Racism, gun control and the National Rifle Association
The American National Rifle Association (NRA) is not the most politically correct of organisations.
It once published a brochure called ‘Freedom In Peril.’ In it a chapter was dedicated to the dangers of ‘Illegal Alien Gangs'; a chapter that claimed that ‘while immigrant members of gangs are predominantly from Latin America, hyper-violent Caribbean, Southeast Asia and Eastern European street gangs have also emerged.’ The rise of white gangs in the US was not a focus.
This was not all. The brochure depicted gun-owning families as white and all the assumptions that were contained therein. Gangs in the wrong hands were, it seemed, the preserve of those who are not white.
There was more. A white policeman was shown gagged – the explicit suggestion being that the police themselves were powerless and ineffective. And that, this being so, it was the gun and the gun alone that was the only way to defend a white man’s home and country against dark (literally and figuratively), outside forces.
Such is the image of modern day America that the NRA would have you believe exists. An America where the only way to stop a bad (coloured) man with a gun is a good (white) man with a gun.
The NRA reveals itself in small and subtle ways.
There was the time when NRA board member Ted Nugent described Trayvon Martin, the man infamously shot by George Zimmerman, as a ’17-year-old dope smoking, racist gangsta wannabe.’ As if Martin had what was coming to him. As if, even, that it was inevitable he was going to cause trouble further down the line, so Zimmerman was justified in doing what he did (Nugent has a history of making these kind of ugly statements).
Then there was the article written by the executive vice president of the NRA, Wayne LaPierre. He titled it: ‘Stand and Fight‘. It was a controversial argument indeed, one that that appeared to condone vigilantism. LaPierre was later to be accused of allowing his words to be ‘racially tinged’. Words that seemed to encourage the formation of resistance movements to defend themselves from outside threats, as well as a government who they believe cannot protect them. The subtext being, it was suggested, that the resistance movements were white men preserving a white America from outside forces.
Such accusations do not go down well with the NRA. They respond to any criticism that it might be an exclusive white-man’s club with the argument that gun control is, in itself, racist. NRA president David Keene, for instance, has gone on record claiming that the gun control movement was itself historically born out of a racist desire to oppress and endanger African-Americans.
Keene was right in terms of getting his facts right. Gun control legislation was, historically, racist. But, as constitutional law scholar Adam Winkler states, the NRA was itself ‘intimately involved in this history, promoting gun control laws that were tainted with racism.’
And Winkler, most importantly, highlights the fact that there is no evidence that Obama’s most gun law proposals have ever been motivated by racism. Such ugly sentiments are largely the preserve of the past.
History of gun control
In order to understand the Gordian knot of rhetoric and policy of American gun control, it is, perhaps, best to understand the recent (at least in European terms) history of gun control.
In the words of academic France Winddance Twine, “The legal (authorized) possession of a gun has historically been a racialized and gendered privilege – a right of citizenship reserved for White men.”
There are lots of examples throughout US history where legislation has prohibited African-Americans from possessing guns. There was, for instance, the 1648 Virginia Law called An Act Preventing Negroes from Bearing Arms. Then there was the Uniform Militia Act of 1792, which required free able-bodied white males to enrol in a militia, bearing their own arms and equipment, but the Act banned all slaves, those slaves who had been freed and Indians.
Similar legislative, racist measures also specifically disarmed African-Americans; the deep fear was that African-Americans, if armed, would join together and revolt. In Florida, for instance, section 8 of the 1825 Act to Govern Patrols permitted white citizen patrols to “enter into all negro houses and suspected places, and search for arms, weapons, and ammunition.”
The NRA and historic racist gun control
The NRA was founded in 1871 by Colonel William C. Church and General George Wingate. Surprising to many, its early days saw it actually drafting gun control legislation. The NRA’s president, Karl Frederick, during the 1920s and 30s helped draft model legislation, called the Uniform Firearms Act, that sought to restrict concealed carry of firearms in public.
Frederick recommended that people with a license should only be allowed to carry a concealed weapon, and that those licenses should be restricted to “suitable” people, with “proper reason for carrying” a gun in public. As to who was suitable, this was left to the law enforcements, but inevitably ethnic minorities were considered unsuitable. And as such critics have claimed that this law was in part motivated by racism.
A concrete example of how the act could be used to repress the Afro-American in the United States comes in the form of the civil rights campaigner Martin Luther King Jnr. He applied for a permit to carry a firearm after his house was firebombed, but his request was turned down.
[On a side note, Colion Noir, a news commentator for the NRA, put out a video claiming that, through the example of Martin Luther King applying for a gun, he even recognised the importance of self-defense in the home. Media Matters however, was quick to point out that King realised that keeping a gun went against his philosophy of non-violence: “I went down to the sheriff’s office and applied for a license to carry a gun in the car; but this was refused. Meanwhile I reconsidered. How could I serve as one of the leaders of a nonviolent movement and at the same time use weapons of violence for my personal protection? Coretta and I talked the matter over for several days and finally agreed that arms were no solution. We decided then to get rid of the one weapon we owned.”]
The white authorities at the time feared the armed black man. The 1960s saw the emergence of Malcolm X and the Black Panthers, as well as gun control measures motivated by race. In 1967, the Mulford Act was passed in reaction to the Black Panthers, who, armed with firearms, carried out patrols to oversee how the police treated African-Americans in Oakland. The legislation, signed by California Governor Ronald Reagan, restricted people from having loaded guns in public. The next year, when the race riots kicked off, Congress passed the Gun Control Act of 1968, which restricted the availability of Saturday Night Specials (a term for a cheap handgun), guns that were often associated with urban youth. Robert Sherrill, investigative journalist and critic of the legislation, stated how the Gun Control Act was “passed not to control guns but to control blacks.”
The restriction of Saturday Night Specials was supported by the NRA, led by Franklin Orth. Orth said at the time: “the National Rifle Association concurs in principle with the desirability of removing from the market crudely made and unsafe handguns… [because] they have no sporting purpose, they are frequently poorly made… On the Saturday Night Special, we are for [banning] 100 percent. We would like to get rid of these guns.”
[As a side note, the Gun Control Act of 1968 was also motivated by the assassination of President Kennedy and included a section to banning mail order guns. Lee Harvey Oswald had bought his rifle through a mail order advert in the NRA’s American Rifle magazine. Testifying, Franklin Orth stated: “we do not think that any sane American, who calls himself an American, can object to placing into this bill the instrument which killed the president of the United States.”]
Then came a certain backlash.
The government is coming to get our guns
During the 70s, gun politics shifted, with its focus now on white, right-leaning Americans. There was growing concern from NRA members that the Gun Control Act of 1968 and other measures had gone too far. Some even shared a deep distrust of government agencies with the Black Power movement, such as the Black Panthers, especially towards the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF).
Such mistrust was born from events such as in 1971, when the ATF conducted a raid on the house of NRA member Ken Ballew in Maryland. The raid was carried out in the belief that Ballew was stockpiling unregistered grenades. The agents did indeed find a cache of weapons, and Ballew was shot in the head after pointing his revolver at agents.
Paranoia, of sorts, ensued. When it was announced that the NRA was to sell its building in Washington DC and relocate to Colorado Springs, a tipping point was reached: with the NRA’s apparent retreat from political lobbying, who was going to fight for gun rights in the Whitehouse?
Harlon Carter, who ran the NRA’s lobbying arm the Institute for Legislative Action, led NRA members to stage a coup in 1977. He succeed and the organisation was reborn. Carter also applied pressure on the editorial board of the American Rifleman, stating that he “would really raise bloody hell with anyone who suggested that there could be anything good about any type of gun control.”
This distrust of the government agencies was ramped up in the early 90s by Wayne LaPierre and his reaction to the Waco Siege. In February 1993, the ATF raided a compound of the Branch Davidian cult to investigate allegations of members stockpiling illegal firearms, including assault weapons, and explosives. This led to a 51-day siege, and a fire erupted within the compound killing the cult’s leader and his 76 followers.
In the aftermath, the NRA appeared to side with those who died.
LaPierre wrote: “[T]he people have a right…to take whatever measures necessary, including force, to abolish oppressive government.” And when, in 1995, in the aftermath of Congress passing a ten-year ban on assault weapons, LaPierre went on to publish a fundraising letter to NRA members: “The semiauto ban gives jack-booted government thugs more power to take away our constitutional rights, break in our doors, seize our guns, destroy our property, and even injure or kill us.” NRA Life Member George W. Bush resigned over the letter.
The Heller case
From the racist gun control laws, to the white backlash of the 70s, the history of gun politics has been tumultuous, revolving around words penned hundreds of years ago. In the landmark case of District of Columbia v Heller, the city’s ban on the private ownership of handguns was challenged as the plaintiff believed it was unconstitutional. Examining the Second Amendment, judges held that it guarantees the right of individuals to bear arms, rather than just protecting the collective right of states to maintain militias. The ban was lifted.
In the aftermath, those living in the safest and wealthiest neighbourhoods have been registering far more guns than their poorer counterparts in crime-ridden areas. As academic France Winddance Twine points out, “Why would wealthy White people living in safe neighbourhoods arm themselves while poor Blacks are less likely to do so? Could it be that having first-hand experience with violence generates a distrust of anyone armed and there is a lack of faith that well-meaning people who arm themselves will not harm you?”
Privilege and entitlement
It all comes back to enshrining the white privilege and entitlement of gun ownership. Research carried out by the Pew Research Centre suggest that African-Americans, who are perhaps the most affected when it comes to gun violence, favour gun control more than white people (57 per cent of white people say that state and local governments should not be allowed to pass laws prohibiting handguns, while the majorities of African-Americans (64 per cent) and Hispanics (61 per cent) said that they should be allowed to pass these laws). Whereas, looking at the make-up of the NRA board members, you see that 87 per cent are male and 93 per cent are white.
Those figures and facts have deep consequences.
In November 2013, a study found that higher levels of racism in white Americans is associated with having a gun in the home and greater opposition to gun control policies. At gun shows, it doesn’t take long to find fascist memorabilia.
And so we can see, from the so-called outside threats from the NRA leaked brochure, to LaPierre’s comments, from Charlton Heston’s famous ‘My Cold Dead Hands’ speech to the mentality of killers such as Timothy McVeigh, a toxic mix of whiteness, gun rights and a deep distrust of the government pervades the gun debate in the US.
One that encourages individuals to take matters into their own hands, hands that far too often have ugly views about colour and about race .
Research by Jenna Corderoy
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