressors, they haven’t applied this rationale to the black-market economy.

For neighborhoods with high rates of unemployment, where some people survive on the underground economy, Slim’s theory is plausible. Yet very few people appear willing to have such a nuanced conversation. Academics who do their research from 30,000 feet might assert that there is no evidence of the theory in official data like police reports or unemployment figures. Police would likely resist an explanation that recognizes the realities of the drug trade and their inability to stem it. And policymakers might prefer not to rely on a premise that could highlight their own failures, which have forced many people in communities of color to turn to the underground economy in the first place.

But if you listen to the narratives coming from those in the trenches — the voices of the street scholars who frame their theories from the inside out, not the outside in — it becomes clear that this sort of gun violence goes much deeper than a few bad individuals who can simply be locked away in cages.

To address this problem, we must acknowledge that it is a symptom of the vast structural violence and disadvantage embedded into so many poor communities of color. Confronting structural violence is obviously not an easy task. Many of our social structures and institutions have been configured to perpetuate harm, inequality, and suffering for members of marginalized groups. It will require a broad, concerted effort to account for that historic damage and begin realigning these systems.

We can start by approaching gun violence as a public health issue — not one of enforcement alone. In any other context, we would not hesitate to pour resources into understanding and combating a threat of this magnitude. When the U.S. decided to take a public health approach to preventing traffic fatalities, the nation was able to prevent 3.5 million deaths over 50 years.

State and federal funding for gun violence research has been severely choked off since Congress enacted the Dickey Amendment in 1996. Even the $25 million for research allocated by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and National Institutes of Health in 2020 seems a paltry amount for a $280 billion-a-year issue. But this is a microcosm of the fundamental challenge on this issue: If policymakers truly want to address gun violence, they must be willing to make a commensurate investment in comprehensive solutions.

The flyover analysis can obscure this difficult reality. And it’s impossible to ignore the racial dynamics associated with this shortsightedness. Many white, middle-class academics, policymakers, and journalists pride themselves on their analytical prowess, even though they never get close to this problem. To entertain Slim’s theory, they would first have to engage with Slim as an individual with agency and ideas, capable of making his own analytical observations. But their identity limits their ability and willingness to do so, and as a result, the flyover becomes the default.

At 30,000 feet, Slim, his neighborhood in Southeast D.C., the people who live there, and the gun violence they experience is all theoretical. These issues become abstractions to be examined, rather than complex, interconnected problems with life-and-death consequences for millions of people.

To echo human rights advocate Bryan Stevenson, no progress in understanding human suffering has ever been made without being proximate to it. The truth and the answers are on the ground.

Dr. Joseph Richardson is the Joel and Kim Feller Professor of African-American Studies and Medical Anthropology at the University of Maryland, and lead epidemiologist for the Center for Injury Prevention and Policy at the University of Maryland R Adams Cowley Shock Trauma Center, where he investigates gun violence, violent injury, community trauma, and the effectiveness of violence prevention and intervention programs.

Che Bullock is executive producer and director of the award-winning documentary “Life After the Gunshot,” and co-owner of Change Agents LLC, which specializes in trauma-informed care, peer support, and hospital-based violence intervention programs.