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Race, fear, and America's gun problem


Yet another school shooting. More pictures of terrified children. More stories of distraught parents waiting for news. More stories about the experiences of children who went through this horror.

"If I don't make it I love you and I appreciated everything you did for me," one child texted her parents as the carnage continued.

Your heart just breaks.

Last week's assault in Parkland, Florida, was "the worst school shooting in Florida history," the Miami Herald said. Got that? The worst among all the shootings... in schools… in Florida.

Since the shooting, there have been the usual calls for prayers and the lowering of flags. And questions about this particular killer, with this particular gun.

But that's pointless.

"There's nothing left to explain about mass shootings," RIT criminal justice professor John Klofas told me a couple of days after the Parkland shooting. "We know what they are, we know the guns people get, we know how they get them."

Predictably, the president and many other political leaders focused on the mental health of the 19-year-old who did this. But mental illness didn't kill the 17 people who died in that Florida school. Bullets, fired from a gun, did.

"The mental health thing is a false direction," Klofas said. "We should deal with the health problem, but that's not going to stop this."

Klofas, like me, is appalled by "the lack of response, the lack of policy."

"The fact that after Vegas, they couldn't do anything about bump stocks: There should be no questions about that stuff," Klofas said.

"It's not that we're incompetent" to deal with the nation's problems, Klofas said. "We're just incompetent on guns."

The AIDS crisis, the opioid crisis… we've been able to band together to try to solve many, many national threats. Why are we so incompetent on guns?

"You can't ignore the financial interest at stake here," Klofas said. "There's a whole industry here, and the NRA is just a front. But that doesn't explain the whole thing."

What's missing?

Klofas pointed to Barry Goldwater who, in 1964, "was the first candidate to put crime – specifically urban crime – on the menu."

"His campaign was largely regarded then and afterwards as a way to talk about race without talking about race,"Klofas said. "He talked about crime and violence in cities."

And that's been a dominant theme in many campaigns since.

"And if you look at this history of the NRA," Klofas said, "the thing that sticks out" is that in 1977, what was once a sportsmen's organization "was hijacked by people" who changed the focus to "protection."

"That's why you can't even get terrorists banned from owning guns," Klofas said, "because underneath it is this incredible, unresolved problem: race."

"There's not much to learn from what happened in these events anymore," he said. "The stuff that matters from a political perspective is that this is another battlefield on the issue of race."

Two things are worth noting when we look at the relationship between the country's response to these shootings and its fear of crime and its unresolved issue of race, Klofas said:

"Serious violence has never been significantly inter-racial. It has always been intra-racial, in that it occurs overwhelmingly between member of the same race. And serious violence rates, homicide in particular, have fallen dramatically. It is now the lowest since the late 1970's."

"So all of this looks a little like the black-on-white rape myths and the murder of Emmet Till," Klofas said.

Elected officials could enact sensible gun-control measures. Instead, they offer bills like the Concealed Carry Reciprocity Act, which would require states like New York to permit visitors from concealed-carry states to carry concealed weapons here. And the president wants to reduce funding for the national background-check system.

Deal intelligently with our gun problem? Nah. The political success of appealing to racism and fear is just too great.