Racism is Driving Modern American Gun Culture

February 23, 2018 Featured, In The News Comments (0) 139

The most memorable conversation I ever had about gun ownership was with a friend, a gun owner and NRA member. Though our political views diverged, we liked and respected one another, and often talked about his enthusiasm for guns. He enjoyed shooting, and brought his kids to the range sometimes so they could learn to use the several models of pistol, shotgun, and military-style rifle he collected. At home, he kept his guns safely locked up, spending money on locks and modern gun safes. He even had a biometric safe that allowed him to keep a pistol right beside his bed, but prevent the kids from getting it.

I asked why he felt the need to keep a pistol beside his bed. “Because,” he said, “someday, some thug is going to come for me and my family, and I need to be ready.”

A variation on the male power fantasy that motivates many gun owners, yes, but the part that struck me was the choice of word, “thug.” I’d seen him use this word before, on Facebook and in conversation. It always meant the same thing: A black man.

I’ve had versions of this conversation with many gun owners over the years, and found it to be a consistent truth: That “responsible gun owner” might keep his weapons safely locked away, taking them out on weekends to shoot clay pigeons or targets the way other hobbyists shoot golf balls, but if you drill down far enough you’ll find his gun ownership is motivated by a deep fear and distrust of other races.

Maxim Gun circa 1985, photo from Wikimedia

Far from being limited to a few conversations with friends, the racism that informs gun culture is deeply embedded in American history, and in the history of firearms themselves. As early as the 1500s, Spanish conquistadors used a primitive musket, called a harquebus, to intimidate and murder indigenous Americans. In the colonies that would become the United States, European settlers were required by law to own firearms for the specific purpose of fighting off the Indians who had been deposed from their land. Samuel Colt invented his revolver, the weapon that “won the west,” specifically to quell slave rebellions. The Maxim gun, one of the earliest machine guns, was so vital to the European colonization of Africa that it was commemorated in a famous poem: “Whatever happens / We have got / The Maxim Gun / And they have not.”

The common refrain among pro-gun activists that guns “protect liberty” is patently absurd. One common myth holds that the U.S. Constitution’s Second Amendment was intended to arm Americans against a tyrannical government. Quite to the contrary; the “Well-regulated militia” referenced in the amendment were, very specifically, those able-bodied men required by law to arm themselves and fight for their state governments —most frequently, against Indians.

Another common myth holds that the Nazis disarmed the German populace, leading to the Holocaust. While it’s true the Nazis used Weimar-era lists of gun owners to disarm specific political enemies, the Nazi regime in fact loosened restrictions on firearm ownership — for Germans who were not Jewish.

Such racial disparity in gun ownership is familiar today. The NRA regularly decries the “persecution” of gun owners, and shouts about tyranny at the merest suggestion of gun safety regulation — and yet when Philando Castile was shot to death despite warning police that he was a licensed owner with a permit to carry a weapon, the NRA was strangely silent. When a police officer killed Tamir Rice, a child with a toy gun, in less than two seconds — in an open-carry state — the NRA said nothing. When Keith Lamont Scott was shot and killed for holding a handgun in North Carolina, another open-carry state, the NRA said nothing. Why is that? Might it be that these three people were black?

Bobby Seale and Huey P. Newton, via Wikimedia

The NRA’s racist history is somewhat cloudy. Liberals are fond of pointing out that the NRA was founded mere months after federal law declared the KKK an illegal terrorist organization, however there is little evidence one led directly to the other. NRA defenders, meanwhile, repeat an equally mythological origin story in which Union founders sought to defend freed slaves from the KKK — there is no evidence for this, either. What we do know is that the NRA, historically, supported gun control laws when those laws targeted black Americans, including the 1967 Mulford Act and 1968 Federal Gun Control Act, intended to disarm the Black Panthers and similar activist organizations. And we know that the modern NRA, regardless of its history, produces propaganda videos laden with racist dogwhistles, and that its leader, Wayne Lapierre, delivered a speech at CPAC just this week in which he labeled immigrants, the Chinese, Black Lives Matter, and George Soros as enemies.

The NRA is not a white supremacist organization. They are a lobby group funded by gun manufacturers, and their only goal is to sell more guns. It just happens that the primary consumers of guns today are steeped in white supremacy, racism, and fear of the other. Statistics show that half of all guns in the United States are owned by just three percent of our population. The motives for gun ownership have diminished over 250 years, as our nation has urbanized, the frontier has vanished, and most of us obtain our food from the supermarket instead of the forest.

Sure, there are still rural populations who encounter bears and choose to hunt for food, and weekend hobby shooters — but the greatest driving motive behind American gun sales today, and that to which the NRA and conservative lawmakers pander, is racism.

In 1978, the author William Luther Pierce (writing as Andrew Macdonald) published his apocalyptic novel The Turner Diaries. The novel begins just after the passage of the Cohen Act (please note the name), a federal law that prohibits firearm ownership. The Jewish-controlled government sends “Negroes” [his word] with machetes to confiscate all guns from white households. As the story proceeds, the protagonist Earl Turner and his heavily-armed white militia fight to overthrow the American government; in an epilogue, we learn that all non-white people on the planet Earth were killed, and that “the dream of a white world finally became a certainty.”

It’s unknown how many people have read The Turner Diaries. Today it is widely available for free on the Internet, but we know since publication it’s sold more than 500,000 physical copies. The Anti-Defamation League calls it “One of the most widely read and cited books on the far-right.” The Southern Poverty Law Center calls it a “bible of the racist right.” Last year, the Atlantic reported that the book had inspired “dozens of armed robberies, and at least 200 murders.” It’s cited by any number of far-right organizations, and was famously found in the car of Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh, who reportedly had a habit of carrying multiple copies of the book on his person, and selling them to people at a loss — mostly at gun shows, where McVeigh also met the people who helped him carry out his bombing.

Belief in the coming race war is widespread in white supremacist circles. At this point, even people who have never heard of The Turner Diaries know the future scenario it depicts. It is the specific scenario envisioned by white supremacists when they talk about the government “coming for your guns.” It’s the scenario referenced when conservatives like Charlie Kirk speculate about the government becoming “too powerful against us.

And yes, it’s what my gun-enthusiast friend was likely imagining when he described that “thug” one day coming for him and his family. As in so much of what’s wrong with American culture, you don’t usually have to dig very far to find that racism is the true motive behind our gun culture.

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This gun graph will blow your mind!

December 9, 2015 In The News, Politics / Religion Comments (0) 606

A friend shared this meme on Facebook. I have a few minutes free on my lunch break, so let’s go through it, shall we?

  • Tobacco is regulated and taxed by states and and the federal government. It is illegal in every state to provide tobacco products to anyone under 18 (or older in some states). In the 1990s, cigarette companies were successfully sued by smokers for the grievous harm their products cause, and after losing several suits those manufacturers agreed to a class action settlement that today funds massive advertising campaigns meant to deter Americans from consuming tobacco products.
  • Medical Errors: In no state is it legal to practice medicine without a license from the state government, which require extensive education to obtain. Doctors must renew accreditation on a regular basis, and carry heavy liability insurance because they can be sued by patients and their families as a result of malpractice.
  • OSHA is a government agency whose job is to inspect workplaces and ensure they comply with government regulations meant to increase safety. Many states have additional regulations and enforcement bodies. Private residences carry liability insurance because anyone injured in an accident can sue the property owner, especially if apparent negligence contributed to the injury.
  • Alcohol is even more strictly regulated than tobacco, and in many states and localities it is illegal to be publicly intoxicated. It is illegal to depict people consuming alcohol on publicly-owned airwaves (most major networks) and the sale of alcohol is strictly regulated in every state. Alcohol is taxed by state and federal governments, and a portion of those taxes go to deterrent programs aimed at reducing alcohol consumption; in almost all cases bars and alcohol retailers must prominently display signage warning of the health risks of alcohol, and a person who provides alcohol to a minor, or forces another to consume alcohol against their will, can be charged with criminal misconduct and sued in civil court.
  • Motor Vehicles must be registered with the state, and that registration renewed regularly. Drivers must be licensed to operate motor vehicles in every state, a process that requires demonstrated familiarity with state rules and regulations around safe operation. Drivers must carry liability insurance, and a driver who operates a motor vehicle dangerously may be subject to criminal prosecution. Drivers may only operate motor vehicles in public in compliance with state regulations, and the type of vehicle a driver may operate is determined by his or her license.
  • Poisons like household cleaners and paints must, by law, carry warnings about their health risks. Many states regulate the way such products must be packaged (for instance, they must include a child-proof cap) and sold by retailers. Corporations that stock poisonous products must keep a careful inventory and observe government regulations around safe handling and storage. Many chemicals that have historically been used as cleaning products are illegal for sale under state and federal laws.
  • lllegal drugs are, well, illegal, and more than two million Americans are currently incarcerated or on parole or probation because of consumption, possession, or sale of illegal drugs. Federal and state governments have whole agencies dedicated to enforcing drug laws, and the US as a whole spends approximately 30 billion dollars each year enforcing drug laws. Legal drugs (like pharmaceuticals and some over-the-counter medications) are regulated for sale, and may only be dispensed by professional pharmacists who are accredited and licensed by state governments. Doctors who enable patients to abuse prescription drugs can be prosecuted as criminals and sued in civil court.
  • Falls: Government regulations like building codes require measures in an effort to prevent falls, such as railings, non-slip floors, and warning signs. Federal and state agencies, like OSHA, enforce regulations meant to reduce the incidence of falls in the workplace. Under state laws, property owners must take reasonable measures to prevent falls or they may be sued in federal court or (in extreme cases) prosecuted for criminal negligence.
  • Non-firearm homicides in fact represent, according to actual FBI statistics, less than a third of all homicides. Baseball bats, along with hammers, clubs, and other blunt objects, account for less than 4%, while firearms account for 67.8%, or slightly more than a third. This baseball bat fact is either a gross error, or an open attempt at distortion. Nevertheless, some common and dangerous non-firearm items whose sale is regulated under federal and state governments include: Fireworks, spray paint, gravity knives, explosives, fertilizers, industrial cleaning products, bladed collectors items (like swords and “throwing stars”), and matches and cigarette lighters.
  • Which brings us to firearms, the one “Notable Killer,” according to this chart, about which the US government does almost nothing. In fact, in recent years state and federal governments have rolled back many regulations around the sale, possession, and use of firearms. Americans are free to provide firearms to children and encourage their use. They may purchase an unlimited quantity of firearms, in some cases without so much as a background check, and are not required under any federal or state law to store their firearms in any specific way–child safety locks, for example, are not legally required. A person who is irresponsible with their firearms cannot be sued for negligence, and gun owners are not in any state required to carry liability insurance in case of accidental (or deliberate) harm to another. There are no publicly-funded ad campaigns warning Americans of the dangers of owning and operating firearms, nor are firearms required to bear labeling warning consumers of their inherent danger.

If the aim of this chart is to point out that guns, alone among America’s top causes of death, lack significant government regulation aimed at ensuring public safety, then I think it’s making a strong case. But I somehow doubt that’s the intention here.

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