Imagine being on a casual call with your mother and suddenly hearing a gunshot ring out just inches away from you. This is not a scene from a blockbuster movie. This was my life, two years ago, in northwest Washington, D.C. I was thrown right into the epicenter of America’s gun violence issue, from working as a communications professional advocating for gun laws and supporting victims’ families to being a near victim myself.
My traumatic experience, one that is all too familiar to many Americans, led to deep and revealing conversations with local D.C. residents. The critical thread woven throughout these discussions: socioeconomic disparity, the real root of urban gun violence. Despite the general decline in violent crime across the U.S., the summer months often see a spike in gun crimes, and the conversations this issue sparks consistently overlook how systemic racial and economic inequality is fueling the problem.
The widening racial wealth gap in D.C., and in urban areas across America, sets the stage for a crisis that feels uniquely American. Black communities, victims of decades-long housing discrimination, redlining, subpar education, job scarcity, and low-wage employment, bear the brunt. As a former vice president of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence aptly noted, this inequality is about survival.
The chilling reality is evident in D.C., where a staggering 86,300 Black residents grapple with poverty and scarce access to essential resources, like affordable housing, education, and job opportunities. The majority of these impoverished individuals live in Wards 7 and 8. These majority-Black neighborhoods struggle with high rates of gun violence and lack resources for mental health issues that poverty often exacerbates. A study discovered over 133,000 residents in D.C. have limited access to mental health services — and guess where most of them live? Wards 7 and 8.
Making matters worse, all this takes place against the backdrop of a rapidly gentrifying city. The shooting I narrowly escaped happened in Brightwood, a neighborhood not far from the Gold Coast, a well-known wealthy Black community. Brightwood, like other D.C. neighborhoods, is changing rapidly with soaring property prices that correspond with a spike in gun violence. Alarmingly, the Washington Metropolitan Police is responsible for some of these shootings, with Black individuals, less than half of the population, making up 85 percent of the victims.
The city’s rising tide of gentrification and human displacement puts D.C. at the forefront among large U.S. cities for the displacement of residents. In areas like Kingman Park and Capitol Hill, “nearly 75 percent of the low-income populations have vanished,” according to a 2019 report. The bulk of those displaced are poor, Black residents from economically declining areas.
While D.C. is an extraordinary city, it can only reach its full potential when all residents can partake in the prosperity it generates. Issues like gun violence will persist as long as there are entire segments of the population marginalized, ignored, and forced to live with economic disparity.
As we step into the summer, let’s pivot the conversation on gun violence to focus on economic policies and prioritize the voices of those most affected by this issue to truly understand its roots. By providing more resources for community gun violence prevention organizations, creating more summer job programs for teens, and tackling housing insecurity, we can pave a new, equitable path for our nation’s capital and beyond, saving lives and creating an environment where economic prosperity is shared by all.