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Stricter gun laws alone won't stop America's urban violence

Getting guns off the streets or out of the hands of criminals won’t by itself address the problem of gun violence in poor urban communities. America needs to address the underlying circumstances that lead people like my inmate students to gun violence in the first place.

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Darrell Hartley takes notes during a class run by The Insight Prison Project in a San Quentin, Calif., prison on Jan. 23, 2008. Op-ed contributor Peggy Rambach says implementing the social programs 'that will eradicate the causes for their fear' mean her inmate 'students won’t be condemned to find sanctuary behind prison walls simply because they were too young to know that they would never find it in a gun.'

Robert Gumpert/Special to the Christian Science Monitor

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When my students told me that they hated guns, I was surprised. That’s because my students are criminals incarcerated at Suffolk County House of Correction, a medium security prison in Boston where I teach creative writing. I found out about this relationship with guns the day Mario (I use only his first name to protect his identity) read his poem “The Hammer.” It described how a gun at first empowers a man, but then, like an addiction, the man is overpowered by the gun, and the gun leads him to his death. Apparently, the poem spoke for the whole class. They all said that they wished they’d never laid their hands on one.

But many of them will pick one up the minute they’re back on the street. Not because of the gun. Because of the street.

In the wake of Newtown, there’s been a huge push for gun control – not just to protect children in suburban schools from mass shootings but to minimize the more frequent gun violence that dominates our urban streets. As I’ve learned from my students, getting guns off the streets or out of the hands of criminals won’t by itself address the problem of gun violence in poor urban communities. America needs to address the underlying circumstances that lead people such as my students to gun violence in the first place.

Especially if their lives resemble the life of my student Robert. He grew up in the 1980s at the height of the crack epidemic, turned up the volume on the TV to drown out his parents’ fights over his father’s habit, and lived in an apartment where a bullet just missed him one day when it flew through his window.

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