Opinion

Michael A. Cohen

Why won’t the NRA speak out about Philando Castile?

ST PAUL, MN - JUNE 16: Protestors pack the steps of the Minnesota State Capitol building on June 16, 2017 in St Paul, Minnesota. Protests erupted in Minnesota after Officer Jeronimo Yanez was acquitted on all counts in the shooting death of Philando Castile. (Photo by Stephen Maturen/Getty Images)

Stephen Maturen/Getty Images

Protestors packed the steps of the Minnesota State Capitol building on June 16 in St. Paul, Minn., following the aquittal of Officer Jeronimo Yanez on all counts in the shooting death of Philando Castile.

In the days since the Minnesota police officer who shot and killed Philando Castile was acquitted of manslaughter, the outcry on both social media and in the streets of the Twin Cities has been loud and angry.

But it is the silence about the Castile case that might be the most deafening.

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That liberals and advocacy groups like Black Lives Matter are furious about the verdict is not surprising. Philando Castile is yet another black man shot down by a police officer after years of law enforcement harassment. Before his tragic and needless death, Castile had previously been pulled over by the police an astounding 49 times.

It’s hard to think of a more telling story about the racially-biased interactions between black Americans and law enforcement than a black man being pulled over 49 times by police and, on the 50th time, being shot down for doing nothing wrong . . . and then the officer who killed him being found not guilty of murder.

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But why aren’t conservatives up in arms? Why aren’t gun owners full of indignation over a licensed gun owner being shot and killed by a police officer, with no accountability and no punishment?

Philando Castile was, from all accounts, a model citizen. He worked in a school cafeteria where he’d memorized the names and food allergies of 500 students. That should be enough reason for conservatives to be upset, but Castile was also a licensed and permitted gun owner. To avoid risk of being shot, he told the officer who pulled him over that he had a firearm on him, had a permit to carry it, and was reaching for his license, not his weapon. That hardly mattered, because within moments he’d been mortally wounded.

Quite simply, Philando Castile is dead today because he was exercising his constitutionally protected right to bear arms.

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Yet, the National Rifle Association, an organization that is nominally devoted to protecting the constitutional right of Americans to arm themselves to the teeth has said nothing about the acquittal in the Castile case. Last July, when the shooting occurred, the NRA put out a statement that tepidly read “the reports from Minnesota are troubling and must be thoroughly investigated.” An organization that used the shooting of 20 kindergartners in Newtown, Conn., to call for armed guards to be stationed in the nation’s schools said it couldn’t comment on an ongoing investigation.

Some would argue that the NRA is loath to alienate police officers, who are a critically important constituency of the organization. But after the massacre of five Dallas police officers last summer, the NRA was hardly reticent in defending the “right of law-abiding Americans to carry firearms for defense of themselves and others.”

The real reason for the NRA’s silence on Castile probably has far more to do with the color of the victim’s skin.

As Shannon Watts, of the pro-gun-control group Moms Demand Action, pointed out in a tweetstorm this weekend, such reticence from the NRA when black Americans are killed is nothing new. When Tamir Rice, a 12-year-old boy carrying a toy gun, was shot by police in Cleveland, and when John Crawford III was shot in an Ohio Walmart while carrying a toy gun, the NRA didn’t issue a statement defending the state’s open-carry laws, which theoretically should have protected both men.

When Trayvon Martin was killed in Florida, the NRA defended stand-your-ground laws, but failed to note, as the organization often does, that had Martin been armed he could have protected himself. When South Carolina police shot a 26-year old black man who was defending his home from intruders, the NRA said nothing.

The NRA promotes gun ownership with the dubious claim that a gun will protect Americans, their families, and their homes from criminals. But considering the organization’s silence when it comes to the deaths of black gun owners one might easily conclude that they don’t mean criminals of all races — they mean black criminals.

The simple fact is that the NRA’s core support and opposition to gun control laws, in general – comes from white, rural Americans. Those Americans, many of whom also voted for Donald Trump, tend to have a fearful, conspiratorial, and racially tinged view of the world.

A recent study as to why Americans own guns found, not surprisingly, that “the threat of assault, and a diffuse threat of a dangerous world” were the two biggest factors. Let’s be honest, for many of those dedicated NRA gun owners, the threat of crime and of assault has a black face. For years, the NRA has cultivated and deepened that particular prejudice. Indeed, the original impetus for new gun laws in the ’60s was the push by radical black groups for African-Americans to arm themselves in self-defense. Perversely, a similar push today might be the only effective path to stronger gun control laws in America.

Philando Castile might have been a legal gun owner, but as is so often the case in America, race trumps all. While it’s very difficult to disconnect his death from race, it’s even harder to find any other explanation for the disconcerting silence of the nation’s most vocal advocates for gun ownership.

Michael A. Cohen’s column appears regularly in the Globe. Follow him on Twitter @speechboy71.
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