More guns, more risk for people of color
Post-election fears, again, are driving gun purchases — this time less by those worried about losing their gun rights than losing their lives.
Since Donald Trump’s win last month, hate crimes nationwide have surged, and so has the number of people of color buying guns for protection. According to an NBC News report, some gun store owners have seen a four-fold increase in minorities inquiring about and purchasing firearms in recent weeks. Earl Curtis, an African-American and owner of Blue Ridge Arsenal in Virginia, told a reporter that many people of color believe “that racists now feel like they can attack . . . just because [Trump] is doing it.”
Philip Smith, founder of the National African American Gun Association, told the Philadelphia Tribune, “There’s a lot of fear out there on both sides that is divided racially. It’s the unfortunate reality right now.”
Here’s what’s also unfortunate: More people of color with guns will likely result in more people of color dead or in prison. Minnesota’s open carry law did not save Philando Castile. He informed the officer who stopped his car that he was carrying a licensed gun, but was still shot to death in front of his girlfriend and her young daughter in July. In 2014, Ohio’s open-carry law did not spare the life of 12-year-old Tamir Rice , shot dead by a cop while playing with a toy gun. This past week, officials declined to charge a police officer in the shooting death of Keith Scott who may have had a gun in his possession but was not holding it when he was killed in Charlotte earlier this year. North Carolina is also an open-carry state.
And when Marissa Alexander stood her ground in Florida against her abusive husband by firing a warning shot into a wall, she was sentenced to 20 years for aggravated assault, even though the bullet struck no one. (The jury deliberated just 12 minutes.) After public outcry, Alexander accepted a plea bargain and was released in 2015, after three years in prison.
Still, such stories aren’t proving a deterrent. People of color, having witnessed the rancor that the nation’s next president has stirred to a boil, are arming themselves, afraid their government and law enforcement will do nothing to protect them. This recalls an even more virulent era, documented in Nicholas Johnson’s excellent 2014 book, “Negroes and the Gun: The Black Tradition of Arms,” which explores the history of African-Americans “committed to the principle of self-defense.” Unable to count on police officers to safeguard their families or property from racist gangs, some of whom had cops as members, black people were forced to fend for themselves.
In 1892, when at least one black person a week was being lynched in America, anti-lynching crusader Ida B. Wells said, “A Winchester rifle should have a place of honor in every black home, and it should be used for that protection which the law refuses to give.”
According to a 2014 Pew Research Center survey, gun ownership by blacks is less than half that of whites, 19 percent vs. 41 percent. Yet attitudes are also changing: 54 percent of blacks saw gun ownership as more likely to protect people than put them at risk; two years earlier, it was just 29 percent.
When citizens of color feel the incoming government will do nothing about the hate crimes endangering their lives, they will feel compelled to defend themselves. But in a nation with as many guns as people, we must find other ways of challenging conflict, especially because African-Americans, Latinos, and Muslims with firearms will always be treated as suspects, not victims.
Like every other citizen, they should exercise their Second Amendment rights as they see fit. Still, even in a time of threat and peril, they must also carry the sobering knowledge that constitutional guarantees tend to fall short when the hand holding a gun is black or brown.