Some 300-plus Detroiters are victims of homicide every year. Most die as a result of gun violence. (Robin Buckson / The Detroit News)
What initiatives should be undertaken to address the problem of violent crime in Detroit?
If you answered “change gun laws,” you’d be in the company of many loud voices — the Wayne LaPierres and Sarah Bradys of the national gun debate — who claim to speak on behalf of Americans, including Americans in high-crime, high-poverty areas like Detroit or South Side Chicago.
Whether they’re talking about “ugly black” rifles, high-capacity magazines, pistol-free zones, gun bans, registration, confiscation, “stand your ground” laws or concealed carry, proponents on both sides of the national gun debate presume that America’s problem of gun violence can be solved by (de)regulating the kinds of guns Americans can legally own and what they can do with them.
Gun rights advocates believe that the unequivocal solution to gun violence is more guns in the hands of law-abiding citizens; gun control advocates focus on restricting access to guns.
It’s a zero-sum game, a deadlocked argument.
But in Detroit, these black-and-white approaches to guns too often miss the mark. The experiences of individuals living with the daily threat of violence do not fall neatly along gun rights/gun control sides of the debate. Pushing for gun control is a luxury for those who feel they can depend on police; gun rights are a Band-Aid at best, certainly not a panacea.
While both perspectives provide insight into the predicament Detroit faces, neither solves the reality of the city’s violent crime.
On the one hand, guns exacerbate a culture in which human life is treated as valueless and disposable.
There’s the 12-gauge shotgun that was used to kill Renisha McBride. McBride crossed city lines from Detroit to Dearborn Heights, apparently searching for help after her car crashed. The 19-year-old ended up on the porch of Theodore Wafer, who is charged with fatally shooting her in the face.
Then there are the guns used in 333 of Detroit’s 386 homicides in 2012. And there’s a stark racial bias to these deaths: In Michigan, African-American men are 41 times more likely to die of homicide than white men.
This is further reinforced by the woefully understaffed and overstretched Detroit Police Department. While police use of force against African-Americans in Detroit has a long, gnarly history, the most immediate issue with today’s police isn’t abuse, it’s their striking absence and negligence: a 50-plus minute wait after dialing 911; less than 10 percent of cases solved; over 10,000 untested rape kits forgotten over the course of two decades.
On the other hand, guns provide a way to address a context saturated with violent crime and police inefficacy.
In this vacuum of social disorder, Detroiters — known for their grit and perspicacity — have doubled-down on the problem of crime. For some, this has taken the form of organized citizen patrol groups, such as the Detroit 300, which uses Michigan’s combination of citizen arrest and concealed carry laws to apprehend criminals the police are unable (or unwilling) to arrest themselves.
Other times, this looks more like disorganized, spontaneous mob violence — such as when neighbors beat bloody a man who allegedly raped a 15-year-old. “Allegedly,” because the police have done nothing to investigate the case.
And then there’s the invisible, everyday actions that individuals take against crime, including the nearly 80,000 residents of Wayne County who have a concealed carry license.
For those used to seeing gun politics as an all-white affair, the demographic breakdown of these numbers might come as a surprise: African-Americans are actually overrepresented among concealed pistol license holders compared to whites in Wayne, Oakland and Macomb counties. They’re also most likely to use stand your ground and Castle Doctrine laws: 99 of 126 civilians who killed in self-defense in Michigan from 2000 to 2010 were African-American.
But self-defense killings only bring us deeper into the spiral of gun violence in Detroit, as these same guns that save lives also take lives.
Again, African-Americans are most affected: Not only are they most likely to kill in self-defense, they are also most likely to die of gun violence. From 2000 to 2010, 108 out of 117 killed in justifiable homicides were black.
How can Detroiters avoid reproducing the very conditions that drive them to carry guns in the first place?
Solving the problem of violent crime requires us to look beyond guns to the reality of the city where they are wielded.
Fix the lighting so people aren’t shackled in their homes.
Communicate that the lives of Detroiters are valuable by processing crime kits and tracking down criminals.
Don’t introduce proven policy failures like “stop and frisk,” which send a clear message to long-term residents of Detroit that they are unwelcome in their own city.
And center conversations not on this or that dogmatic, piecemeal policy, but around a conviction to value life, the lives of people who are victimized, like Willie White, who shot an 18-year-old home intruder; the lives of people who turn to crime, like that 18-year-old who was shot dead; and the lives of people who are caught in this lethal crossfire, like Renisha McBride.
Instead of talking about which gun laws make Detroit more or less safe, let’s talk about how we can fix Detroit so people don’t turn to guns — for crime or for self-defense — in the first place.
If the energy spent on debating gun laws in Lansing (gun laws that, by the way, have very little chance of significantly changing) were earnestly redirected toward fixing Detroit’s crime problem, we would surely reduce the record-high murders, rapes and assaults that beset the city — an outcome that should please gun rights and gun advocates alike.