Gregory Jackson is intimately familiar with gun violence.
He said that while he was walking along N Street in the Shaw neighborhood of Washington, DC, about nine years ago, he was shot in his right leg by a man who mistook Jackson for someone else.
The experience forever changed Jackson. At the time, he was the southern regional director of Organizing for Action, a group that championed then-President Barack Obama’s agenda. Jackson recalled how the police interrogated him in his hospital bed. They treated him, a Black man, not as a victim but instead like a perpetrator — like a security risk to be monitored.
It took him six months to learn to walk again.
Jackson is now the executive director of the nonprofit organization the Community Justice Action Fund, and his passion for gun violence prevention feels even more salient today.
“There’s definitely a tension between our biased criminal legal system and some of the sentencing-focused policies we’ve seen implemented over the years,” Jackson told CNN. “That’s why we’re pushing for a public-health response to gun violence, which means that it should be people centered and resource driven, not necessarily about carceral strategies or restrictive policies.”
In short, he wants policing to play a smaller role in gun control.
Jackson added that he has little interest in directing resentment toward the man who shot him.
“What I have more resentment for is, How did that individual gain access to the firearm? Why is it so easy for people in my community to get a gun? It’s easier to get a gun in my neighborhood than it is to get a library book or a healthy meal,” Jackson said.
There’s no easy way to curb gun violence. But experts say that “cleaning up policing” and shrinking our reliance on the criminal justice system are important pieces of the puzzle.
‘We’ve got to clean up policing’
The issue when it comes to gun control isn’t necessarily the law, according to Carol Anderson, an African American studies professor at Emory University. Sometimes, the issue is the enforcement of the law.
“That’s the component I don’t think is understood well enough,” she said. “We’ve got to clean up policing. Until we take anti-Blackness seriously, we’re going to keep dancing around the issue.”
Sharone Mitchell Jr., the chief public defender of Cook County, Illinois, a state with comparatively rigid gun control laws, echoed some of Kaishian’s sentiments.
“What we’re seeing is an influx of possession cases, and these arrests are happening in very specific neighborhoods, mainly through stops of cars and seizures in searches of cars,” Mitchell told CNN, stressing that “the reality of the situation is the way we’re pursuing gun laws that haven’t affected the supply of or demand for guns.”
He also noted that his view puts him in an uncomfortable position, because he’s “not a gun person” and doesn’t own a gun.
Like Anderson and Kaishian, Mitchell pointed out the challenge that policing can pose.
“What we’re seeing is the police saying, Listen, if we can’t stop gun violence, then we just need to arrest as many people as possible and hope that that has some type of effect,” Mitchell said. “Also, there are PR benefits to being able to say, We pulled 14,000 guns off the street, without giving the denominator. There are hundreds of thousands of guns on the street.”
Charting a path forward
How to address gun violence without further criminalizing Black Americans, especially when the manufacturers of guns enjoy such broad immunity from regulation?
For starters, we must recognize that while even well-intentioned gun control laws can disproportionately harm Black communities, there’s a flip side.
Second Amendment advocates such as Florida Rep. Byron Donalds, who’s one of two Black Republican men serving in the House of Representatives and who fervently opposes the federal bipartisan bill, lament the impact of the US’ gun control laws.
“Gun laws haven’t made Black communities safer,” Donalds said, recounting how he was held up at gunpoint when he was a 16-year-old in Brooklyn. “There was nobody around. If there were people in the vicinity who were armed, who saw something wrong going on, does a criminal element think twice about so freely using guns to cause violence or commit a crime?”
“There’s so much myth-busting that has to happen,” Anderson said. “We’ve got to dismantle anti-Blackness as an operating code for our public policy.”
Further, we can learn something from previous attempts to rein in gun violence, particularly the reliance on involving the criminal justice system.
He said that extreme risk protection orders, aka red flag laws, which are meant to be civil, are one means toward achieving this end. A worried family member or law enforcement can petition to have a firearm removed from somebody who might be a risk to themselves or other people. If successful, the order is completely civil.
Community violence intervention programs offer another opportunity to confront gun violence while minimizing interactions between high-risk communities and the criminal justice system. These programs, Ruben said, could make a big impact, and are getting funded by the new federal bill.
“I’m encouraged because this bill does a really strong job of investing in programs to save lives,” Jackson told CNN, referring to how the bill allocates $750 million to help states implement and run crisis intervention programs and also closes the so-called boyfriend loophole, among other things that support Black communities, in particular.
“We do a lot of work to make sure that the legislation and the policies are focused on healing communities, preventing violence and supporting those who are on both sides of the gun,” he added, “as opposed to simply trying to incarcerate our way out of the problem.”