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What the Aurora Tragedy Can Teach Us About Race and Gun Control

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Any time politics are mentioned in the same breath as a tragedy, whether it occurred a decade ago like 9/11, or days ago, like the shooting in Aurora, there will be some who view those doing the mentioning as callous, insensitive and self-serving.

Sometimes that view is spot on. But as plenty of others have already pointed out, there is rarely a better opportunity to engage the public on an issue of great importance than when that issue is forced into the public consciousness by a tragedy. So while I want to extend my deepest sympathies to the victims of the Aurora tragedy I also want to acknowledge that this moment presents an invaluable opportunity for some serious self-reflection by our country, particularly on the issue of gun violence.

Like all of you I am both saddened and angered that some coward robbed so many innocent lives, and in doing so forever robbed our country of any sense of safety and security during one of our most innocent and treasured pastimes: watching a movie with our families. But I am also sad and angry at the cowardice many of our elected officials have shown on the issue of gun control in recent years.

The fact that the Federal Assault Weapons Ban -- a ban that would have covered the type of rifle used in Friday's massacre -- was allowed to expire in 2004 and has not even made it to the House floor sense, should shame every member of Congress and enrage every American whose tax dollars pay their salaries. (Apparently there are actually four branches of government not three: the Executive, the Legislative, the Judicial and the NRA.)

A few elected officials have actually shown great courage on this issue, among them Congresswoman Carolyn McCarthy, who launched her career as the government's guardian angel of gun control after her husband was killed and her son critically injured in the 1993 LIRR shooting rampage. New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg has also made gun control one of his signature issues, serving as co-founder and primary funder of Mayors Against Illegal Guns. But even elected officials whose hearts are in the right place politically can get policy wrong.

In a radio interview following the Aurora tragedy, Mayor Bloomberg criticized both President Obama and Gov. Romney for not tackling the issue of gun policy in detail on the campaign trail. While he didn't use the c-word (as in "cowards") the implication was there. But it never ceases to amaze me how politicians can see the policy misstep or political cowardice of their peers and not see it themselves.

While I applaud the Mayor's efforts to get illegal guns off of the streets, some of his methods for doing so have proven ineffective -- offensively so, and I don't use that term lightly. In recent months the Bloomberg administration has faced increased criticism for its defense of the NYPD's "stop and frisk" practice, a practice decried as both a gross violation of civil liberties, and a form of government sanctioned profiling. Now I am not one who believes that our civil liberties and convenience should trump the safety of the greater community. I pack my lotion in a tiny container and a small Ziploc bag in my airport carry-on without complaint just like the rest of you. But I also do not believe that community safety should be used as a no-questions-asked shield to blanketly protect the government from legitimate criticism, and that is precisely what Mayor Bloomberg has tried to do in recent weeks.

A report from the New York Civil Liberties Union confirmed what many New Yorkers of color already knew, namely that the NYPD's "stop and frisk" program has overwhelmingly targeted racial minorities. 87 percent of those stopped in 2011 were black or Latino, however "a weapon was found in only 1.8 percent of blacks and Latinos frisked, as compared to a weapon being found in 3.8 percent of whites frisked." Despite these findings, and others like them, Mayor Bloomberg has passionately defended the policy, angrily denouncing the NYCLU as no better than the NRA.

Yet it appears not to have dawned on the Mayor that while he has criticized gun control policy elsewhere in the wake of the Aurora tragedy, the execution of his own city's current policy virtually ensures that the Aurora gunman would have slipped through the cracks. The reason? As a white male he is unlikely to have drawn the attention of police.

Next to the NRA, racial politics have long been among gun control's most frustrating foes. Though gun homicide has been the leading cause of death for black teens for years, the issue of gun control tends to find itself catapulted to the front pages and the top of political priority lists only when a high profile tragedy takes place, and the majority of its victims are not black or brown. The Million Mom March held in the wake of the Columbine High School shooting first exposed racial rifts within the gun control movement. Black mothers who had lost children to gun deaths lamented that the media labeled their kids victims of "gang violence," even when they weren't in gangs, but simply from a poor neighborhood, while victims from Columbine and other predominantly white communities were labeled victims of "gun violence."

At the time, activists within the movement made a concerted effort to acknowledge the lack of pre-Columbine activism, and the lack of sensitivity that showed to mothers of color who had been battling the issue of gun violence for years. More than a decade later it doesn't appear that all that much has changed. Many of the elected officials who have emerged in the wake of the Aurora tragedy to decry our nation's backslide on the issue of gun control were largely silent when it was revealed that Chicago was on track to have one of its bloodiest summers ever due to gun violence. But perhaps they simply dismissed that as "gang violence," not "gun violence."

So I want to at least give credit where credit is due. Mayor Bloomberg should be applauded for not ignoring gun violence affecting minorities, but he should not be applauded for condoning racial profiling as an anti-violence measure. Because by his logic, that would mean that from here on, every white male should be stopped and frisked before entering a movie theater.

Yes that sounds ridiculous. Please tell that to the Mayor.

Click here to sign a petition to help reduce the number of arbitrary "stop and frisks."

Click here to read about the world's deadliest gun crimes.

Keli Goff is the author of The GQ Candidate and a Contributing Editor for Loop21.com where this post originally appeared.

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