Please view the main text area of the page by skipping the main menu.

US gun regulation debate deeply divided along racial, socioeconomic lines

A wall adorned with the names of young people who lost their lives to gun violence is pictured in Oakland, California, on May 20, 2018. (Mainichi)

OAKLAND, California -- Minorities like African-Americans and Latinos make up the majority of students at Fremont High School here in the western part of the United States, and as they face the danger of being gunned down in gang violence on a daily basis, an anti-gun movement started by their young peers seems worlds away.

This February, a total of 17 people lost their lives at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, in the southern U.S. state of Florida, sparking an anti-gun movement that has swept across the United States. But in poor, urban areas where fatal shootings occur frequently, there is little interest among young people who see guns as a way to protect themselves from harm.

In March, there was a report of a Fremont student bringing a gun to school, and the police called to the scene took the student into custody. The student was a star player on the school football team with excellent academic results.

"Many young people here have guns. It's to protect yourself or territory," said 18-year-old Reyna Jaurequi, who immigrated to the United States from Mexico. "I'm not saying it's the best thing, of course not. I hope my community didn't have to go through this but I understand why they do it," she explained. Like her, many other students understood the football player's motivation, even though being arrested and expelled from school takes away chances to find employment.

The possession of a firearm or bringing one to school is prohibited under California state laws. However, Hisham Ali Bob, 28, of the non-profit organization "Youth Alive," which consults with minorities and other groups, says that he believes some students carry a gun, and just have never been caught. "They have a life outside of school," he explained. "You have to protect yourself."

One 14-year-old boy who was caught taking a gun to school once told Ali Bob that he had to walk for an hour to reach home, with only the clothes on his back, and he could not afford to have even those stolen from him.

On the other hand, Marjory Stoneman Douglas is a prep school in a more well-off area. The students of Fremont feel that the reason the incident got so much attention was because the majority of the victims were white. The real victims of the majority of gun violence in the United States are urban poor minorities like the students in Oakland. Only a mere 0.5 percent of those students died in school.

After succeeding in the "March for our Lives" protest that garnered 1 million participants across the country this March, a group of Marjory Stoneman Douglas students embarked on a 68-location "Road to Change" bus tour from June to August. The students called for the politicians that oppose strengthening gun regulation laws to be voted out of office in the November U.S. midterm elections.

Arieyanna Williams, far right, who lost her father at 5 to gang violence, joins with other black youth to protest gun violence during a mass at Saint Sabina Church in Chicago, on July 8, 2018. (Mainichi)

However, the movement has been overall unsuccessful in pushing legislators to pass federal law to outlaw semi-automatic weapons and other arms with a high possibility of causing damage to human lives. The right to bearing arms is one deeply rooted in the minds of Americans as a constitutional right, not only in places with high crime rates. There has also been considerable pushback from the National Rifle Association (NRA), which has gone into battle positions ahead of the upcoming elections.

"Our greatest battle is ahead of us," read letters and stickers sent to the group's roughly 5 million members this July. The letter spoke of gun-hating politicians, judges and the media using their force to take away the members' "freedom" to possess weapons. It called for members to put the sticker on their cars so that when politicians see the mark, they will be aware that if they try to tighten gun or bullet regulations or try to levy high taxes on the purchase of weapons, they will face the danger of being defeated on election day.

The NRA believes that gun regulations are not the solution to school shootings. Instead it favors the fortification of facilities by not only arming guards and teachers, but also installing metal detectors at the entrance and exits of the buildings to prevent students from bringing guns inside. The administration of U.S. President Donald Trump has agreed with this notion, and the dispatch of such armed security guards at schools is already progressing in some states.

However, school shootings are often carried out by students or former students who were victims of bullying or are suffering from mental illnesses. The shooter in Parkland had been isolated from his peers and had dropped out of school. But this is not the case for gun violence in urban low-income areas, which is often set off by gang conflicts, drug smuggling and unemployment all piling up. Expelling students for bringing guns to school in these areas is another issue entirely.

In addition, Oakland is the origin of the "Black Lives Matter" movement protesting inappropriate and extreme police violence against people of color. Many African Americans in Oakland distrust the police, and if their family or friend is shot, they seek their own retribution, just continuing the cycle of gun crime.

"My brother was killed in February last year. I haven't been the same since then. I can't trust anyone because the person who killed my brother was his friend," said Kia Hanson, 17, an African American high school student in Oakland. Daniel Foster, Hanson's half-brother, was 22 when he was fatally shot by a friend on the street on his way home from a party. Foster was a caring person, and was not a member of any gang. Hanson was unable to attend school for several weeks due to the shock.

Foster's younger sister, Hanson's half-sister, Amahnni Foster, 22, said, "I have so many people leaving me. What is the point of me fighting to be successful in my life?" Before her 15th birthday, she attended the funerals of 23 friends and family members. The majority of them had been the victims of gun violence, she said. In the United States, young people are now more statistically likely to die from such violence than in traffic accidents.

California's gun laws are strict, but guns bought in neighboring states with looser restrictions flood into the area. At 50 dollars for a gun (roughly 5,000 yen) and 11 cents a bullet (around 10 yen), anyone can get their hands on one. "I think the gun regulation movement is a good idea, but I can't say that it will change anything in Oakland," Foster said, pessimistically. "It's lawless here."

"The police make kids bad," said Ali Bob of Youth Alive with a sigh. He also grew up in a low-income area and was arrested just for riding in a car that his friend had stolen. He believes that if police can improve their relationship with the community, then crime within the black community will decrease -- but it will not be easy.

On the other hand, the movement led by the Parkland students is trying to get black students from poverty-stricken areas involved in the gun regulation debate. The efforts have started a change in the perceptions of the students, who have come accustomed to gun crime.

"It's our responsibility to share their stories. And it's your responsibility to listen," said Delaney Tarr, 17, of the stories of black youth to a white audience in Pensacola, Florida, on July 30, during the tour. She is a Marjory Stoneman Douglas graduate. Another student said, "Kids in Chicago are shot every day," emphasizing that their movement means little and is "not going anywhere" without reflecting the opinions of their black peers.

The Parkland students have made countless visits to Chicago, where over 330 murder cases involving guns occur annually, and have joined hands with their black peers there to call for stricter gun laws. Using the media spotlight shone on them since the school shooting, the students make sure to always have a local student of color join their rallies and speak to the media together.

One such student is Arieyanna Williams, 18, who lost her father to gang violence when she was 5 years old. She will be attending West Michigan State University this fall on a full scholarship. "I want to break the cycle," she said. "My father's death should not be in vain. We have to continue fighting against gun violence not only for our generation, but also for future generations."

Hanson from Oakland recently joined the "March for Our Lives" protests in Washington, D.C. organized by the Parkland students, and she gained a new sense of hope. It was not just African Americans who suffered the loss and pain of gun violence, she realized.

"If you are willing to make a change, you are in the movement," Hanson said. "It's not a white kid movement, nor a black kid movement."

(Japanese original by Sumire Kunieda, New York Bureau)

Also in The Mainichi

The Mainichi on social media