OPINION | A way out of the violence

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It has been a brutal start to the New Year for our public safety. Minneapolis experienced five deaths in the first eight days of 2010. In addition, a toddler was shot in the arms of her mother while exiting a bus at Highway 55 and Humboldt, and there was a vicious beating/robbery of a skyway pedestrian resulting in injuries that have left the victim in an extended critical condition. What is going on here?

After all, this all follows 2009, with the second-fewest homicides in a year since 1962. There really has been no pattern to the violence, and we are all hoping that this is a tragic fluke. But we must learn all we can from what has happened and strengthen our resolve to end the cycle of violence.

One aspect of the problem is that America has far too many guns that are far too easily available. Each day, firearms kill 90 people or over 32,000 each year. Firearms also wound about 300 or over 92,000 each year. This is 19 times the rate of Canada, New Zealand and Australia. There are more than 200 million privately owned, working guns in the U.S.: one for every adult.

Handguns are used disproportionately in crimes because of their dramatic increase in numbers over the last 40 years. These are used in homicides and other crimes, suicides and gun accidents; and they are readily available to our children. This is so normal in America that when two 17-year-olds kill three men in a South Minneapolis store, virtually none of us asks, “Where did their guns come from?”

When easy access to lethal weaponry is combined with poverty and hopelessness, the result is vastly disproportionate homicide rates. Homicide is the leading cause of death for African American young men. In the year 2000, for every 100,000 Black youths ages 15-24, 48.4 died from homicides while only 6.5 Whites of the same category did.

The political battle for sensible gun laws is a steep mountain to climb, and our community would do well to get on board with that worthy effort. But there is the other aspect of the problem that we can do something about now. We can change the attendant conditions of poverty and hopelessness.

Academic success for our children can transform our community in one generation. This task will require intense interface with children and their families. In the process of this work, our children will have multiple hours of mentorship, extended hours of the best teaching, and greater exposure to opportunities in the larger world.

Meanwhile, families can be brought into a collaborative relationship with educators and schools. Schools can help families better learn how to partner for their children’s academic success. This will, in turn, transform parents’ perspectives of their children’s potentials, and their ability to rewrite the future of their families.

This is a task we must all embrace because, while the immediate impact of these tragedies is racially disproportionate, the repercussions on our society are completely inclusive.

Economist David Anderson estimates that national crime eventually costs citizens over $4,000 per person each year. Law enforcement officials estimate that while the early costs of a homicide are about $1 million, incarceration costs are over $2 million for the lifetime of convicts.

This does not even consider the loss to society of the lifetime wages of the victim or the pain and suffering of family and friends. The bottom line is that the lifetime cost to society for one homicide is enough to educate over 250 children from birth through high school.

Five homicides and two horrible assaults in eight days is a wake-up call for us all. We cannot afford to retreat from this problem. Our children desperately need us to step up to the plate, care enough about them to transform their academic outcomes, pour ourselves into their lives and help America live out the true meaning of its creed. It makes perfect moral sense, but it is also an economic imperative.

Don Samuels is the Minneapolis Fifth Ward city council member. He welcomes reader responses to Don.Samuels@ci.minneapolis.mn.us.