On April 6, Jacob England and Alvin Watts went on a shooting spree through Northern Tulsa, killing three and severely injuring two African Americans. Although police officials and prosecutors say it is too early to determine whether the shooting was racially motivated, Tulsa’s black community feels deliberately targeted. Racially motivated hate-crimes have been at the center of national attention since Trayvon Martin was shot in Florida late February.
Along with the long over-due conversation on racism that these shootings has provoked, Americans need to reflect on the predominance of gun-related homicide and frequent incidence of gun violence. To get to the crux of why these shootings took place and limit future similar shootings, policy makers must be willing to address how America’s lenient firearm control makes it easier for individuals to commit racist hate crimes.
In the aftermath of the 2011 Tuscon shootings, gun control advocate Michael Moore argued that people own and carry guns because of the deep-rooted fears they harbor against the poor and people of color. Both the recent Tulsa shooting and the Martin case have strong indications of racial motivation (although it is too early for the evidence to be conclusive).
The day before the shootings, England posted to Facebook that the two-year anniversary of his father’s death “at the hands of a fucking nigger” and the recent suicide of his girlfriend made it “hard not to go off.” Similarly, George Zimmerman followed Martin because Martin looked suspicious, and several say he muttered “fucking coons” when he called the police dispatcher shortly before the shooting.
The issue to address then becomes why it is so easy for an individual who is grieving or one who is suspicious to effortlessly pick up a gun and shoot. Stronger gun control laws could have made it more difficult for England and Watts as well as Zimmerman to carry loaded firearms in public and potentially prevented these tragedies.
Gun lobbyists (most significantly, the National Rifle Association) will attempt to argue that the Tulsa shooting is an exceptional case in which two likely mentally unstable individuals went on an unprecedented rampage. Unfortunately, this is not an exception — from the indiscriminate massacre of seven at a small college in Oakland earlier this month, to Zimmerman’s “gun empowered” murder of Martin, gun-related homicides are recurrent. Guns accounted for 68% of all homicides in the U.S. in 2009 — 11,493 deaths in total (See here for more gun violence statistics).
Gun lobbyists also want to extend the Second Amendment’s “right to keep and bear arms” into the right to bear loaded firearms in public without a permit, but have been almost unanimously rejected by courts across the country. Unfortunately, this has not stopped states from issuing permits to individuals to carry concealed weapons in public. Oklahoma, along with several other states, uses relatively lax criteria to determine eligibility to obtain a concealed handgun license. More stringent control on the right to carry loaded weapons in public would undoubtedly curb the frequency of gun homicide.
These recent tragedies are an opportunity for Washington to address firearm control, but as Gail Collins argues, politicians will avoid the issue because they do not want to enter into direct confrontation with the NRA. The extent to which Americans own and use guns to ease their fears and lull themselves into a (false) sense of security is inextricably linked to the trigger-happy culture that lax gun control has spawned. Failure to address this issue is invariably a failure to do justice to the Tulsa victims as well as the thousands of others needlessly killed each year in gun homicides.