Obama Gears Up for a Gun Fight, but Doesn’t Fire on Race

Race is conspicuously missing from a growing D.C. conversation about gun violence.

By Shani O. Hilton Mar 17, 2011

President Obama is finally wading into the debate over gun control. Obama has been skittish on the subject since the gun lobby whipped up fears about his regulatory intentions after his election, so political observers watched the White House closely after Rep. Gabrielle Giffords’ shooting. Months later, in a Sunday op-ed for the Arizona Star last weekend, President Obama finally spoke up, calling for a civil discourse around gun control laws. Framing the debate as one between responsible gun owners and gun control advocates, Obama wrote:

I’m willing to bet that responsible, law-abiding gun owners agree that we should be able to keep an irresponsible, law-breaking few–dangerous criminals and fugitives, for example–from getting their hands on a gun in the first place.

I’m willing to bet they don’t think that using a gun and using common sense are incompatible ideas–that we should check someone’s criminal record before he can check out at a gun seller; that an unbalanced man shouldn’t be able to buy a gun so easily; that there’s room for us to have reasonable laws that uphold liberty, ensure citizen safety and are fully compatible with a robust Second Amendment.

The president proposed rules that would improve the completeness of the information that goes into the instant criminal background check database, and reward states for adding more complete information to the database.

But in keeping with the president’s longstanding approach, he was silent about the deeply relevant racial justice questions at the center of the gun debate. Who are those most affected by gun violence? Poor, young blacks in the inner city. Gun violence is twice as prevalent in cities as it is in the suburbs. According to the Department of Justice, "Most violent gun crime, especially homicide, occurs in cities and urban communities." And, unsurprisingly, these guns are acquired illegally.

The DOJ found that most of these kids say they pick up illegal guns for "self-defense." Homicide is currently the leading cause of death for young black males aged 12 to 19.

Despite Obama leaving race out of the conversation about gun violence, the fact is, a very specific cohort of Americans is at-risk of both becoming victims of and perpetuating gun violence. They are young men of color living in urban areas, who are dealing with gangs, criminal activity, and simple disputes that quickly turn deadly because each party may very well be concealing a weapon, often originally purchased legally and then sold to them illegally.

The shooting at a Tucson supermarket that killed six people and wounded 14, including Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, is a tragic incident, and Obama is smart to take this moment of national attention to focus on gun control. Vice President Joe Biden has reportedly been tasked with "gathering ideas" for a renewed policy reform. Biden was among the main Senate players in the now-expired gun law that barred manufacture of several assault weapons. Something that sweeping is unlikely now, but a potential spokesperson like Rep. Giffords could change the politics considerably. Whatever happens, though, avoiding talk about the racial elephant in the room is likely to mean it stays there.