Why Both Sides Have It Wrong on Gun Control
By NAVID FARNIA
Despite the recent uproar over gun control, the debate has actually lasted on and off for decades. For those familiar with the argument, the distinction between the opposing sides is rather simple: liberals generally favor tighter gun control laws that make it harder for people to obtain firearms, while conservatives are by and large content with the status quo, which maintains rather loose regulation on access to gun ownership. The National Rifle Association (NRA) is the major corporate and special interest actor in this dispute as it not only closely aligns itself with the Republican Party, but it is also heavily involved in legislation surrounding gun laws. These points are well known among those who follow the debate.
The re-emergence of gun control in the national discussion largely results from the mass shootings in 2012 in Aurora, Colorado, and Newtown, Connecticut. The less covered Sikh Temple shooting in Oak Creek, Wisconsin also occurred in the past year.
Public discourse has centered on how shootings like these can be prevented and formulating effective ways for making communities safe and secure. Common thinking among both liberals and conservatives is that guns should be the focus of the debate; specifically, whether more guns make for a safer society or not.
It can be said with little reservation that these “communities” referred to are predominantly white communities. This is the same reason why the Sikh Temple shooting received very little media coverage as opposed to Aurora and Newtown, and it is also the same reason why violence in communities of color is marginalized in the media.
With this in mind, it’s little wonder why there is no conversation surrounding those who would be most affected by increased gun control. And it’s also no surprise that the debate over gun control will do little to nothing in solving the issue of civilian violence in the U.S., where the celebration of military might, constant war with powerless Third World nations, police brutality, tacit acceptance of violence against women and entertainment productions that normalize the use of aggressive force to settle disputes all breed a culture of violence.
In order to more fully understand this debate though, it’s important to know the racialized history behind gun control. The history of gun control policy in large part has beginnings with the government’s reaction to the Black Panther Party, which was known to be a militant organization that advocated carrying weapons as a means of self-defense against the state, specifically the police. As Rick Perlstein explains, it was only when the armed Panthers began patrolling rich white neighborhoods when those in the government felt the need to shape policy on gun control. In particular, when the Panthers traversed through the neighborhood that Don Mulford – a Ronald Reagan supporter in the California state assembly (Reagan was California’s governor at the time) – lived in, the Mulford Act came to fruition and was later signed into law by Reagan.
The Mulford Act, which banned the carrying of loaded weapons in public spaces, was one of the first major gun control laws in the U.S. and was ironically initiated by Republicans and signed into law by Reagan himself. In a drastic turn of events and after shifting the Republican platform, Reagan later became the first presidential candidate that the NRA backed in the organization’s long history. In effect then, gun control policy is historically rooted in white fear from armed Black resistance to the state.
Advocacy for tightened gun control laws eventually became part of the Democratic platform in opposition to conservative ideology and NRA lobbying. However, liberal ideals have also fallen short. The stark reality is that increased regulation on gun control will only further devastate communities of color.
The gun debate is unavoidably racialized; expanding weapons laws will impact people of color – in particular, young Black men – more than any other group of people. The statistics back this up: according to the U.S. Department of Justice’s Bureau of Justice Statistics, over 63,000 Black people were arrested for weapons law violations in 2010, compared to under 93,000 whites. In other words, about 40.1 percent of weapons violations arrests are of Black people, which is more than three times the percentage of Blacks in the general population (around 13 percent). In the state of Iowa alone, Blacks constituted 24.5 percent of weapons violation arrests in 2009, an outlandish number considering that Iowa’s general Black population is about 3 percent.
In 1993, the rate of Black people arrested for weapons violations on a national level was actually a bit higher at 43 percent, but again, the difference is very small when compared to racial demographics in the general population. Furthermore, some of the other statistics uncovered from 1993 (more recent stats on this matter proved difficult to find) shed greater light on the racialized nature of weapons arrests. An older Bureau of Justice Statistics report indicates that most felony convictions for weapons cases in 1992 occurred in State courts, where 60 percent of felony weapons case convictions were of Black people. Thus, while these statistics may be a bit dated, the similarity in the rate of weapons law violation arrests of Black people in 2010 compared to 1992 and 1993 shows that the conviction rate was most likely also disproportionately high. Unfortunately, we don’t have the statistics for weapons violations for Latinos, whom in most cases are listed as white in the racial demographics; this would obviously further skew the numbers against people of color.
The weapons arrest rate for juveniles is even bleaker: according to the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, Black juveniles were arrested at nearly three times the rate of white juveniles in 2010.
What does this all mean? Simply put, tighter gun control laws will lead to the growth of the prison system and will essentially equate to more Black people being incarcerated at grossly disproportionate levels (apologies to Lawrence Bobo). Questions about whether race should or should not be involved in this debate are irrelevant because it’s inevitably a major factor. And while we can easily see the current conservative “gun control is racist” position as entirely disingenuous given the Republican Party’s history of supporting gun control policy as a means of maintaining white supremacy, we also can’t avoid the racialized truth.
The statistics and history point to how young Black people are unfairly and routinely targeted by the state. As a result, increasing state power over gun control will inevitably lead to more targeting, to an aggravated epidemic of mass incarceration in the Black community (as well as in other communities of color) and to the ultimate ruination of many young Black people’s lives.
In a recent interview with The Root, former Black Panther Party leader Elaine Brown eloquently states:
The gun control discussion could result in policies that further criminalize and target Black people…Bill Clinton’s “three strikes and you’re out” crime legislation emerged from a similar discussion over “Black violence,” and that law has resulted in an explosion of incarceration disproportionately of Black people, some sentenced to life for crimes as minor as stealing pizza. We have to remember that the NRA represents the moneyed power of gun manufacturers who will stand in the way of any meaningful gun control laws, but will support policies, like guns in schools, that will further oppress Black people.
The Nation’s Bryce Covert shares this view, explaining how the last push for tighter gun control in 1994 was within a comprehensive crime package that “included an expansion of the death penalty, the building of more prisons and the authorization of 100,000 more police officers…all policies that target people of color.” Covert also mentions how increased police presence in schools has a disparate effect on children of color and solidifies the school-to-prison pipeline.
It is unfortunate then, that President Barack Obama and the NRA are actually in agreement that more police officers should be placed in schools, the impact of which is an upshot in minor arrests of schoolchildren for behavior that is not at all criminal. The NRA released a 225-page report in April, which called for armed police officers, security guards or staff members in every school in the U.S. The report also recommended that states soften their stance on gun control to allow for trained teachers and school administrators to carry weapons.
The report and the NRA’s general position is of no surprise since the organization is first and foremost focused on increasing their profits, even if that means further militarizing schools and participating in the criminalization of innocent children in the name of “security”. What’s particularly revealing is that Obama, while supporting gun control laws, would at the same time agree that there should be an expanded police presence in the realm of education. According to Denise C. Gottfredson, a criminologist at the University of Maryland and expert on school violence, there is no evidence to indicate that an increase in police at schools improves safety. But this matter leads to broader concerns about the relationship between the state and society.
Gun violence stands within a larger crisis of violence in general. Continually expanding the state’s jurisdiction into schools and communities only intensifies this problem. In a country where police violence against innocent people (especially people of color) is routine, demanding that people give up their right to gun ownership will also lead to a further growth of the police state.
One telling interaction between former Black Panther leader Huey P. Newton and a policeman goes: “What are you doing with the guns?” says the policeman. “What are you doing with your gun?” Newton would reply. Elaine Brown explains this in further detail, “We did not promote guns but, rather, the right to defend ourselves against a state that was oppressing us – with guns.”
Gun violence will only disappear when our culture of violence is questioned and ultimately uprooted. In other words, the best way to prevent random acts of mass violence is to demilitarize the state and invested actors (multinational private corporations), including disarming police officers (and absolutely taking them out of schools), halting all military aggression on foreign soil and ultimately, placing the utmost value on all human life. Furthermore, this would also require ending the convoluted marriage between Hollywood and the military industrial complex, which celebrates jingoism and gratuitous brutality. Lastly, violence cannot be fully addressed without carefully examining how individuals are mentally, physically and emotionally affected by poverty and unemployment. Until the U.S. chooses to end its own military proliferation both here and abroad and tackles issues that truly affect the masses of people (joblessness, underemployment, poverty, segregation, etc.), it’s unrealistic to expect the violence to subside in any meaningful way and it’s too much to ask of people to give up their right to self-defense.
Navid Farnia received his Master of Arts degree from the Institute for Research in African American Studies at Columbia University in New York. He is an Iranian American who was born and raised in Oklahoma.
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