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  • JCI Worldwide

Inequities in the Gun Violence Epidemic

By: Sydney Kovach

The history of America is a harsh, inequitable one. Structural violence has oppressed, and continues to oppress, underserved communities and communities of color. The gun violence epidemic is no different; socioeconomic conditions such as poverty and racial segregation have contributed to these communities experiencing disproportionate rates of gun violence. In particular, homicides have historically disproportionately affected young, Black men and suicides tend to increase during times of economic turmoil.

The average likelihood of an American knowing a gun violence victim in their lifetime is 99.85% for all racial ethnic groups, with some racial groups facing higher rates. Between 2004 and 2013, 292,595 patients nationwide were admitted to the hospital for gunshot wounds, with approximately 45% being Black; approximately 30,000 patients were hospitalized each year, with about 2,500 dying in the hospital annually.

Black populations were twice as likely to be hospitalized for gunshot wounds when compared to non-Hispanic Whites. More specifically, most of these hospitalizations were due to firearm-related assaults, which overwhelmingly affected the Black community. While the rate of firearm-related hospitalizations is astonishing, there are people – and medical bills – behind these numbers. Between 2004 and 2013, the median hospital charges increased about 20% annually from $30,000 to $56,000 per hospitalization, which inevitably led to an increase in preventable medical costs for victims of firearm violence. Because communities of color and low income communities are disproportionately impacted by gun violence, these communities are also taking on more hospital bills that are increasing each year – another example of the inequitable burden these communities face due to historic structural violence.

In an interview with Talk Poverty, Mark Kaplan, professor of Social Welfare at the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs, also notes that there is a clear intersection between race, class, and gun violence. Kaplan argues that racial segregation and issues of social and material deprivation cannot be entirely solved by the reduction of the circulation of guns in America. Rather, he argues that gun deaths and hospitalizations are the tip of the iceberg, as victims of firearm violence and their family members have to take on the financial costs of medical bills, in addition to the emotional and psychological suffering. Kaplan also cites his research funded by the National Institute of Health, which demonstrated that there is evidence that the increase of unemployment and foreclosure rates during the Great Recession contributed to an uptick of suicides – which make up two-thirds of the gun deaths in the United States.

The presence of guns, Kaplan argues, diminish the number of opportunities for third parties to intervene in interpersonal violence, as well as suicides. For example, around 1 million women alive today have reported being shot or shot at by an intimate partner, and 4.5 million women have reported being threatened with a gun by an intimate partner. The consequences of these incidents go far beyond the moment in which they occur, forcing the children who witness or live with it and the family members, coworkers, and law enforcement officers who respond to it to cope with the life-long trauma of gun violence. In times of economic distress, Kaplan argues that people are more likely to turn to suicide and firearm violence, only contributing to the cycle of gun violence that disproportionately harms low-income communities and people of color.

Overall, it is clear that gun deaths and firearm violence as a whole are only one aspect of a much larger societal issue of structural violence. In order to properly address firearm violence, the U.S. must not only add restrictions to who can access guns, but also solve some of the root causes of gun violence – including the inequitable distribution of wealth and income, racially segregated communities, under resourced social welfare infrastructure, and a diminishing social safety net.

Moreover, to mitigate the collateral damage of violence, the U.S. must pass comprehensive legislation that detangles employment and health care. In summary, the gun violence epidemic is one that harms everyone, but especially harms communities that have historically faced discrimination, low wages, and structural violence. Tackling the issues of firearm violence is a much bigger undertaking than simply enforcing universal background checks; the U.S. must invest in historically under-resourced communities and social programs and address racial disparities.


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