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Let's Talk Human Rights

From Tragedy to Advocacy: Facing Gun Violence in Our Community

Last February we assembled activists, elected officials, and survivors of gun violence to discuss steps taken in the six months following the August 4 mass shooting in Dayton. The story of that shooting and its impact on our city is told in the UD documentary “Dayton’s Darkest Summer”. Now, as our community commemorates the anniversary on August 4, we take stock of ongoing issues and proposals for reducing gun violence. 

A human rights challenge

The United States has 393 million firearms, approximately 40% of the global total. Gun violence in the US and elsewhere poses a threat to several human rights, including the right to life and to security of person, as well as freedom of expression, freedom of assembly, and freedom of worship. Governments, which bear primary responsibility for protecting and promoting human rights, have a duty to keep citizens safe from violence or threats of violence committed with firearms.

Many governments around the world satisfy these obligations by banning civilian ownership of handguns and most other types of firearms. The United States widely permits civilian gun ownership, though regulations on possession and use differ substantially across jurisdictions. The Second Amendment to the US Constitution has been interpreted by the Supreme Court as providing an individualized right to gun ownership, but the Court also countenances a wide range of restrictions on this right. At present, the US fulfills some of its obligations under international human rights law by imposing licensing requirements and providing timely legal recourse for crimes committed with firearms. However, the US falls short of meeting its human rights obligations to adequately protect its people from gun violence.   

A community impacted

Dayton struggled with gun violence even prior to the August 4, 2019 mass shooting. From 2015-2019, Dayton police recorded an average of 470 violent crimes committed annually with a firearm. Total annual homicides committed with a gun exceeded 40 for the first time in this period in 2019, showing the statistical impact of the nine shooting deaths in the Oregon District. 

Gun violence is not the only challenge facing Dayton and other midwestern American cities. With a history of redlining and other discriminatory practices against African Americans, Dayton ranked among the top 25 most segregated cities in the US according to 2010 census data. Deeply affected by economic trends and globalization, and lying at the intersection of two major interstate highways, in 2017 Dayton was considered one of the key epicenters of America’s opioid epidemic.  

In order to curb gun violence, officials have pursued several different strategies. In December 2019, Dayton Police began piloting “ShotSpotter” technology, which uses sonic sensors to automatically alert police to shots fired, despite significant concerns raised by civilian members of the city’s Community Police Council. Dayton’s Human Relations Council has also tested a public health strategy for dealing with gun violence, in the form of its Greater Dayton Safety Planning Commission initiative in the Residence Park neighborhood. This initiative was set for expansion at the time the COVID-19 pandemic began. 

Following complaints by citizens and former city employees about the police response to Black Lives Matter protests in May, Dayton’s city commission has created five working groups on police reform. Topics include oversight, use of force, training, recruitment, and community engagement. Members of the public can watch these meetings as they happen. The city has also established a new email address for fielding complaints about police conduct: policecomplaints@daytonohio.gov

A public health concern

Applying lessons learned from the opioid epidemic, over the past year Dayton has begun to treat gun violence as a public health issue. This approach involves taking a holistic look at the causes and impact of gun violence; assessing economic, educational, and historical factors contributing to gun crime; and improving relations between police officers and the public. 

Since 1996, Federal law has prohibited the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention from using Federal funding to advocate firearms regulation. Only in late 2019 was this reversed. Dayton Mayor Nan Whaley testified at a House Judiciary Committee meeting on gun violence shortly after the August 4 shooting, remarking, “The massacre that happened in Dayton and has happened in too many communities across this country demands a response.”

While mass casualty events garner the most attention from journalists and public officials, suicide committed by firearm is the single largest source of gun deaths in America today, accounting for approximately 22,000 deaths annually. The public health effects of news coverage of suicides and mass shootings are only beginning to be understood. 

Dayton now faces the COVID-19 global pandemic - a public health crisis which is exacerbating existing inequities. Cases of gun violence have not ceased, and the need for a coordinated public health approach to this challenge remains urgent. There has been a 27% increase in overall gun crimes in Dayton in the last year-to-date, along with a 56% increase in homicides. Though gun violence did decrease slightly when Ohio’s stay-at-home order took effect in March, Dayton Chief of Police Richard Biehl has stated that there is too little data to determine whether this decrease will contribute to a long-term downward trend in gun violence. 

A militarized society

Dayton, like every city in the US, has been impacted by the police killings of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd in the spring of 2020. Responses to the large-scale protests that followed highlight the extent of militarization in US society. The prevalence of guns, including military-style firearms, throughout communities in the US is a key signature of this culture. Other hallmarks include no-knock warrants like the one served on the night of Taylor’s killing. We see daily in the news police in body armor, fatigues, and tactical vehicles being deployed against Black Lives Matters protesters. Pentagon officials have expressed concern that the distinction between military personnel and domestic police is becoming unclear.

Gun violence disproportionately impacts women and communities of color. The August 3rd 2019 mass shooting in El Paso, Texas which came just before the Dayton mass shooting, made this dynamic explicit: that shooter intentionally targeted people of hispanic background. But the trends are wider. Research presented by Dayton’s Human Relations Council shows that deaths and injuries from gun violence are highest in neighborhoods historically affected by the segregationist policy of red-lining, and are correlated with poverty, food insecurity, and higher levels of infant mortality. Nationally, women in the US are 21 times more likely to be murdered with a gun than women in other developed countries, and for women of color the risks are still higher. As has been reported, the pandemic has heightened women’s exposure to intimate partner violence. Dayton’s YWCA has reported a significant increase in calls concerning imminent threats of violence to its domestic violence hotline during the pandemic, though these do not all involve firearms.

What has been done?

At the six month commemoration of the shooting, Dayton officials and civil society participants expressed frustration at the failure to move forward on common sense gun regulations, particularly at the state level. Republican state senator Peggy Lehner, who represents suburban Dayton, said it was discouraging to see bills designed to reduce restrictions on guns receive more attention from her colleagues than gun safety bills. In response to August 4, Ohio Governor Mike DeWine introduced legislation called the STRONG Ohio bill (SB 221) that would create a system for conducting background checks for private gun sales and strengthen information sharing between police and mental health professionals, among other provisions. Challenged by both gun advocates and gun safety groups, SB 221 has not had a hearing since December 2019. DeWine has recently acknowledged the impasse, remarking, “We have done something, but it’s not enough.”

At the same time, gun advocates have been lobbying for stand your ground bills in the Ohio legislature (HB 381 and SB 237, respectively). Stand your ground (or “shoot first”) laws are particularly worrisome from a human rights perspective, since it has been shown by multiple studies that they do not prevent violent crime and actually increase firearm homicides in states that adopt them. HB 381 had its fourth hearing before the House Criminal Justice Committee in early June, but has not yet received a vote. Maureen Schlangen, a volunteer county coordinator with the grassroots organization Ohioans for Gun Safety, remarked regarding HB 381: “This law is taking Ohio in the wrong direction. Common-sense gun regulations — such as closing the loopholes in background check laws — reduce gun violence and save lives. ‘Shoot-first’ laws don’t.”

What can you do now? 

Gun violence remains a threat to a safe, secure and healthy society. Take action to reverse the militarization of our communities. Make your voice heard. 

  • Vote. Register to vote online using this link.
  • Contact Your Representatives. Find them at this site
  • Attend an event hosted by the City of Dayton to honor families and victims affected by the Oregon District tragedy. Here is a list of events
  • Help the University of Dayton community oppose House Bill 381 and Senate Bill 237. Included in this link are email/call templates and information to help you locate and contact your officials about both Stand-Your-Ground bills.
  • Support or join these advocacy organizations:
  • Ohioans for Gun Safety- A  grassroots state organization that advocates for common sense background checks for gun safety in Ohio.
  • Moms Demand Action- A grassroots movement of Americans fighting for public safety measures to prevent gun violence.
  • Students Demand Action- A national student-lead advocacy organization fighting for common sense gun legislation. 
  • March for Our Lives- A national student-lead organization fighting for sensible gun violence legislation policies.
  • The Brady Campaign- One of the U.S.’s oldest gun violence advocacy organizations fighting for gun violence reform.

We encourage anyone suffering to seek help by contacting the Montgomery County Victim/Witness Division - 24 Hour Crisis Hotline at (937) 225-5623. UD students may also contact the Counseling Center at (937) 229-3141.


Photo credit: Whitney Saleski

Nick Cardilino is the Director of the Center for Social Concern, and also teaches courses on Faith and Justice in the Religious Studies Dept.

Bailey Johnson ’21, Human Rights Studies graduate and currently enrolled in the MPA program, is a graduate assistant for the Human Rights Center.

Paul Morrow is the John M. Meagher Human Rights Fellow for the Human Rights Center.

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