Recently, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio and Police Commissioner Bill Bratton eulogized police officer Randolph Holder, who was murdered in Harlem. Holder’s death is a tragedy that has hit the NYPD and New Yorkers hard. But it is possible that the courageous officer may ultimately save others lives by forcing some much needed soul-searching on the part of policymakers and people in communities of color. For starters, Holder’s death shatters the growing media narrative that has come to define discussions of law enforcement and the black community.
Holder, who was black, sounds like an exceptional human being who loved his community and served it with pride. The individual accused of taking his life is also black, but his contributions to his community consist of dozens of arrests. There is not a single person in America, black or white, police officer or civilian, politician or activist, who would have trouble clearly identifying who’s the hero in this and who’s the villain.
Plenty of black Americans who are critics of the police when it comes to topics like racial profiling and police brutality are just as outraged about Holder’s death as his colleagues in uniform are. But the proposed measures for preventing another death like Holder’s reveals another potential divide among Americans, which is this: Are the gun-control measures proposed by predominantly white progressive politicians ever going to be truly effective in predominantly minority neighborhoods?
At a press conference, Commissioner Bratton lambasted Congress for not doing enough to enact tougher gun-control legislation. Over the course of an 18-month investigation, the NYPD and Manhattan District Attorney’s office arrested six people for selling more than $50,000 worth of illegal firearms in the neighborhood in which Holder was killed. Along with the mayor, Bratton expressed frustration at how guns from other states with less strict laws continually make it into the hands of New Yorkers, hence their call for federal reform. According to reports, 90 percent of the guns seized in connection with New York City crimes come through what is known as “the Iron Pipeline,” the nickname for the route traveled by gun smugglers from Virginia, Georgia, Florida, and other states.
Days ago, comedian Amy Schumer joined her cousin Sen. Chuck Schumer at a press conference calling for tighter regulations, citing how troubled she was by the shooting deaths that occurred at a showing of her film Trainwreck. The Schumers are advocating that Congress move forward in areas that gun-control advocates have been pressing for years: namely, closing the gun show loophole that allows gun buyers to skirt the background checks they would be required to undergo via traditional purchasing channels; and targeting straw purchases, which happen when someone who can pass a background check purchases a firearm knowingly for someone who cannot. Sen. Schumer is also calling for greater efforts to curb trafficking.
But as a longtime supporter of gun control, I have finally begun to accept that America is divided by two alternate realities of what gun crime looks like, and most of the solutions proposed simply don’t address that. To be blunt, measures that might prevent another Columbine or Sandy Hook are unlikely to prevent another Chicago.
What do I mean by that?
Last month 14 people were shot over the course of 15 hours in Chicago. It is unlikely that expanded background checks or closing the gun show loophole would have prevented that.
According to reports, this was the deadliest September the city had seen in 13 years. Police there recovered more than 5,000 illegal guns and made more than 2,000 gun-related arrests, a 25 percent increase over the previous year.
But these stories don’t generate the kind of press coverage that a shooting in a movie theater does, or the same passionate calls for a national solution. So what can be done to control this kind of gun violence?
One of the most important solutions is increasing penalties for illegal guns. While many progressives have pushed for ending the disproportionate incarceration of minorities for non-violent offenses, particularly those that are drug-related, there has not been enough attention paid to the inadequate sentencing across the board for gun crimes.
A 2014 Chicago Sun Times analysis found that in Chicago, those caught with illegal guns were often sentenced to the minimum time—one year. That penalty doesn’t exactly denote that illegal gun ownership is a serious criminal justice priority. Why should the penalty for drug possession in some instances be greater than the penalty for possession of an illegal gun?
So if gun-control supporters really want to decrease gun violence, maybe it’s time to stop focusing solely on how to outmaneuver the NRA and instead focus on convincing progressives that incarceration isn’t a dirty word if it is used to punish behavior that is dangerous, deadly, and disproportionately harmful to communities of color. And whether the victim is a heroic police officer like Randolph Holder or one of the countless black civilians murdered, I can’t think of anything hurting our community more than a gun in the hands of the wrong person.