Is there the slightest possibility that two political scientists at the University of Illinois just happen to have discovered a possible link between racist attitudes and pro-gun sentiments at the same time that the most successful Republican presidential campaign rests on racial slurs directed at immigrants and a fervent love of the 2nd Amendment? There has been a vaguely disguised racist appeal to much of the pro-gun rhetoric that links the value of gun ownership to personal protection against crime, some of it not so vague, but now that the Trumpster has made racism a genuinely acceptable rhetorical form during his campaign stops, it figures that some folks on the ‘other side’ of the gun debate would step up the rhetoric as well. The result is a study which purports to prove that “racial prejudice colors all aspects of the debate regarding gun policy,” and that whites are susceptible to “the emotional and persuasive power of gun rights messaging which invokes the white, gun-carrying every-person who defends home and Democracy against (nonwhite) bad guys.”
The authors of this study define racist attitudes as the “politics of resentment,” which basically means a reaction by whites to what they perceived as the government conferring special privileges on blacks. In particular, these so-called racially-based privileges included integrating schools and public facilities, preferential treatment in hiring, expanded welfare, in other words, the panoply of government programs which accompanied the elimination of legal Jim Crow in the decades following World War II. In that respect, the notion of gun ‘rights’ as an expression of hostility to government programs followed from taxpayer ‘rights’ that opposed welfare, homeowner ‘rights’ that opposed equal housing, and victims ‘rights’ that came down against more liberal treatment of criminal offenders; i.e., criminals who just happened to be blacks.
At this point the narrative of the article begins to wobble a bit, primarily because the authors veer off into a discussion of how the NRA changed from supporting gun-control laws in the 60s to taking a much more aggressive anti-government tone after the 1977 Harlon Carter putsch. And the idea that the NRA was a believer in gun control until the Republicans began to develop a Southern base has remained part-and-parcel of virtually every discussion about guns, politics and race. And of course we all know, or at least we think we know that since liberals tend not to like guns, by definition the growth of an active, pro-gun movement led by the NRA and a shift towards the right by the GOP have gone hand-in-hand.
If you take a look at the votes that were cast in Congress for GCA68, the first significant gun-control legislation, the ‘nay’ votes in both the House and the Senate were cast overwhelmingly by the same members of Congress who voted against the civil rights bill in 1964 and the voting rights bill in 1965. That the NRA was not yet poised to take advantage of the South’s resistance to federal “encroachments” did not in any way alter the fact that the South as a region had always been a gun-rich zone. What drove pro-gun sentiment in the South was not racism per se, but the extent to which gun-control laws were seen as being forced on the South by the same liberal government that was using law to wipe away the vestiges of Jim Crow.
Gun ownership as an affirmation of racialist attitudes is certainly at play with the same extreme, political ideas that pop out of the mouths of Cliven Bundy and other militia fools and jerks. But I think it’s a little too simplistic and, in fact, somewhat quaint to assume that the emotions driving the gun debate from the pro-gun side largely stem from thoughts and angers about race. The real question we need to ask on this, the 48th anniversary of the shooting death of Dr. King, is what role does violence play in our everyday emotions and affairs? After all, no violence, no need for guns.