Editor’s Note: Mitch Landrieu, who served as mayor of New Orleans from 2010 to 2018, and recently founded the E Pluribus Unum Fund to help break down barriers across race and class in the South, is a CNN political commentator. The views expressed in this commentary belong to the author. View more opinion at CNN.
In the American justice system, we often place our hands on the Bible and swear to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. And though Americans recite this oath almost every day in courtrooms, Americans have avoided a truthful conversation about ourselves and our past outside the halls of justice. We have failed to honor the whole truth and nothing but the truth – particularly on the issues of race and guns.
These discussions often become so emotional, and so detached from reality, that ordinary Americans and their elected leaders go to different sides of the room and hunker down, waiting for the next controversy of the day to turn our attention to something new.
However, the mass shootings last weekend shook our nation to its core. Our country is on edge, given the dawning realization that we are not only at war with foreign enemies – we are a nation at war with itself. More specifically, the tragedies in both El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio, have exposed two inconvenient truths.
First, we have never fully reckoned with the subject of race in America. Old wounds are still raw because they never healed right in the first place.
Aided and abetted, maybe even prodded by the leader of the free world, white nationalists, white supremacists and racists of all kinds are emboldened in a way that I have not seen since former Ku Klux Klan grand wizard David Duke was running for office in Louisiana in the late 1980s and early 1990s.
No longer wearing the shame of a hood or sheet, they can operate openly and online with little consequence – emboldened by President Donald Trump, one of the most powerful people in the world.
The second truth is our nation is drunk on gun violence. While horrific mass shootings catch our attention and dominate news coverage, there remains a constant drumbeat of death across America every day in the form of shootings, including both murders and suicides by gun.
Like a vine choking the life from a proud oak, the creeping scourge of violence tightens its grip on our nation. We have at once a national security crisis, a public safety problem and a public health epidemic. This is a national emergency, and our house is on fire.
In America, according to FBI statistics, approximately 30 murders are attributable to gun violence every day. These shootings are not usually at a school, or in a movie theater, or at a shopping mall. More often the killing field of choice is a playground, bus stop, or in the middle of the street in the middle of the day. The weapon of choice is usually not an exotic assault rifle with a banana clip; more often it’s a plain old handgun held by an angry young man knee deep in “the life,” killing because of a petty beef – involving, perhaps, drugs, an insult, a bad look, a scuffed shoe.
FBI reports suggest nearly 40 percent of murders in which the motive is known to law enforcement were related to arguments in which people know one another or romantic triangles. Revenge leads to payback, reprisals lead to retributions, and the drumbeat of death goes on and on.
I believe the reason why these relentless shootings and murders do not shake the consciousness of the public in the way that mass shootings do is that young African American boys are most often the victim. We don’t value these lives the same way we do others, which dates back to this nation’s original sin.
That the issues of race and gun violence have collided again should surprise no one. The FBI has been warning for the last several years that white nationalist domestic terrorism is among the gravest homeland security threats facing our country right now. And tragedy after tragedy, we do nothing as a nation to prevent gun violence. When a match finds a gasoline truck, you can only expect one thing – and the same is true for hate and guns.
Polls show that most people in America recognize there are common sense solutions we can enact to keep guns out of the hands of those who want to hurt other people. Most people, for example, would agree that not every American should have access to any kind of gun, at any time, for whatever reason they want. And models for a comprehensive approach to reducing gun violence already exist in America.
Bipartisan, pragmatic leaders – folks like mayors and governors who actually have to get things done – agree on broad steps we can take. First of all, we should fund gun violence research at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, so it can lend its expertise to this public health crisis.
We should also close background check loopholes and extend wait times to keep guns out of dangerous hands. Of course, most agree we should also ban military-style assault weapons and high-capacity magazines so that our streets are never confused with war zones.
We need to treat gun violence and white supremacy like the national security emergencies they have become. Here is the truth – as Americans, if something is a national priority, like homeland security after 9/11, we either find the path to a solution or make one.
We do not have a deficit of ideas; we have a deficit of courage.
It’s past time for us to come to grips with these two distinct, but now overlapping, crises. Our battlefield is both on the street and in the heart.
Get our free weekly newsletter
Long after our racist president is gone, race will still plague this country. Long after the transition of power in our country, gun violence will still wreak havoc on our streets, in our schools, our malls and our lives if we continue to do nothing.
There have already been countless mass shootings this year, along with thousands of lives lost to gun violence. There will undoubtedly be more.
We need to start answering the questions of what do we value and what do we want our future to be. Maybe the ultimate question is – what price are we willing to pay for doing nothing in the face of these colliding forces of hate and violence? Of course, the answer won’t be easy. But nothing worthwhile ever is. It’s time to confront these hard truths.