Recently, a familiar debate arose—one that has almost become a national ritual. After the horrific shootings in Dayton, Ohio, and El Paso, Texas—which together claimed 31 lives and left dozens of other people injured—many said it was time to renew the ban on assault rifles, the weapons the shooters used to massacre innocents.
Their calls are well intentioned, and I agree with the common-sense proposition that civilians should not have unlimited access to weapons of war. It’s completely understandable to single out assault weapons, given the fact that the horrific mass shootings of the kind that just happened often grab national headlines. But by focusing on these destructive firearms, we risk overlooking the true crisis driving the gun violence crisis in this country, particularly in urban areas: handguns.
It’s no secret that the U.S. is an anomaly when it comes to gun deaths. In 2017, firearms killed 39,773 people in the U.S. This country consistently leads the developed world in gun homicides and suicides by a large margin.
But dig deeper into the data, and you find something even more striking. Contrary to popular belief, assault weapons account for a small fraction of gun homicides. Handguns represent the vast majority. A 2013 study from the Department of Justice found that between 1993-2011, 70 percent of all firearm homicides in the U.S. were committed with handguns. And according to a Bureau of Justice Statistics survey, from 1993 to 2010, males, Blacks, and persons ages 18 to 24 were most likely to be victims of firearm-related homicide.
The majority of those homicides occurred in urban areas. Three of the top four states with the highest percentage of handgun homicides relative to other firearm homicides were Illinois, Maryland, and New York—home to three of the biggest metropolitan centers in the country. While conservatives often seize on a spike in shootings in places like Baltimore to paint a picture of urban dysfunction, they seldom look at the underlying factors contributing to these crises. Gun violence in communities of color is seen as routine, a feature of daily life.
Handguns were also used in recent high-profile mass shootings in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Brownsville, and in the Lawndale neighborhood of Chicago. Perhaps not coincidentally, these incidents received far less national coverage than the ones in El Paso and Dayton. Since they often involve gangs, some have been reluctant to label them mass shootings despite the fact that they meet the definition, which speaks to an insidious double standard.
This doesn’t even touch on suicides with a firearm, which on average account for two-thirds of all gun-related fatalities. The bottom line is, handguns have a far higher body count than other firearms in this country. Yet there has been little political will to address this crisis. While state and federal lawmakers who represent communities of color are comfortable calling for a ban on AR-15’s, there has been little effort to address the 9mm’s flooding our streets. It’s clear we need a multi-pronged approach that recognizes the unique role handguns play in fueling urban violence.