The unbalanced effects of gun violence in Tennessee
Black Tennesseans are disproportionately impacted by gun violence in their communities, an issue little covered by the legislature
Shaundelle Brooks, photographed during a House session in March 2023, has experienced gun violence from several perspectives. Her son Akilah DaSilva, was killed in an April 2018 mass shooting at a Nashville Waffle House. A second son, Abede, was shot in June 2023 after leaving a venue at which he was performing as a DJ. (Photo: John Partipilo)
TI started my 20th year in public education two weeks ago. We began with an informational text on the Salem Witch Trials and a discussion about how “witch hunts” have continued globally since then. Like most thought-provoking texts, this one elicited some engaging conversation in class. It wasn’t long before I was hanging on for dear life while trying to guide the discussion in and out of potential land mines of conversation.
We eventually landed on giving examples of mistaken stereotypes. African-American males wearing hoodies were mentioned as we discussed Trayvon Martin, shot and killed at age 17 in Florida. Old white men in suits were also cited as a stereotype, along with people with piercings, tattoos, and facial hair. One student finally raised his hand and said, “School shooters.”
I wasn’t sure what he meant, so I asked him to elaborate.
“You know…people who wear all black and are pale and quiet. I mean, a lot of people dress like that, but they ain’t all shootin’ up schools. But when I think of a school shooter, that’s what I see.”
A few days after that class discussion, Gov. Bill Lee officially — and finally — called the special session he had been teasing since the Covenant School shooting tragedy in March.
I thought about gun control in Tennessee and America and mused how my thoughts weren’t that different from my student’s thoughts about school shooters.
I wasn’t necessarily thinking about the cliched caricature of an emo kid with a gothic fashion style being a school shooter, but rather my own stereotypes when I thought about the gun problem here and how to stop it.
Because for as long as I’ve been aware of the gun problem, I’ve always focused on mass shootings as the worst type of firearm outcome. That’s my stereotype of the gun problem: shootings in schools, concerts, or public venues played on an endless loop after they happened. Those types of shootings deserve every bit of attention they get and more.
Still, communities all over our state have been feeling the effects of the loosening of gun ownership parameters for a long time, and no special session has ever been called for them.
Before I hyperfocus on the demographics of gun violence in Tennessee, I want to unequivocally say and show that gun violence is a problem in our state. I believe conversations about mental health are essential, but these two subjects are not equal; they do not carry the same weight regarding the damage done to Tennesseans.
The dismantling of gun ownership parameters in Tennessee began around 2011. Since then, Tennessee has seen a precipitous rise in gun violence and deaths.
According to a recently released report by The Sycamore Institute, an independent, nonpartisan, public policy research center, gun violence in Tennessee happens far more frequently now than it did a decade ago. In fact, shooting deaths in Tennessee hit an all-time high in 2021.
Some other key takeaways from the report:
- From 2011 to 2021, gun deaths in Tennessee increased by 66%.
- In 2021, firearms were the leading cause of death for children ages 1-18 living in Tennessee.
- Since 2011, offenses involving firearms have risen. Every other crime rate measure declined.
- From 2001 to 2011, there was a 12% jump in firearm deaths. From 2011-2021, there was a 66% jump in firearm deaths.
- From 2002-2021, gun deaths rose in 75% of the counties in Tennessee.
- Tennessee’s overall firearm death rate was 53% higher than the national rate in 2021.
This macro view of gun violence in Tennessee should be enough to show everyone in the special session that something must be done to curb this violent epidemic.
Unfortunately, I’ve been tangentially privy to this type of violence since I’ve been teaching, and it is drastically affecting minorities at a much higher rate than everyone else.
My school district comprises predominantly minority students — about 70%. I’ve heard heartbreaking conversations from students who have been directly affected by or have been witnesses to gun violence.
I’ve seen multiple students in mugshots for criminally using a firearm a few years after leaving my classroom. I’ve also had former students die because they were the victims of gun violence. And I’m not talking about one or two: the numbers of students I’ve seen in the news on both sides of the gun are in double digits.
I’ve always been very defensive of my students and their community when I heard people talk about violent crime in their neighborhoods. To be clear, I don’t think the people talking about the violence happening in certain parts of town were talking about it in a caring or empathetic way, but maybe my dismissal of what they were saying was doing a disservice to the reality of where my students were living. Gun violence has been a problem in predominantly Black neighborhoods and continues to be a problem for minorities across the state.
- In 2021, the two subgroups that homicide deaths affected the most were people ages zero to 35 and Black Tennesseans.
- Black Tennesseans were three times more likely to die from a firearm than white Tennesseans in 2021.
- By race and gender, Black men and women experienced the most significant and fastest increase in firearm death rates between 2011 and 2021. The rate of deaths from gunfire rose 196% among Black women and 144% among Black men as opposed to 63% among white women and 23% among white men.
I’m not expecting anything to be done in the special legislative session that addresses our gun problem in any meaningful way; the GOP supermajority seems to be okay with the litany of damning statistics like the ones listed in this article.
As we try to move forward as a state, however, I hope we can pay closer attention to the disparities that exist here. These disparities are no longer solely about income or education, or opportunity; they are literally about life and death.
I am genuinely thankful for the work done by concerned and grieving citizens since the Covenant shooting, but our gun problem in Tennessee didn’t start in March. Guns have been the killing weapons of choice in marginalized communities in Tennessee at an alarming rate for a long time but pleas for help haven’t been heard.
We may not get any of the change we all want this week, but we can sure as hell hold every single legislator accountable for their lack of action.
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