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The Inequity of Compassion

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Below are excerpts from a blog I posted in the wake of the tragedy in Tucson last year, before I recently assumed the job of president of The Brady Campaign.

Its themes remain all-too-relevant in light of Friday's tragedy at the Empire State Building, and the 19 people that were shot overnight on the streets of Chicago.

As a nation, we are better than this.

Please go to WeAreBetterThanThis.org to make your voice heard -- to erase "the inequity of compassion" that exists around gun violence and to demand our elected officials and presidential candidates give us their plans to make this the better, safer nation we all want and deserve.

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I know about headline-grabbing tragedies. My younger brother was shot in the head on the observation deck of the Empire State Building in 1997. The incident inspired me to resign as an advertising executive to start the Center to Prevent Youth Violence, an organization dedicated to preventing gun violence.

In our time of shock and grief, my family deeply appreciated the sympathy that poured in from across the country. It helped us cope. But from the moment I started to get involved in the gun violence issue, I found the disproportionate attention given to our story also made me feel uncomfortable.

People seemed to care more because my brother was a white, upper-middle-class, young musician, shot at a famous landmark. A common theme began to emerge: "that kind of tragedy isn't supposed to happen in places like that, to people like your brother."

Over the years now, I have seen this same theme repeated. We seem to care more about certain tragedies, like suburban school shootings or psychotic shooting sprees in office buildings or malls or famous victims. Certain deaths seem to matter more.

I believe this mentality is fostered by the news media. There are undertones of racism and socioeconomic discrimination in the relative importance attached to human lives. Also, there is the thirst for the sensational -- and the typical and expected are rarely sensational. As a result, there is far too little focus on a shockingly common problem, that poses a far greater threat to all of us than most realize, and we fail to examine surprisingly simple and accessible opportunities to prevent it.

On a typical day in our nation, 270 people are shot - mostly your run-of-the-mill urban violence or unintentional shootings or suicides. Nothing new. Nothing capable of capturing the fancy of the media or the public. Just 32 people murdered, 87 more Americans in total gone each day. Hundreds more families devastated.

The real tragedy is that these are the very deaths that can actually be prevented.

The problem is, practical solutions to typical deaths are not sexy.

Now another unthinkable shooting has occurred. At least six people are dead, including a 9-year-old girl, and 13 severely injured including U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords. My thoughts and prayers are with the victims, families and loved ones. I can identify more than most with what they are going through.

As is usually the case when things like this happen, I am being flooded with calls, emails and texts from supporters. As usual, many are wondering, even hoping whether this is what it will take finally to galvanize our nation's resolve to do something about the crisis of gun violence.

But I've seen this play out too many times to attach too much hope to that notion, without substantial changes in the way we look at isolated tragedies relative to the real problem that exists- the real reasons we are losing 32 Americans to gun murder every day, and the real things we can do to prevent it.

I understand why Saturday's tragedy is important news. I just want to urge the media also to appreciate that the sensational shootings are often not the typical or preventable ones. I suggest that some of the time that will inevitably be spent examining how and why the tragedy in Arizona happened, might be more productively spent asking the same questions about the alarmingly frequent tragedies that can more readily be prevented.

It's not that the sensational deaths don't matter. It's that they shouldn't matter more.