Poverty a trigger for gun violence

Craig A. Thompson, The Daily Record Newswire

As we continue to mourn the unthinkable loss of innocent lives over the last few weeks, several important conversations have taken place surrounding our nation’s gun laws. Fierce (and sometimes angry) debates have taken place concerning the proper ways to respond to these senseless tragedies.

Lately, pundits, politicians and others have correctly identified several issues that require attention against the backdrop of gun violence — movies, video games, images on the Internet and mental illness have been identified and discussed quite a bit recently.

While the door remains open to discussing “causes” of violence and solutions to same, it is critical that we revisit the 1,000-pound elephant that has never left the room and threatens to loom larger: the issue of poverty.

1 in 5 goes hungry
Unfortunately, 50 million of our nation’s people live in poverty. Experts advise that one in five Americans goes hungry at some point during the course of any given year. Many who are not considered statistically poor are living from paycheck to paycheck.

Researchers have consistently drawn the link between poverty and violence — including gun violence — and have encouraged our leadership to view the reduction or elimination of poverty as a national priority.

In January 1964, President Lyndon B. Johnson proposed legislation in response to a national poverty rate of close to 20 percent. The group of bills came to be known as the “War on Poverty,” and led Congress to enact, among other things, the Economic Opportunity Act. Subsequent legislation and media attention during that time focused on ending poverty as we knew it.

Over time, our collective attention to this important issue has waned, and the plight of the poor is very rarely addressed politically or socially, except by those individuals and organizations tasked with addressing it. Since 2008, more than 6 million people have fallen into poverty, and the total percentage of Americans considered poor is close to what is was in the 1960s. Most startling: Almost 20 percent of American children continue to live in poverty.

Death in the Windy City
Against this backdrop in cities around the country, acts of violence have increased significantly, with gun violence leading the way. In Chicago, for example, murders have jumped by close to 40 percent, making Chicago one of the most dangerous cities in the country.

A recent local study pointed out that more people were killed by gun violence in Chicago this year than the number of American troops killed in Afghanistan during the same period. The same holds true over the past decade as well.

Whether these perpetrators were watching violent movies or playing violent video games is probably irrelevant. Those who study the issue have determined that the strains and stresses associated with chronic poverty (survival-related crime, imprisonment, unemployment, broken families) are sufficient to cause a serious spike in gun violence. A high percentage of people in Chicago live in poverty, and more than 20 percent are out of work.

These statistics are representative of a stark reality in cities across the country, and the economic crises threatening to strike next year will only make this reality more challenging to resolve.

Surveys have concluded that an extremely high percentage of gun violence in our country is concentrated in the poorest parts of the country. Ironically, the largest numbers of new gun licenses are registered in the more affluent communities in the country, where gun violence is not as persistent. It should not take a team of brilliant researchers or commissions with highly credentialed people to deduce that more attention paid to our nation’s poorest areas would stem the tide of gun violence in those areas. Can the deafening silence surrounding this fairly clear reality be the product of something more significant?

Recent events have made it crystal clear that more attention must be paid to our country’s relationship with guns, and I trust that any legislative decisions resulting from these important discussions will be the product of an honest and candid debate.

It is also apparent that more conversations and actions must take place to address serious mental health issues, images of violence in the media and games and the “culture of violence.”

At the same time, it seems like the right moment in history to remember the lessons learned from the American War on Poverty that was never won, and rethink our current attitudes about the poor. Any comprehensive and serious focus on ending gun violence must include these important members of our communities.

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Craig A. Thompson is a partner at Venable LLP and represents clients in the areas of commercial litigation, products liability, and personal injury. He is the chair of the firm’s diversity committee. His e-mail address is CAThompson@Venable.com.

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