Earlier this week, John Lewis, the Georgia congressman and civil rights icon, prompted his fellow Democratic congressmen to stage a sit-in on the floor of the House of Representatives in an effort to bring about a vote on legislation for gun control reform. While it has yet to be seen if this bold move will spur a significant change, it serves as a reminder that despite the deafening clamor that repeats itself after every school shooting and terrorist attack, the cost of America’s affinity for guns shouldn’t be measured by these incidents. As House Democrats use methods of protest made popular during the struggle for Black equality, we should remember that at its core, no matter which side of the issue you represent, gun control has always been a civil rights issue.
Most discussions of gun rights issues eventually devolve into a simplistic, binary argument that pits imagined authoritarians who want to kick in doors and rob the populace of its right to bear arms against obsessed nuts hoarding anti-aircraft rifles and machine guns. The truth is far more nuanced, and most Americans fall somewhere close to the moderate middle. In October 2015 the Gallup poll reported that 55 percent of Americans favored some measure of gun control. Media outlets’ attention and camera lenses focus either on mothers distraught over the loss of their child to gun violence, or sportsmen, collectors and law-abiding citizens who want to hunt and feel safe. In seems as if it can never be both, neither or somewhere in between. Because of this, America’s hesitancy to address this issue has always been Black people’s burden to bear.
Black people have always needed and depended on some form of gun legislation.
After the civil war, many former Confederate States instituted “Black Codes” that banned freed slaves from owning firearms. One of the major reasons the fourteenth amendment (which guaranteed equal protection under the law) was ratified, was to affirm the right of self-protection from the roaming bands of marauders intent on keeping guns out of the hands of Black people. Perhaps the most infamous and well organized of these original organizations intent on disarming former slaves began in 1867 during Reconstruction and called themselves the Ku Klux Klan.
When Malcolm X wanted to illustrate his philosophy of protecting the lives of people of color “by any means necessary,” he called on EBONY to photograph him peering out the window clutching an M-1 carbine semiautomatic rifle. He often cited the second amendment as the only law that guaranteed protection for Black people. Martin Luther King had a permit to carry a concealed weapon. Harriet Tubman carried a shotgun. In 1967, police officers noticed they were being followed by a car filled with Black men carrying firearms. When they stopped the vehicle, one of the passengers—a young law school student—informed them that he didn’t have to give them anything but his name, identification and address. That is how Oakland police officers found out about Huey P. Newton and the Black Panthers.
While these facts may seem antithetical to proponents of gun control, they are not. These stories illustrate that the quest for freedom and equality of Africans in America has nothing to do with guns. Firearms do not offer protection from evil. Conversely, the laws that govern firearms offer us protection.
And the willingness to modify, amend, and correct them is paramount to Black people.
We often talk about the Voting Rights Act and the Civil Rights act, but often forget that after the race riots following the assassination of Martin Luther King, congress also passed the Gun Control Act of 1968 that set strict license requirements for gun dealers and prohibited felons and the “mentally incompetent” from owning guns. When Bill Clinton’s assault weapons ban expired in 2004 studies concluded that the weapons bans had no real effect on eliminating crime—except in the area of Black homicides. They still let it expire.
School shootings are terrible. Terrorism is scary. But both are also rare. The real danger of the proliferation of guns is a story of race and socioeconomics. Two in 100,000 white people die from gun homicide every year. The figure for Black men in 15 in 100,000. That means a Black man is seven times more likely to die from gun violence than his white counterpart. A Black man in inner city America is more likely to die from gun violence than any other developed country in the world.
The weekend after the Orlando episode that sparked the latest round of debate, 12 people were killed and more than 50 people were shot in Chicago, but barely a peep was made by national news outlets or politicians. If bullet holes are bullet holes then why no moment of silence for the 10 people shot in Philadelphia the same weekend? Are the eleven who were wounded at a child’s birthday party in Detroit as equal an “American tragedy?” Where is the outrage over these lives? What is an unthinkable occurrence for most of America, has become commonplace in Black communities, yet the topic of gun control only raises its head when non-Black blood spills.
When the children of Sandy Hook were slaughtered, America asked for gun control, but the murder rate in Chicago is a problem of “policing” and “lack of resources.”
The Virginia Tech and Oregon campus shootings spotlighted the need for “common sense gun reform,” but the 5 shootings on or near HBCUs in October 2015 were due to “urban crime.”
Orlando’s Pulse nightclub shooting may finally spark meaningful gun legislation, but what happened at Emmanuel A.M.E. in Charleston, SC was apparently attributed to a flag.
Perhaps this issue is so divisive is because neither side really cares. The reason Congress won’t renew the provisions of the Voting rights act (never forget), do anything about police abuse or reform the criminal justice system is because it is very unlikely that the average voter will be denied their right to vote, beaten by a cop or wind up in jail for a meaningless crime. While these may seem like hot-button issues that everyone is talking about, they affect a very small subset of the population. Similarly, except for a rare, unforeseen occasion, most of the white voting populace will never be affected by guns or gun violence. This is why the disruptive tactics of the civil rights era are appropriate. They need an inconvenience they can’t ignore.
Statistically, it will be months—or even years—before another horror happens on a mass scale. America will revert back to worrying about global warming, Zika, or the iPhone 7 until another incident wakes her from her slumber and renews the drumbeat for change that accompanies these infrequent atrocities.
Or as Black people call it: