Police Violence and the Debate Over Gun Control

Demonstrators hold signs during a ‘lie-in’ supporting gun control reform near the White House on February 19, 2018 (Photo: Zach Gibson/Getty Images).

In the aftermath of the Parkland shooting, the National Rifle Association (NRA) entered the news as their successful lobbying of Republicans and Democrats was scrutinized after yet another mass shooting in the United States. Mainstream newspapers focused on the rash of school shootings since Columbine in 1999 and the limited, or lack of, gun restrictions imposed to deal with this epidemic. However, some Black activists on social media have invoked the name of Philando Castile to highlight a glaring omission in the way the public understands gun violence and gun control.

When Philando Castile was murdered on July 6, 2016 in Falcon Heights, Minnesota, many highlighted the NRA’s silence over Castile’s death as a registered gun owner who had informed the police officer who pulled him over that he was armed and had a gun permit. The NRA’s initial silence and eventual statement that effectively blamed Castile for his own death exposed the hypocrisy of the gun lobby. In a national debate on the meaning and intent of the Second Amendment, politicians on both sides of the aisle often ignore the historical underpinning of race in shaping the US Constitution and the rights conferred therein. In the conversation about NRA lobbying, race has–until recently–been the elephant in the room. The NRA, and the politicians they fund, protect white Americans.

To be sure, there is also faulty logic in advocating for gun restrictions. Calls for gun control focus on limiting, or banning, the right of certain individuals to have access to guns, and to take assault weapons off of the private market in general. The implication is that these restrictions would make sure that all gun owners followed state laws and that would ostensibly restrict private individuals from acquiring weapons of war for their supposed hunting needs. But Philando Castile’s case–alongside the cases of John Crawford III on August 5, 2014 in Beavercreek, Ohio, Korryn Gaines on August 1, 2016 in Baltimore, and even twelve-year-old Tamir Rice on November 23, 2014 in Cleveland–should remind us that the possession of guns through legal means is an unfathomable construction in a country whose system was founded on the denial of Black personhood, let alone rights.

How can we, as a society, advocate for the implementation of gun restrictions when, in two open- and concealed-carry states (Ohio and Minnesota) Philando Castile, John Crawford, and Tamir Rice were all killed by police for carrying firearms or being suspected of it? All of these instances should make us wonder how future restrictions might disproportionately affect Black gun owners who, even now, are not better protected by the firearms they possess.

Black gun owners are made even more vulnerable to police violence because of another unexplored area of inquiry in gun violence in the United States: the role of the police. A frequent theme in the conversations surrounding American mass shootings is to condemn police, social services or the FBI for not doing more to identify potential threats. Almost certainly this is because most mass shooters have been white men, who receive the benefit of the doubt—from law enforcement, the media, the government and the rest of mainstream society—for being law abiding individuals. But these same institutions provide no such leeway for Black men, women or children. At a time when the United States might respond to the Parkland shooting by imposing new gun restrictions, local law enforcement has become concurrently more militarized. The debate about the proliferation of gun ownership in the US continues to focus on placing restrictions on private citizens, which is necessary considering the unchecked rise of white terrorist organizations in the recent past, but it wholly ignores related institutions like the over-policing of Black and brown neighborhoods, the prison industrial complex and the state sanctioned harassment of documented and undocumented immigrants. If we therefore accept that the future will be safer with gun restrictions, there is little evidence that this would be true for Black people.

Another topic that has surfaced in conversations about the Parkland shooting has been the coordinated efforts of the surviving students to make sure that their classmates and teachers did not die in vain. In particular, a number of activists and observers who were politicized in the aftermath of Mike Brown’s murder in 2014 have expressed dismay at the overwhelming support these largely white students in Florida have received compared to the vilification of Ferguson and Black Lives Matter protesters. The differing responses stem from a deeply historical reality of the simple fact that few care about the lives of Black people besides other Black people. As poet Claudia Rankine notes,

Though the white liberal imagination likes to feel temporarily bad about Black suffering, there really is no mode of empathy that can replicate the daily strain of knowing  that as a Black person you can be killed for simply being Black.

The mobilization of Black communities around victims of police violence has not been universally embraced as the impetus for tighter gun control policies or substantive law enforcement reform because Black people are not sympathetic victims. The Sandy Hook massacre is invoked as the moment when the US collectively failed to learn our lesson about the proliferation of gun ownership as a public epidemic. But what about the murder of Aiyanna Stanley-Jones? Or Renisha McBride?

This is not meant to be a comparison of the value of the dead. For those who loved them, there is no comparison. This is, however, hopefully a reminder that US policy does not affect all Americans equally. When the NRA and so-called progressive politicians invoke gun violence in Black communities as a way to delineate who is, and is not, a legitimate gun owner and thus who might be considered dangerous, we should hear a clear warning that gun restrictions are likely to penalize Black gun ownership disproportionately (in much the same way that Ronald Reagan as Governor of California supported gun restrictions in 1967, in response to the Black Panther Party’s support for armed self-defense).

And the NRA’s refusal to advocate on behalf of Philando Castile should make clear that there is not, and never will be, a legitimate Black gun owner in the US because we are, and have historically been, deprived of the right to defend ourselves. Castile’s murder, and his murderer’s acquittal, also prove that even if we take every assault weapon and handgun off of the street, Black lives will still be in danger.

Copyright © AAIHS. May not be reprinted without permission.

Nicole Jackson

Nicole M. Jackson is an assistant professor of African American and African Diaspora History at Bowling Green State University. Her work focuses on Black social movements in the post-WWII African Diaspora. Follow her on Twitter @nicole_maelyn.