Confronting the Racialized Criminal Justice Consequences of Gun Control Policies
Executive Summary [read full report]
By backing calls for public health approaches to addressing gun violence, criminal justice advocates have begun to expand their focus in recent years to include not only crimes labeled “non-violent” but also those deemed “violent.” They have dedicated far less attention, by contrast, to another important dimension of gun violence reduction efforts: policies that define legal guidelines and criminal penalties for gun possession, carry, and usage. By focusing on the criminal justice impacts of such laws and analyzing their justification through key criminal justice principles, this paper argues that today’s handling of gun control is riddled with racism, injustice, and misunderstanding.
Beginning in 1640 with a law prohibiting Black gun ownership in Virginia, the historical progression of gun control policies reveals the consistent function of these laws to disempower racial minorities and low-income communities, despite the gradual removal of explicit mentions of race and class over time. Changing politics since the Civil Rights Movement have resulted in the most politically-viable types of gun control being those that primarily criminalize communities historically targeted by gun control policies and by mass incarceration. The paper divides these policies into three categories: legal access to guns, overpolicing, and criminal records.
- Legal Access to Guns: Policies such as gun licensing schemes and public housing gun bans selectively criminalize gun possession, carry, and usage based on race and class.
- Overpolicing: Several examples of broken-windows policing, a discriminatory tactic heavily criticized by criminal justice advocates, are in fact gun control policies, such as Stop and Frisk and Zero Tolerance policies in schools.
- Criminal Records: Many gun offenses are dictated by past felony records. While past criminal convictions may very well be relevant to a person’s aptness to possess a gun, felony records also are based on racist and arbitrary practices and policies.
The analysis demonstrates that, by further exacerbating racial disparities in incarceration and deepening the hold of mass incarceration, flaws in gun control policies mirror in many ways other areas of focus for criminal justice advocates. Criminal justice advocates thus should adopt a paradigm shift in which they begin to address gun control policies as a criminal justice issue. The proposed three-pronged approach begins with a series of questions intended to challenge existing frameworks, follows with a list of key principles to consider, and concludes with a list of types of policies that should be reconsidered in light of their known inequities and historical precedents:
- Systems that include fees, difficult logistics, or other barriers for disadvantaged groups;
- Laws that encourage police to search proactively for guns;
- Provisions centered on guns that open the door to the policing of things other than guns;
- Policies that enable broad police discretion in licensing or broad prosecutorial discretion in sentencing; and
- Statutes that establish criminal punishments based exclusively on an individual’s criminal record.
Read Confronting the Racialized Criminal Justice Consequences of Gun Control Policies here.
Eliza Kravitz is a sophomore at Yale University majoring in History. During the COVID-19 pandemic, she co-founded and led Mourning Our Losses, an effort to memorialize those who died behind bars. Eliza interned with JPI in Fall 2020.