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Excerpted From: Gabriel Arkles, Gun Control, Mental Illness, and Black Trans and Lesbian Survival, 42 Southwestern Law Review 855 (2013) (272 Footnotes) (Full Document)

gabrielarklesKillings, even mass killings of children and youth, are terribly common. Over 50,000 Iraqi children and over 15,000 Afghani children have been killed through U.S. military intervention in recent years. U.S. drone strikes have killed 178 children in Afghanistan and Pakistan as of December 2012. In just one week in the Bronx in 2012, the NYPD shot three young Black men to death. At least eight Palestinian children were killed by Israeli forces within the first six days of the Gaza Strip offensive beginning November 2012. At least thirteen trans women of color, most of them young, were murdered in 2012 throughout the U.S. Adam Lanza murdered twenty children and seven adults in Newtown in December 2012. These are just a few of many horrific examples.

Media outlets, policymakers, and much of the public place blame differently depending on what type of incident causes violent deaths. When it is a U.S., Canadian, Israeli, or European institution killing large numbers of Black or Brown people, it seems like often no one gets blamed. If anyone does, it is often the victims. The dead people--even the children--are perceived as disposable rather than fully human. They are all actual or potential terrorists and gang members, deserving of death. If blame does come to the government or other institutions, it is usually in sanitized and abstract terms. After killings perpetrated by individual people of color or Muslims, the person's race or religion is often blamed for their actions. However, after mass killings by white civilian men, the blame tends to get placed differently: on guns and mental illness. The fallout from Newtown has followed this model.

Newtown and its aftermath may not seem to have much to do with trans people of color and queer women of color. After all, as far as we know Adam Lanza was not trans, queer, or a person of color and did not target trans people of color or queer women of color. Most acts of violence that do target trans people of color and queer women of color don't tend to attract nearly as much media attention as Newtown. However, the debates about violence, guns, and mental illness that have surrounded this and other school shootings have significant implications for trans people of color and queer women of color. Current gun control laws and proposals for expansions of gun control laws harm trans people of color and queer women of color without addressing the sources of most violence against these communities. The demonization of mental illness and push to increase the commitment of people labeled mentally ill also contributes to greater racial, gender, and sexual--as well as disability-based--violence. In this article, I consider these implications, with particular attention to issues of survival for Black trans people and Black lesbians.

First, I address issues of guns and gun control. Queer women of color and trans people of color are among those most vulnerable to severe forms of interpersonal and institutional violence. The police do not protect queer women of color or trans people of color from this violence, but perpetrate much of it. When queer women of color and trans people of color seek to defend themselves, they are often criminalized.

Gun control laws are a mechanism of this criminalization. Rather than preventing violence, most existing and proposed gun control laws increase violence through creating more mechanisms for the search, arrest, prosecution, and incarceration of marginalized communities, particularly communities of color. Laws purportedly about reducing guns and gun violence serve to justify greater use of guns on the part of law enforcement and corrections officers to enforce those laws. I propose an alternative approach to gun control, that would focus on eliminating the most destructive weapons that do the most harm to the most people--those in the control of military, law enforcement, and other institutions.

I then turn to the controversies over mental illness. Mental illness itself is a contested and socially constructed category. Queer women of color and trans people of color have often been pathologized because of gender, sexuality, race, and class. Traumatic violence and systemic discrimination can also contribute to high rates of emotional distress and psychological injury among trans people of color and queer women of color. While mentally ill people are often suspected of being violent, in fact these suspicions are often tied more to scapegoating or to anxieties about changing social hierarchies than to reality. Mentally ill people, however, experience very high rates of both interpersonal and institutional violence, including violence perpetuated in the name of "treatment." Queer women of color and trans people of color have been particularly targeted for various forms of psychiatric abuse, yet have often been denied access to quality, consensual mental health services. I propose an alternative approach to improving services and support to people who are perceived to be mentally ill; rather than commitment, control, and coercion, I suggest honoring the self-determination of mentally ill people, including trans people of color and queer women of color.

[. . .]

Those of us concerned with racial, gender, sexual, economic, or disability justice should be concerned about the direction and focus of national conversations in the wake of Newtown. Controversies over gun control and mental health treatment have a profound impact on those marginalized based on race, gender, sexuality, class, and disability.

Gun control laws so far have been disastrous for trans people of color and queer women of color, as well as those labeled mentally ill, failing to reduce interpersonal violence but increasing the violence of the criminal legal system. Instead of focusing on greater incarceration of people in marginalized communities who choose to carry guns, we should consider true disarmament. This disarmament would involve demilitarizing police, decreasing incarceration, keeping cops out of schools, disinvesting in the armed forces, and instead investing in communities. Expanded power to commit people based on mental illness, whether on an outpatient or inpatient basis, would also be deeply harmful, especially to queer women of color and trans people of color who are already highly vulnerable to pathologization, disablement, institutionalization, and abuse. Instead, we should consider investing more deeply in holistic, community-directed services for mentally ill people that support self-determination and social change, including fighting state and interpersonal violence against people with mental illness.

In seeking to prevent violence, we must take care to ensure we are not actually perpetrating it. 

Associate Academic Specialist at Northeastern University School of Law.