Nearly 70,000 Latinos have died by gunfire since 1999

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It was on Nov. 5, 2005, when José Guzmán had the worst day of his life.

Two armed teenagers robbed the Subway restaurant located near 43rd Avenue and McDowell Road in Phoenix, where Guzmán’s 17-year-old son Guillermo worked. What appeared to be a simple robbery turned into a double murder in a matter of seconds.

The assailants carried an AK-47 assault rifle and fired at Guillermo and his 16-year-old co-worker, Rafael, killing both of them.

“Sixteen years have passed since that tragedy and far from resolving the gun violence issue, it has only worsened,” Guzmán said to La Voz.

“Imagine, two 15-year-olds carrying an AK-47 on the street is a clear example of how easily guns can be found on the black market here in Arizona.”

According to a new study released Wednesday by the Violence Policy Center, a national organization that works to curb firearm deaths and injuries, nearly 70,000 Latinos were killed with firearms in the United States between 1999 and 2019, with an annual average of more than 3,300 deaths.

Almost two-thirds of those deaths have been homicides. Another 21,466 were suicides and 1,182 were caused by accidental shootings, according to the VPC.

These numbers come to light just two years after a mass shooting in El Paso, Texas, that cost the lives of 22 people, the majority of them Latinos.

On Aug. 3, 2019, a white 21-year-old man walked into a Walmart in El Paso, located near the U.S.-México border, and opened fire. A total of 22 people died and 26 were injured.

The incident is recorded as one of the deadliest racially charged attacks against Latinos in the U.S. The objective was to kill as many Mexicans as possible, the suspected shooter, identified as Patrick Crusius, told investigators.

More than 4,000 Latinos were killed by firearms in 2019. Of the data collected from 34 states, Arizona ranks fourth in terms of the highest number of Latinos killed by firearms in that year with 257 murders, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention database.

However, the collection of data from government agencies tend to have limitations, as specified in the report, so the VPC estimates that the number of victims may be higher than reported.

“A lot of states have not adjusted the way that they approach violence prevention and issues associated with their increasing Latino population,” said Josh Sugarman, executive director at VPC. “The reason we do studies like these is to raise public awareness, and not just among the general public, but among state policymakers,” he said in an interview with La Voz.

A community disproportionately affected by gun violence

As a result of the tragic death of his son, Guzmán founded the organization Parents & Relatives of Victims of Crime, through which they provide emotional, legal and financial support to individuals and families who are victims of gun violence.

It started as a local support group in the Phoenix area, but has spread over time to other states. Today it supports 800 to 1,000 families a month, including victims of mass shootings in recent years such as the El Paso Walmart shooting, the Colorado theater shooting, and the Las Vegas concert shooting.

In the Valley, since 2019, there have been more incidents that have resulted in tragedies for Latino families that, like Gúzman, lost loved ones after being hit by gunfire.

On July 4, 2020, James Porter García, 28, was killed by two police officers who shot while Garcia was inside a vehicle parked near a friend’s home in Phoenix. Police did not specify the reason for the shooting, sparking protests among the local Latino community.

Jaiden Torrez, 16, was shot and killed, his body found in a car outside a residence in Phoenix on Feb. 5.

On July 3, Itzel Espinoza, 17, was found by Phoenix police dead in a car with several gunshot wounds. She was shot to death after a fight between her and at least two other people took place, according to police.

A few weeks later, on July 23, Ruben Chávez Valenzuela, 43, died after being shot several times outside a Tucson residence. According to the police, the shooting was intentional.

“The murders have increased to such a degree that in Washington, D.C., they have declared it as internal terrorism,” Guzmán stressed. “On the weekend of July 4 alone, there were more than 60 firearm deaths in two days in the Chicago area. This is like an epidemic.”

“What we can draw from that is that the impact is a direct result of the exposure to firearms among Latinos in the U.S.,” Sugarman said.

According to the VPC study, homicide is the third leading cause of death for Latinos ages 15-24, the majority of which are caused by gun violence. The homicide victimization rate for Latinos is almost double that of the white population.

In January, the VPC published another study, titled How the Firearms Industry and NRA Market Guns to Communities of Color, that could explain the disproportion found in the number of Latino victims of gun violence with respect to other racial groups.

In the study, the VPC analyzes how in recent years the firearms industry and the National Shooting Sports Foundation have focused their marketing efforts on the Latino and Black communities in the U.S.

According to the report, “these communities are already disproportionately impacted by lethal firearms violence and that increased gun ownership can only increase death and injury among them.”

Sugarman said that these “considerably sophisticated” campaigns have increased during the pandemic, promoting the purchase of weapons as instruments of personal defense.

“There’s an industry that’s focused on increasing sales to these groups in the U.S. and they’re very, very aggressive about it,” he said. “And instead of finding protection from new gun ownership, what (Latinos) do is place themselves and their families at a greater risk.” 

A spokesperson for the National Rifle Association did not immediately respond to La Voz for comment.

For Guzmán, another determining factor is Latino culture and legal status.

“Sometimes immigration status plays a factor in this, since by being undocumented, people prefer not to call the police for fear of being questioned or deported. Or if they are witnesses, they don’t cooperate (with police),” Guzmán said.

He mentioned that even relatives of victims call the Victims of Crimes organization instead of calling the police because they are afraid to exchange words with the law enforcement — they do not trust them.

Education and intervention are key

Guzmán believes that in the United States more restrictions are needed, both in the sale of weapons and in the criminal and mental health background check for those who seek to acquire firearms.

However, Arizona is one of the states with the most relaxed gun laws in the U.S.

Republican Gov. Doug Ducey signed a bill in April declaring the state a so-called Second Amendment sanctuary. When Ducey signed HB 2111 into law, he described it as an effort to protect “an enumerated right,” and that it “was a proactive law for what is possible to come out of the Biden administration.”

Known as the Second Amendment Firearm Freedom Act, the law says the state of Arizona is not beholden to upholding federal gun laws. Federal statistics show Arizona has the 15th highest gun-related mortality rate and earned an “F” rating from the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence.

According to the VPC study, to properly understand the impact that firearm violence has on the Latino population and to help develop effective measures to reduce it, it is essential to improve the data collection processes.

Comprehensive intervention programs should also be supported, based on community efforts that encourage the participation of all interested sectors.

Another recommendation is to carry out educational efforts to provide better information to the Latino population about the risks involved in bringing a firearm into the home.

Improving access to resources for victims and survivors of domestic violence and identifying measures against arms trafficking that may contribute to interrupting the flow of illegal weapons in affected communities are other factors, the report says.

The Associated Press contributed to this article.

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