Cover Story
ALL TOO COMMON: Pallbearers carry the body of Joseph Briggs following a funeral in Chicago. Briggs, 16, was shot during a drive-by shooting while he was sitting on his front porch with his sister—one of nine people killed and 46 wounded by gunfire in Chicago during the June 9 weekend.
photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images
ALL TOO COMMON: Pallbearers carry the body of Joseph Briggs following a funeral in Chicago. Briggs, 16, was shot during a drive-by shooting while he was sitting on his front porch with his sister—one of nine people killed and 46 wounded by gunfire in Chicago during the June 9 weekend.

Loaded questions

Gun Rights | The mass shootings that have prompted a national debate over gun control are tragic—but rare. What about the gun violence that takes the most American lives? Are we ready to pursue solutions that are hard-fought and long-term?

Issue: "Maximum insecurity," Feb. 23, 2013

ATLANTA—When Justina Dix huddles with her family in a central room in their southeast Atlanta home, she isn’t worried about springtime tornadoes. She’s worried about year-round gunfire.

For 27 years, Dix has lived in Atlanta’s Summerhill neighborhood—a community plagued with gangs, drugs, and violence since the 1970s. These days, crime has dipped, but fear remains. When Dix hears gunshots ring, she summons her family to take cover: “It seems like every other week somebody gets shot nearby.” 

Shootings in Summerhill and other Atlanta neighborhoods often don’t make national news. Indeed, the revived debate in Congress over gun control stems from the horrific mass shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., but it barely touches the most common kind of gun violence in the United States: Urban shootings that afflict hundreds of communities across the country every year.

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The FBI reports about 13,000 homicides annually in the United States. About two-thirds involve firearms. In 2012 mass shootings took less than 100 lives—less than 1 percent of all homicide victims. Nearly eight times as many Americans died from physical beatings. 

Though the overall murder rate in the United States has dropped in recent years, homicides by gunfire have remained steady in many inner-city areas. By the end of January, Chicago officials reported at least 42 murders for the month—many by gun violence.

Much of the violence in inner-city areas flows from drug deals and gang wars, and involves a vexing, generational problem: young black men killing young black men. 

An analysis by The Wall Street Journal found more than half the nation’s homicide victims are black, though African-Americans make up only 13 percent of the population. Of those victims, 85 percent were mostly young men killed by other black men.

Though gangs and drugs fuel gun violence, they also ensnare bystanders. Less than six weeks before gunman Adam Lanza massacred 20 students, six school employees, and his mother in a terrifying rampage in Newtown, another gunman terrorized a red brick house in the Polar Rock community of Atlanta. 

The assailant fired through the home’s door, striking two children sleeping with their grandmother on a sofa bed. The gunfire hit 1-year-old Isaiah Motley near his spine. The infant survived, but his 2-year-old sister, Ty-Teyanna Motley, died at the hospital.

It’s the kind of violence that grieves Justina Dix, but it doesn’t paralyze her. Instead, the director of Summerhill Community Ministries works with inner-city children and teens to address the root problems of gun violence.

Like workers in other urban-based, Christian ministries, Dix says it’s far too easy for young people to get guns. But she also says focusing on guns alone won’t solve spiritual and familial problems that perpetuate criminal actions: “Even if it died down a little, it would build right back up because you’re not dealing with the root of the problem.”

Dealing with the root problem isn’t easy. Dix has been working on it for nearly two decades, and says true change means more than passing new laws: It means forging relationships rooted in Christ and staying committed to an often-discouraging process that could take a lifetime. 

That’s a discussion missing from the current debate over gun violence, but it’s one that Dix and others in urban areas hope Christians will remember. For all the fatigue and cynicism surrounding urban violence, surrender isn’t an option for Christians committed to the gospel.

Dix’s husband, Emanuel, who grew up surrounded by Summerhill’s violence, says: “It basically boils down to human nature, and laws can’t change that.”

The most controversial gun laws President Barack Obama has proposed since the mass shootings in Sandy Hook likely wouldn’t stop much of the urban violence in places like Chicago and Atlanta: Many shooters use handguns—not the kind of assault weapons the president has proposed banning. (And though some proposals for expanded background checks make sense, most urban shooters don’t buy guns legally.)

Indeed, some wonder whether the measures would stop massacres like Sandy Hook and others: In Newtown, Lanza used weapons his mother bought legally in a state with strict gun control laws. The Virginia Tech shooter, who killed 32 victims in 2007, passed a background check despite serious mental health issues. And the Columbine High School massacre happened during the federal assault weapons ban spanning 1994 to 2004.

When it comes to the proposal to ban high-capacity ammunition magazines, Robert Levy of the libertarian Cato Institute believes a ban on magazines with 20 rounds or more makes sense, and possibly could stop a mass shooter from inflicting mass casualties. (The president and some legislators advocate a ban on magazines with 10 rounds or more.) Either way, Levy notes a significant problem: Homemade magazines are easy to build.


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