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When we talk about gun violence and the African-American community, we invariably think of Blacks as victims of gun homicides and assaults, categories in which Blacks are both perpetrators and victims to a degree far beyond their presence in the American population as a whole. And a week doesn’t go by without a meeting or demonstration in one inner-city neighborhood or the other calling for an end to this tragic state of affairs.
Now for the first time we have a statement about gun violence in which the author, a law professor at Fordham University in New York, rejects the notion that there are too many guns in the hands of Blacks, but rather that the guns are in the wrong hands. Not only does Nicholas Johnson issue a call for Blacks to protect themselves against criminal attacks by acquiring and carrying guns, but he writes a long and detailed narrative about how Blacks used guns to defend themselves even while they were denied gun ownership because they were still slaves.
Johnson begins this interesting and largely-unappreciated history with examples of defensive use of guns by Blacks even prior to the Civil War, including a mass resistance in Vicksburg in 1835, as well as multiple instances of Blacks protecting themselves with arms when they attempted to flee from the South. The use of arms for self-protection by Blacks became even more pronounced in the decades following the end of Reconstruction, when Blacks were faced with continuous racial violence committed by the Ku Klux Klan and others intent on rolling back the gains made by African-Americans after the Civil War. The chapters that follow on Blacks and armed protection during the 1950’s and 60’s provide a needed balance to the non-violent approach of Dr. King and others, the prism through which the civil rights movement Is usually viewed.
The intent of the author, however, is not just to widen our understanding of Blacks and guns historically. It is to use this history to mount an argument against what he calls the “modern orthodoxy” to eliminate gun violence by eliminating guns. And since the preponderance of criminal gun violence involves the African-American community, Johnson is convinced that more gun control would leave the Black community even more defenseless and less able to protect its members against crime. Of late the author has received strong support for this argument from the pro-gun lobby and in particular, the NRA. Even though the NRA’s membership is overwhelmingly White (and Southern White to be sure,) the message about guns being “hip” and “cool” is delivered by an African-American, Colion Noir, who jumbles video-game slang together with homilies about the ”right” to self-defense. It’s a blatant and so far unsuccessful attempt to capture the hearts, minds and wallets of non-gun demographics like millennials and Blacks, and Johnson’s argument about the futility of gun control is yet another attempt to justify more gun ownership, albeit from an academic point of view.
Johnson argues that since the only way to end gun violence is to get rid of guns, any plan to eliminate guns from private hands would just drive more guns into the hands of criminals for whom it would now be easier to prey on unarmed, law-abiding folks. Better to give citizens the right and the opportunity to defend themselves, just as Blacks used guns to defend themselves since before they were even able to legally own guns. Except it’s Johnson’s own research, admirably written, which shows that Blacks didn’t use arms to defend themselves from criminals, they used guns principally to assert or protect their political rights. Klansmen who burned crosses on Black properties or burned down Black churches weren’t stealing property; they were trying to keep Blacks in a subservient or unequal political class. That’s hardly the same thing as shooting the robber or rapist who comes through the back door and Johnson should be willing to let the admirable history of the armed struggle for Black rights to stand on its own terms.
I started to read Michael Waldman’s book, The Second Amendment, A Biography, with a certain amount of trepidation, because if nothing else, here’s someone who hits the ground running when it comes to anything having to do with public policy. And whether its voting rights, or election financing reform, or same-sex marriage or just about any other domestic policy that liberals want to own, Waldman has been in the thick of the argument ever since he took over the Brennan Center in 2005.
Why trepidation? Because although Waldman may have actually shot a rifle at least one time, let’s just say that he’s not much of a gun guy and his friends and policy associates don’t spend Friday afternoons popping some tops down at Franzey’s Bar & Grill.
Now don’t get me wrong. You don’t have to be a gun guy to say something smart about guns. But Waldman’s resume reads like the exact opposite of someone who would give gun owners a break, and let’s not forget that he runs a public policy institute named after a Supreme Court justice who probably would have been just as happy if the 2nd Amendment didn’t exist. So I figured the book to be just another one of those “it’s time to defang the NRA” deals, with the usual elixir of anti-gun proposals like more background checks, another assault weapons ban and, for good measure, let’s get rid of all the damn things anyway.
I was wrong. Leaving aside the early chapters on the how’s and why’s the 2nd Amendment even got into the Constitution, the book’s real strength is Waldman’s ability to tie the narrative of recent gun jurisprudence to the general rightward drift of American politics and American law. I have been waiting for someone to explain how judges like Scalia defend the notion of 2nd Amendment ‘originalism’ in order to promote a conservative, current-day agenda and Waldman nails this one to the wall. Going back to the 1980’s, he charts the confluence of conservative energies represented by politicized evangelicals, right-wing think tanks and specific-interest groups like the NRA, all combining to support a judicial agenda that seeks to roil back or dilute progressive programs and reforms.
It’s not so much that gun control is at the top of the progressive agenda; it ebbs and flows as high-profile shootings come and go. But a majority of gun owners, particularly people for whom guns are a serious part of their life-styles, tend to be politically conservative anyway, so using fears of gun restrictions to enlist them in the anti-liberal crusade works every time.
A close reading of sources from the debates over the Bill of Rights makes clear that individual gun ownership represented the ability of citizens to protect and defend their political rights; rights to free speech, free assembly, due process and the like. But the argument for gun ownership advanced by the NRA today, Olliver North’s appeals to patriotism notwithstanding, is based on the alleged social value of guns to protect us against crime. The NRA would never argue that the Glock in my pocket should be used to stop cops from coming through the door, but they insist that the same Glock is my first line of defense when a bad guy breaks down that same door.
Waldman clearly understands that by using the 2nd Amendment to justify gun ownership as a defense against crime, the pro-gun community has successfully restated the history of the 2nd Amendment to buttress a contemporary social justification for owning guns. Neither will be readily undone as long as gun control advocates believe they can respond to this strategy by stating and restating the “facts.” Remember “it’s the economy, stupid?” Now “it’s the guns.”
For more than twenty years, the argument about guns has been going and forth. But when all the intellectual saber-rattling dies down, we are left with one simple issue which needs to be explained: Do guns make us more or less safe? According to public health researchers like Hemenway, Cook and Kellerman the answer is a resounding ‘no.’ On the other side, academics (Kleck) and non-academics (Lott) respond with a fervent ‘yes.’ And what the research of both groups allegedly proves becomes the public stance of the anti-gun and pro-gun advocacy groups like Brady and the NRA.
I’m beginning to wonder if this is what the argument is really all about. Or to put it more precisely, can we ever resolve the argument over guns as long as we cast it in those terms? Because the one thing I have noticed in the more than 20,000 comments that I have received at Huffington Post and my own blog is not so much that people disagree with me, which is what I would expect, but the degree to which each side seems to be speaking a languages that the other side cannot understand. When pro-gun activists talk about their “God-given right” to own a gun, anti-gunners shake their rhetorical heads in disbelief. When people who want more gun control say that guns do more harm than good, they are accused of wanting to make America defenseless in the face of a criminal tide.
There’s no way that two sides this far apart will ever find a common ground to discuss the issue of gun violence, let alone figure out a way to make things change. And whether we want to admit it or not, 31,000 gun deaths and 50,000 gun injuries each year cannot simply be wished away. But it seems to me that there might be a way to find a common language and a common set of definitions that will work for both sides if we stop emphasizing the difference because I own a gun and you don’t, and instead look at things that are the same for both groups, gun owners and non-gun owners alike.
Because the truth is that whether we believe that guns will or won’t protect us from things we fear, we all have the same fears, whether we express those fears through gun ownership or not. Women, for example, are less inclined (by a wide margin) than men to own guns, but they are just as afraid, if not more afraid, of crime. Kids in poor neighborhoods are much more likely than suburban kids to carry guns, but every youngster is afraid of the neighborhood bully who comes sauntering down the street. So the real question is not whether the gun is an answer to our fears, the question we all have to answer is what to do about fear itself.
And the problem is that no amount of research or data or any other set of objective facts is going to compensate for our fears, because fears can’t be overcome by appealing to some well-researched facts. You can tell me from today to next year that I’ll be safer making that trip by plane than in my car, but the moment we have wheels up I get a little nervous feeling that has never appeared when I flip over the ignition of my Ford.
If we could only begin to understand that while gun ownership may divide us, the fears that make some (like me) own a gun are common to us all. At which point perhaps both sides in the gun debate might begin speaking a language that the other side would understand. And then it would become a true debate rather than yelling past each other the way we do today.
Most of the design and engineering advances that created modern small arms came through the development of military weapons, both rifles like the Springfield 03 or handguns like John Browning’s Colt 1911. And whether it was the M-1 Garand that General Patton called the “greatest battle implement ever devised,” or the Winchester repeating carbine that the U.S. Cavalry carried against the Indians, it’s safe to say that guns played an important role in just about every war that America fought.
It should therefore come as no surprise that guns are once again playing an essential, if not a pivotal role in what is perhaps America’s longest-lasting war. I’m not talking about Iraq or Afghanistan, although both of those conflicts have dragged on far too long. I’m talking instead about America’s “culture” war for which guns and gun ownership have come to define both the ebb and flow of the conflict as well as the basic attitudes of both sides.
Guns were first tied to the culture war when Charlton Heston became NRA President in 1998. Heston and other members of his Hollywood generation began turning conservative when Ronald Reagan, won the Presidency in 1980. But while Reagan boosted conservative fortunes he was always ambivalent about the culture war; kept evangelicals at arm’s length, was never seen inside a church, and rarely, if ever, invoked the virtues and values of gun ownership or membership in the NRA. In fact, along with Jimmy Carter and Gerald Ford, Reagan sent a letter to the House of Representatives in 1994 advocating an assault-rifle ban that was enacted later in the year.
Until the 2008 election of Obama, the culture war embraced issues like abortion and gay rights, both of which took precedence over guns. And even though Bill Clinton blamed the 1994 Republican Congressional sweep and the 2000 defeat of Al Gore on the power of the NRA, the outcome of both elections couldn’t be tied specifically to anything having to do with guns.
The ascendency of guns in the cultural war didn’t reflect so much the growing power of the gun-owning lobby as it was the result of conservative shifts away from other issues for which they simply could not muster enough votes to win. On abortion, for example, the nation appears evenly split but Rowe v. Wade is now forty years old and as women continue to move forward in the workplace and the professions, a woman’s right to choose seems fairly secure. As for the gay issue, 19 states have now legalized same-sex marriage and last year the SCOTUS invalidated the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act which opens the door for many more states to lift their own gay marriage bans.
So as the older, hot-button cultural issues gradually wither away (remember something called English as the official language?), gun ownership and gun “rights” move to center stage. And guns are a perfect means to build support for conservative cultural warriors because their ownership, after all, is enshrined in the most holy of all cultural holies, the Bill of Rights. Even the leader of the liberals, whether he means it or not, is forced to sing hosannas to the 2nd Amendment as his shock-troops prepare to do battle against the other side.
The problem with cultural conflicts is they cannot be resolved with reference to facts. Because as Mary Douglas and Aaron Wildavsky pointed out long before the culture war rose to the level of conflict that we see today, people make decisions about things like gun ownership not because they understand or even care about whether a gun can or cannot protect them from harm, but whether ownership of a gun either supports or conflicts with their world view. If both sides in the gun debate don’t find a way to resolve their arguments by reconciling larger cultural issues, it will drag on the way the Chaco War dragged on between Paraguay and Bolivia over a border that neither country could even find.
We may soon see a resumption of the gun debate that followed Sandy Hook because rumors continue to float around that another attempt will be made to widen background checks or enact some other form of additional gun controls. To that end the Violence Policy Center just published a study about what they believe to be a causal link between gun ownership, lax firearms laws and gun homicides.
I have seen studies that tie our relatively high gun-homicide rate to per capita gun ownership on the one hand and little or no gun regulation at the state level on the other. But this is the first study which combines both sets of data and uses them to explain very high versus very low gun homicide rates throughout the USA. And what the VPC report shows is that states with low per capita gun ownership and strong laws have low rates of gun homicides, whereas states with high per capita gun ownership and lax laws have gun homicide rates that are 6 times higher than the states with strong gun-control laws.
Based on the evidence, Josh Sugarmann, who runs the VPC, says that “Gun violence is preventable, and states can pass effective laws that will dramatically reduce gun death and injury.” Which may be a logical deduction from the evidence gathered and published by the VPC, but it flies in the face of reality when we talk about gun-control regulations in localities or states.
The truth is that states with “lax” gun laws simply reflect the fact that most of the residents in those locations own guns and don’t particularly want to see more controls. The most recent surveys put national gun ownership at less than 40% of all households, but the figures in the VPC report for gun ownership in Western and Southern states are, if anything, too low to be true.
Back in 1981, a local roustabout and bully named Ken McElroy was shot to death by “persons unknown” as he sat in his truck on the main street of Skidmore, MO. One of the reasons that local police, state police and the FBI could never pin the murder on anyone (he was actually shot by at least two people in full view of most of the townspeople) was because the calibers of the bullets recovered from McElroy’s body could have come from countless rifles owned by residents of the town. The daylight murder, vigilante-style in Skidmore was unusual; the existence of so many weapons in a rural, Midwestern community was and still is the norm.
Whenever the talk turns to gun homicides, we point the finger at large, inner-city ghettos like Chicago, New Orleans or Washington, D.C. And while it’s true that more than 60% of the victims and perpetrators of gun homicides are minority youths ages 16-34, it’s a mistake to believe that the elevated level of gun homicides in the United States is just a function of big-city, ghetto life. Last year the same Violence Policy Center found that the most dangerous city in America was, of all places, Omaha, Nebraska which, in 2010 had an African-American gun homicide rate of 34 per 100,000 although the statewide rate put Nebraska down near the bottom of the national list. In Springfield, MA, a city with only 150 residents, the 2013 gun homicide rate was 12, while overall the Massachusetts rate was less than 4.
It’s all very well and good to say that gun violence will go down if we pass more laws, as if getting people to stop using guns to shoot themselves or others is such a simple fix. There’s really no way that one shoe fits all when it comes to strengthening laws against the misuse of guns, I don’t care whether the shoe is crafted at the state level or at Washington, DC.
I was a college student in New York City during the halcyon days of the anti-War movement, when there must have been a demonstration against the Viet Nam war every week in Central Park. And while on occasion the demonstrations turned a little nasty, meaning a few “f— you’s” exchanged between the kids and the cops, I don’t recall that anything much happening as we tramped around the Sheep Meadow or listened to Dave Dellinger make a speech at the 68th Street Mall.
It therefore came as a big surprise when, many years later, I was given a tour of the warehouse that was part of the Central Park Police Precinct of the NYPD. Because sitting in the warehouse was a phantasmagoria of dusty and rusted military equipment – flak jackets, gas-masks, helmets – that could have outfitted the entire 102nd Airborne, never mind a bunch of cops who spent most of their time running over to Lexington Avenue to get doughnuts and coffee for “the guys.” My tour guide, who was a former Commander of the Precinct, told me with a chuckle that the equipment had been stockpiled during the 1960’s just in case any of the anti-War protests got “out of hand.”
That was then, this is now. A report in The New York Times, based on documents from the Department of Defense, indicates that police departments around the country, are once again building up caches of equipment that was purchased by our military for use in places like Afghanistan and Iraq, but is now considered “excess” and if not purchased or given away to domestic customers would likely be thrown out or destroyed. You would think that police departments, all of whom always operate on shoestring budgets, would jump at the opportunity to grab free equipment that they really need, even though there will still be costs for maintenance and repairs. But some of the items that are ending up in the motor pools and storage rooms of the cops can’t possibly have anything to do with carrying out traditional ‘serve and protect’ functions of the local police.
Among other items, the DoD has given out more than 430 MRAPs to police departments in more than 40 states. What’s an MRAP? It’s an armored vehicle designed to be resistant to land mines and other anti-personnel weapons or IEDs that played such havoc with our troops when we first invaded Iraq. Now I can understand that police in southern border states like New Mexico might feel more secure patrolling territory frequented by Mexican drug gangs, but could someone please explain to me why the cops need to ride around in an armored-plated vehicle in a town like Neenah, Wisconsin, whose 25,000 inhabitants located on Lake Winnebago haven’t seen a homicide in five years? And don’t tell me that the Neenah Police Department considers itself on the front lines of defense against terrorism because that statement was actually made in public by the sheriff of Oxford County, Maine, who justified the acquisition of a MRAP because of the possibility of “unimaginable terrorist threats.”
Let me tell you a little bit about Oxford County, Maine. It’s a hilly and largely forest-covered area which contains about 8 families per square mile. Any terrorist who wants to sneak into the United States by crossing the border from Canada into Oxford County will find that they will face a much bigger problem from the moose and the bears than from the sheriff’s deputies riding around in their MRAP.
Peter Kraska, who has been studying police and, in particular the development of SWAT teams for more than twenty years, notes that while these para-military units first started out by adopting and popularizing military jargon, are now increasingly adopting military equipment, weapons and tactics and have seen their largest growth in small and medium-size departments, many of which are actually dealing with less crime and violence than before their SWAT team was even deployed.
All of this, it seems to me, comes back to the degree to which some Americans seem prone to accept the notion that more armed force on our streets and in our homes can make us safer from terrorism and crime. And if the cops feel more comfortable tooling around in a MRAP whether they need one or not, who’s to say that some enterprising entrepreneur won’t soon deliver one customized for civilians as well? I can already see the discount coupon for such a vehicle tied to the next email from the NRA.