This past week the beltway discussion about gun control saw a conversion of words into action, thanks not only the Senate calendar and the Thursday cloture vote on new gun reforms, but also the Newtown families who successfully lobbied senators to thwart a Republican filibuster attempt and open debate on those reforms. One of the victims' mothers even stood in for President Obama and delivered the White House Weekly Address. But also adding her voice to the mix, somewhat unexpectedly, was the president's wife: first lady Michelle Obama.
Her tearful Wednesday speech to business and community leaders in Chicago was well-timed and placed, given that her hometown saw more than 500 homicides last year--most of which were gun-related. The names of Chicagoans murdered this year continue to pile up—including one mentioned in her speech, Hadiya Pendleton, who performed in the president's inaugural parade this January about a week before she was shot to death in a Chicago park.
In an appearance on Saturday's Melissa Harris-Perry, Chicago State student and activist Dennis Johnson made it clear that no matter the reforms under consideration, there's only one thing that will stem urban shootings.
"Violence will never cease until we find a way to make money out of peace," said Johnson, a member of the Black Youth Project. When asked by Harris-Perry about the role of guns in his life, he responded that they're readily available, and cheap--but come in from the outside. "I don't know one black supplier, or engineer, or creator of guns," he said.
So who's profiting? The estimated impact of the gun industry was almost $32 billion last year alone. And while increasing standards for background checks may be helpful--anywhere from 10% to 40% of guns purchased are done without a background check--can we assess the true cost of gun violence beyond a homicide count?
Economist Lisa Cook said on Saturday's show that it may not yet be possible. Referencing Johnson's statement, she said, "I think this young man is on to something. He is dead right."
"Until we have the data to be able to calculate the costliness of gun violence--which has been battled by and prohibited by the NRA and its lobbying in Congress--we are not going to be able to realize the real cost of gun violence."
Johnson, whose brother was hit with seven gunshots in an attack, also mentioned often the emotional cost of gun violence, specifically post-traumatic stress disorder. After Harris-Perry read an excerpt from the first lady's Chicago speech about Hadiya Pendleton's parents placing her in several activities to keep her busy and safe, Johnson responded that summer and after-school activities like basketball or chess clubs are temporary solutions at best. "Yes, you can take them off the streets, but they still have to go back home," he said.
If gun violence is so profitable for some, what does a dividend look like for people like Johnson, who pay the price every day for that violence? Asked that question by Harris-Perry, the student offered a surprising reply.
"The North Side of Chicago," he said.
"Where you're able to walk and not have the police pulling you over and ask where you're going, or you don't have to worry about a person of the opposite race crossing the street, or either of the same race crossing the street. Where you're comfortable, where you don't have to keep looking behind you. Where you can take a deep breath, and you can take that deep breath because it was a good day, not because you made it home."
See the rest of Saturday's gun discussion below, focusing on the activism of the Newtown families.