Guns kill people—lots of people
There is one theme that links many of the justice stories on our list— from Border Patrol shootings of Mexican teenagers, to the San Bernardino shootings that motivated anti-refugee legislation, to accountability for police shootings, to the San Francisco shooting that caused the anti-sanctuary city backlash, to the racially motivated shootings at a black church in Charleston—gun violence.
According to the Gun Violence Archive, there were 13,277 gun deaths in the United States in 2015. There were 353 mass shootings (defined as four people shot in one incident) this year. On Christmas day alone, twenty-seven people were killed by guns. Some researchers predicted that 2015 would be the year that gun violence overtook car accidents as the leading cause of injury death in the United States.
After the shooting in Charleston that claimed nine lives, President Obama gave a speech emphasizing how exceptional America is when it comes to gun violence:
At some point, we as a country will have to reckon with the fact that this type of mass violence does not happen in other advanced countries. It doesn’t happen in other places with this kind of frequency. And it is in our power to do something about it.
After the October shooting at an Oregon community college that left ten dead and seven injured, Obama asked God to "give us the strength to come together and find the courage to change."
The United States has the most guns per capita of any country in the world, and there is strong evidence that the prevalence of guns contributes to America's high homicide rate. Gun homicides have dropped since the 1990s and have remained steady for about 15 years, but the American gun homicide rate of 2.97 per 100,000 population compares very poorly to Canada's .51, Australia's .14, France's .06, Israel's .09, or Japan's .01 per 100,000 population. That's why the satirical newspaper The Onion posted its article, "'No Way to Prevent This,' Says Only Nation Where This Regularly Happens," for the fifth time after the San Bernardino shootings that killed 21 people in early December.
Diagnosing the epidemic
Researchers began talking about gun violence as a public health problem over two decades ago, causing gun advocates in Congress to prohibit the Centers for Disease Control from using money to "advocate or promote gun control" in 1996. Two years ago, Obama issued an executive order allowing scientists to reach their own conclusions about guns, but Congress still has not appropriated funds. Even when Wilmington, Delaware asked the CDC to investigate a 45 percent increase in gun violence that looked and felt like an epidemic, the researchers felt constrained by these funding restrictions.
New year, new hope for reform
Starting January 1, California will be the first state in the country to implement a "gun violence restraining order" system, allowing law enforcement or family members to seek a court order seizing guns from a person who is risk to himself or others. Today's news predicted that President Obama will announce an executive action on background checks for gun purchasers early in the new year. Meanwhile, Texas's open carry gun law goes into effect tomorrow as well. This year, many states controlled by Democrats passed stricter gun control laws, while states controlled by Republicans increased access to firearms. During next year's election cycle, gun control and policy are sure to be major issues at the state, local, and federal levels.
Black Lives Matter?
America's gun violence epidemic disproportionately affects young black men; the gun homicide rate among black men is 15 per 100,000 population. Activist director Spike Lee released the movie Chiraq this year, in which a group of women withhold sex in an attempt to stop gun violence in Chicago; in real life, over 400 people were killed by guns in Chicago this year.
Evidence-based proposals to reduce gun violence in the cities most affected have been discussed for years. Those proposals note research indicating that a very small number of people are responsible for most gun violence, and that interventions to offer incentives for nonviolence have had significant effects in Boston, Oakland, Chicago, and other cities.
Despite evidence showing their success, it is hard to maintain support for programs that offer resources to people who may otherwise perpetrate gun violence. Instead, legislators often focus on mandatory sentences for gun crimes, increased penalties, or gun enhancements. Among federal criminal defendants, there is a greater racial disparity among those charged for gun crimes than for any other class of offenses, including drug offenses.
Gun violence is our top justice story of 2015 because it affects thousands of people, because of the number and significance of mass shooting stories this year, and because it is an exceptionally American story. But in a year that saw promising reform and mercy in other areas of the criminal legal system, let us be vigilant against attempts to use gun violence as the catalyst for racially disparate prosecutions and increased incarceration.
We wish you all more justice, and more peace, in 2016.