It's rare to hear an author say, "Researching and writing this book has made me want to scream." But perhaps it's not surprising, given the topic of Gary Younge's Another Day in the Death of America: A Chronicle of Ten Short Lives -- the daily, weekly, monthly, yearly death-by-gun of startling numbers of kids in this country -- and the time he spent tracking down the stories of the young Americans who died on a single day in November 2013 in separate incidents nationwide.
After all, these days, the U.S. is a haven and a heaven for guns. It's hard to find another nation on the planet -- except in places like Syria or Afghanistan where whole populations have been thrown into desperate internecine conflicts -- in which guns are so readily available. Between 1968 and 2015, the number of guns in the U.S. essentially doubled to 300 million. Between 2010 and 2013 alone, American arms manufacturers doubled their production of weapons to almost 11 million a year. And those guns have gotten more deadly as well. Military-style assault rifles and semi-automatic handguns are now the weapons of choice for mass killers and "lone wolf" terrorists in this country. In almost all cases those killers got their guns and ammo (often high-capacity magazines capable of holding 15 to 100 rounds) in perfectly legal fashion. And it's getting easier to carry concealed weapons all the time. Missouri, for instance, recently passed a law that allows the carrying of such a weapon without either a permit or training of any sort.
Under the circumstances, no one should be surprised that kids die in remarkable numbers from guns for all kinds of reasons. Believe me, though, that makes it no less shocking when you read Younge's unsettling and moving book. Long a journalist, columnist, and editor for the British Guardian stationed here in the U.S., today he offers us a look at the death toll from guns among our young and the way we Americans generally like to explain that toll to ourselves (or rather how we like to explain it away). Tom
An All-American Slaughter
The Youthful Carnage of America's Gun Culture
By Gary Younge
Every day, on average, seven kids and teens are shot dead in America. Election 2016 will undoubtedly prove consequential in many ways, but lowering that death count won't be one of them. To grapple with fatalities on that scale -- 2,500 dead children annually -- a candidate would need a thoroughgoing plan for dealing with America's gun culture that goes well beyond background checks. In addition, he or she would need to engage with the inequality, segregation, poverty, and lack of mental health resources that add up to the environment in which this level of violence becomes possible. Think of it as the huge pile of dry tinder for which the easy availability of firearms is the combustible spark. In America in 2016, to advocate for anything like the kind of policies that might engage with such issues would instantly render a candidacy implausible, if not inconceivable -- not least with the wealthy folks who now fund elections.
So the kids keep dying and, in the absence of any serious political or legislative attempt to tackle the causes of their deaths, the media and the political class move on to excuses. From claims of bad parenting to lack of personal responsibility, they regularly shift the blame from the societal to the individual level. Only one organized group at present takes the blame for such deaths. The problem, it is suggested, isn't American culture, but gang culture.
Researching my new book, Another Day in the Death of America, about all the children and teens shot dead on a single random Saturday in 2013, it became clear how often the presence of gangs in neighborhoods where so many of these kids die is used as a way to dismiss serious thinking about why this is happening. If a shooting can be described as "gang related," then it can also be discounted as part of the "pathology" of urban life, particularly for people of color. In reality, the main cause, pathologically speaking, is a legislative system that refuses to control the distribution of firearms, making America the only country in the world in which such a book would have been possible.
The obsession with whether a shooting is "gang related" and the ignorance the term exposes brings to mind an interview I did 10 years ago with septuagenarian Buford Posey in rural Mississippi. He had lived in Philadelphia, Mississippi, around the time that three civil rights activists -- James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner -- were murdered. As I spoke to him about that era and the people living in that town (some of whom, like him, were still alive), I would bring up a name and he would instantly interject, "Well, he was in the Klan," or "Well, his Daddy was in the Klan," or sometimes he would just say "Klan" and leave it at that.
After a while I had to stop him and ask for confirmation. "Hang on," I said, "I can't just let you say that about these people without some proof or corroboration. How do you know they were in the Klan?"
"Hell," he responded matter-of-factly, "I was in the Klan. Near everybody around here was in the Klan around that time. Being in the Klan was no big deal."
Our allegiances and affiliations are, of course, our choice. Neither Posey nor any of the other white men in Philadelphia had to join the Klan, and clearly some were more enthusiastic participants than others. (Posey himself would go on to support the civil rights movement.)
It's no less true that context shapes such choices. If Posey had grown up in Vermont, it's unlikely that he'd ever have joined the Klan. If a white Vermonter had been born and raised in Mississippi in those years, the likelihood is that he'd have had a pressed white sheet in the closet for special occasions.
At the time, for white men in Philadelphia the Klan was the social mixing place du jour. It was what you did if you had any hope of advancing locally, did not want to be left out of things, or simply preferred to swim with the tide. Since pretty much everyone you knew was involved in one way or another, to be white and live in Philadelphia then was to be, in some way, "Klan related." That doesn't mean being in the Klan should give anyone a pass, but it does mean that if you wanted to understand how it operated, why it had the reach it did, and ultimately how to defeat it rather than just condemn it, you first had to understand its appeal in that moment.
The same is true of gangs today in urban America. On the random day I picked for my book, 10 children and teens died by gun. Not all of their assailants have been caught and probably they never will be. Depending on how you define the term, however, it would be possible to argue that eight of those killings were gang related. Either the assailant or the victim was (or was likely to have been) part of a group that could be called a gang. Only two were clearly not gang related -- either the victim and the shooter were not in a gang or membership in a gang had nothing to do with the shooting. But all 10 deaths did have one clear thing in common: they were all gun-related.