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Gun violence’s No. 1 target: African-American children

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In the weeks since the Washington Navy Yard shooting, the city of New Orleans reached a tragic milestone.

All told, 108 people have been murdered in the Crescent City so far this year. In September, two black girls, one 11 years old and the other age 2, were shot and killed. And earlier this year a national organization advocating for stricter gun control told the story of a black 10-year-old New Orleans boy who has been shot and seriously injured twice in his short life.

Although the national spotlight has remained fixed on mass shootings in Washington, D.C.; Newtown, Conn.; and Aurora, Colo., as well as the gun violence coming out of Chicago, street crime and "ordinary" shootings that take one or two lives at a time are still disfiguring communities and putting black children and teens in particular peril.

For black America the national gun debate is not about the shocking, but still relatively rare, mass shootings or the political gamesmanship that draws attention to the violence consuming President Barack Obama's adopted hometown. Cities riddled with gun violence, such as New Orleans, are also located in states with some of the nation's weakest gun laws. Those laws are costing children, particularly black children, their lives, gun control advocates say.

Across the country in 2012, gun violence was the second-leading cause of death for American children ages 7 to 19, according to a July report released by the Children's Defense Fund. But it constituted the No. 1 cause of death for black children and teens.

Between 1963 and 2010, nearly 60,000 black children and teenagers have been killed by guns. That means more than 17 times the number of black children have been killed by guns than the total number of black Americans lynched between 1862 and 1968, according to Caroline Fichtenberg, director of research at the CDF.

"Gun violence really has a staggering impact on black children and black families," says Fichtenberg. "People think guns and gun control are rural issues, just the stuff of political debates, but this is an American issue that certainly involves black families."

A growing group of gun control advocates say that in cities and states where gun laws make guns easier to buy, legal to carry and easy to sell without a background check are places where gun violence and homicides happen more frequently. In fact, the 10 states with the weakest gun laws collectively suffer gun violence at a rate twice as high as that of the 10 states with the nation's strongest gun laws, according to an April analysis by the left-leaning Center for American Progress in Washington, D.C.

Right now federal law requires anyone purchasing a gun from a federally licensed gun dealer, such as a gun store, to clear a background screening. Meanwhile, private sales – everything from large-volume sales at gun shows and private meet-ups to the exchange of weapons in parking lots and living rooms one at a time – don't face any sort of background-check requirement at all.

"Politicians will point to Chicago," says Arkadi Gerney, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress. "They like to say, 'See, it has tough gun laws, and look at the gun violence there; that just proves gun control doesn't work.' But when you really look at the data, the numbers, and leave the politics out, you see that Chicago is an outlier. More typically you find that cities that have the highest rates of gun violence are in redder states with lots of guns and less-stringent gun laws. Those are the facts."

In 2012, Chicago's gun violence helped produce a murder rate of 18.7 deaths per 100,000 Windy City residents, according to federal data. But other communities grew far more violent. In New Orleans, for example, the murder rate reached 53.5 per 100,000.

The share of the population killed in New Orleans and other cities in states with limited gun restrictions actually comes stunningly close to the portion of people killed in recently war-torn, developing countries. And that brand of American violence most often claims children and teens of color as its victims.

In 2009, 43 percent of people who died from a gun injury of any kind were black, according to a CDF report. The following year, that figure dropped to 36 percent. Still, the death rate for black children because of guns remains nearly five times higher than that of white children killed by guns each year.

Studies have repeatedly shown that children exposed to violence can have a harder time learning, eating, sleeping, concentrating and controlling their own anger, anxiety and mood. So gun violence not only can take lives but can also beget other social problems.

Despite that evidence, the kind of gun violence killing children, particularly black children, remains poorly understood. Since the 1990s, a lobbying effort led by the National Rifle Association prompted Congress to effectively cut off funding for Centers for Disease Control and Prevention research on the causes of gun violence, gun-buying and sales patterns and the safety of people living in households with guns. The Obama administration took steps earlier this year to restart this research.

Perhaps even worse, the shooting deaths in cities like New Orleans are often dismissed by Americans who blame the victims for "living in that neighborhood," "hanging out in that spot" or "being involved with crime," says John Richie, one of the producers of "Shellshocked," a documentary about the impact of gun violence in New Orleans. Some have even convinced themselves that the shooting deaths in some communities don't cause real pain, he says.

The film, released this year, dedicates significant time to highlighting the myriad effects of growing up in a violence-drenched space. The film is creating quite a stir. Shellshocked's producers have been invited to screen the film at the National League of Cities Conference, a gathering of the nation's mayors and thousands of municipal officials, in November.

But groups, such as the NRA, that are pushing to relax the nation's gun laws or are actively lobbying against new restrictions have repeatedly insisted that it is essential that firearms remain within ready reach of ordinary citizens. Weapons in the hands of law-abiding Americans make communities and families safer, they argue.

The groups have used campaign donations and other legal forms of political influence to prevent gun control measures from facing a congressional vote, says the CDF's Fichtenberg. But a dedicated and vocal group of gun control advocates could force every state in the country to implement significant change, she adds.

"If we could create an army," says Fichtenberg, "of people who care about the safety of black children (and are) willing to be as vocal at the state level as the small group of extremists preventing these kinds of measures at the federal level, we could create the policy we need in all 50 states."

(Janell Ross is a reporter in New York who covers political and economic issues. She is working on a book about race, economic inequality and the recession, due to be published by Beacon Press next year. Follow her on Twitter.)

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