The pervasiveness of guns has become a basic fact of American life

Ubiquity of firearms often taken for granted

WASHINGTON, D.C. - In downtown St. Louis on the Friday night before the grand jury decision in Ferguson, Becca Campbell, 26, died of a gunshot would in the head while riding as a passenger in a car driven by her boyfriend. According to the boyfriend, they had recently bought a handgun because they were worried and wanted to be “ready for Ferguson.” He claims Campbell was playing with the gun when he rear-ended another car, police say. The gun went off by accident, killing Campbell. Police are investigating.

Who knows what really happened. But what is certainly true is that gun sales around St. Louis went way up after the riots in Ferguson this summer. That is a part of the Ferguson story that has been taken for granted – ignored because it is such a basic fact of American life: the pervasiveness of guns.

Without implying any view of the details of the Michael Brown’s death, we know this: It is reasonable to think that just about anyone in this country has a gun anywhere, any time. That creates a fabric of fear that makes people act crazy. 

Police are obviously trained and supposed to be able to deal with uncertain, dangerous situations with discipline.  The reality is they are people. They have racial prejudices, stereotypes, knowledge of real crime statistics, fear and adrenaline that erupt in the split seconds of emergencies and confrontations.

The predominant victims in all this – guns and police shootings – are young black men like Michael Brown.

ProPublica recently issued a report that found young black males were 21 times more likely to be killed by police than young white males:

The 1,217 deadly police shootings from 2010 to 2012 captured in the federal data show that blacks, age 15 to 19, were killed at a rate of 31.17 per million, while just 1.47 per million white males in that age range died at the hands of police.

One way of appreciating that stark disparity, ProPublica's analysis shows, is to calculate how many more whites over those three years would have had to have been killed for them to have been at equal risk. The number is jarring – 185, more than one per week.

ProPublica's risk analysis on young males killed by police certainly seems to support what has been an article of faith in the African American community for decades: Blacks are being killed at disturbing rates when set against the rest of the American population.

The racial disparity in gun deaths is not just limited to police shootings. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the death rate due to firearms was more than 18.5 per 100,000 among blacks, but nine per 100,000 among whites, between 2000 and 2010.

The prevalence of guns is a distinct issue from race and police shootings, obviously.

But it is a basic fact of violent death and murder in America. We’ve given up trying to do anything about. We take it for granted. And, apparently, when we get anxious, we go out and buy more guns.

[Also by Dick Meyer: Making sense of Ferguson]

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