Race and Guns: It isn’t complicated
Being white can make you invisible to the police.
Two police cars pulled onto the Bronx sidewalk, parking bumper to bumper, forming two legs of a triangle that blocked anyone from exiting the corner liquor store. Four officers entered, grabbed three black men waiting in line, and pushed them against the wall. I leaned against the counter watching, two bottles of cheap vodka shoved into my bulky jacket. The police looked through me, never approaching.
They patted the men down, emptying pockets. The three men had been giddy from a Friday night out, now they stood straight and stoic, responding with simple yes and no answers, their eyes looking out the windows, beyond the police.
The police tipped over a garbage can where one of the men had tossed a package. They found a brown bag containing an empty orange soda and a cluster of losing lotto tickets. The police left, the garbage they spilled still on the floor. The young men stood silently until the cars were gone. The oldest looked at me and yelled, “FUCK THEM.”
I have spent five years in the South Bronx documenting addiction. Over that time I have watched as friends I was talking to, or strangers across the street, were aggressively questioned and roughly searched by the police. Many were given tickets for little more than “disorderly conduct.” A few, who took issue and verbally responded, were thrown against a wall, cuffed, and arrested. I myself, despite seeming equally suspicious in behavior, have never been bothered.
In the largely segregated South Bronx being stopped by the police is commonplace. It happens to black and Hispanic men about five times a year. It never happens in the wealthier whiter neighborhoods of New York. It is part of a larger aggressive police policy, including saturating the neighborhoods with waves of new recruits just out of the academy, named Operation Impact. It is a set of policies that are closer to occupation than policing, and are used across the country in most low-income minority neighborhoods.
When asked to explain the aggressive tactics, including random stop and frisks, police will often respond, “What are we looking for? Illegal guns. South Bronx is where the guns are, and we need to get them off the streets.”
That the search for guns would fall heaviest on blacks and Hispanics, abusing their civil rights, comes as no surprise. As the book Gunfight, by Adam Winkler documents, for the last fifty years gun laws have always been about the majority protecting its self interest against minorities.
In the late sixties, conservative politicians supported gun control, trying to stem a civil rights movement that armed itself, both out of self-defense (Martin Luther King owned guns.) and out of anger. In 1967 Ronald Reagan, then the Republican governor of California, backed gun control legislation after the Black Panthers legally marched into the statehouse with loaded guns. The following day he voiced his support for some of the most restrictive gun laws in the nation, including removing open carry laws, stating guns a “ridiculous way to solve problems that have to be solved among people of good will.”
The movement towards stricter gun laws was national. Following political assassinations (Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Sen. Robert F. Kennedy) and city riots, federal gun control legislation passed in 1968 (the Omnibus Crime Control and Safe Streets Act, and the Gun Control Act), with partial support of the NRA.
A little over a decade later both the NRA and the Republican party’s support for gun control had changed dramatically, with both shifting towards today’s easy and expansive ownership of guns, including eventually open carry laws. As a child growing up the South, I saw firsthand how the attitude of many whites and politicians towards guns changed as civil rights swept across the nation in the seventies.
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I shot my first rifle at the age of eleven. I had gone to a neighbors house after school; Jimmy (name changed) had offered me a chance to shoot his new gun. I already owned a pellet gun, but a real rifle was too exciting to pass up.
We spent the afternoon shooting bottles. When Jimmy’s father came home he showed us his full collection of guns, eventually taking out his favorite from a case, telling us, “This one isn’t for bottles, or deer, it’s for niggers.”
It was 1976 in a small central Florida town. The middle school we attended had only a few years before been the “Negro High School” until integration. It was located on the black side of town, across the tracks on the edge of a swamp, surrounded by shotgun shacks and cow pastures. The school served the whole region with kids from six different elementary schools brought together. The region was still strongly segregated and for many it was their first taste of integration.
Racial relations in the school were awful, with daily fights — most resulting from blacks trying to stand up for themselves, to push back against the steady stream of nasty racists taunts, insults, and punches that came their way. Escalation was expected. If a black kid got into it with a white kid a larger group of whites would target him. It was a back and forth that dominated the school, rendering the lunchroom a demilitarized zone. The blacks sat on the south side and whites on the north, with a gap of empty tables between us.
I walked an uneasy balance between the two worlds. I was a white kid with black friends. The principal was a leader in the black community and a close friend of my parents; together they had founded the local NAACP. I grew up attending the monthly meetings, some in my house, playing with the other kids, many who now felt required to sit on the opposite side of the cafeteria from me.
The principal tried to make an example of me, often asking me to sit on the black side of the cafeteria and bring some white friends. I just wanted to play with whomever without getting beat up too often. Like many others, I retreated into sports, but even that wasn’t immune. Physical Ed became contests between racially divided teams, often that turned physical, as teachers passively looked on.
Near the end of the year Jimmy was my assigned partner in wood shop, where we were tasked with building a final project. I made a lacquered picture case. Jimmy built a three-foot long wooden club with a handgrip and leathered strap. He burned the letters NN into the side. It was his “Nigger ‘Nocker.” He wasn’t the only one. About half of the white kids in shop did the same thing. The shop teacher didn’t blink. When I next saw his father’s truck the club was proudly displayed next to his father’s gun, which had moved from the house to the back window rack.
Civil rights had brought a new reality to my town, one loathed by many of the whites. Blacks were now allowed to go anywhere, even the same school as white children. The ugly and often violent opposition to that by many whites in town kept getting overruled by courts and federal laws. The parents responded by embracing their guns, and the kids followed suit. Nigger ‘Nockers became common for the children of racists parents, their clubs jammed into book-bags. Both became a protection against “them folks who think they can do anything.”
In their eyes the government had gone too far giving blacks equal rights. Now they wanted something back, the right to arm themselves, a right they were afraid they would eventually also lose. It wasn’t just in my town, it was happening across the country, as people started buying guns “for protection”. The language of gun ownership, and of the NRA shifted, from one of protecting hunters to protecting the right to defend oneself. Gun ownership and gun rights became an integral part of the identity of the conservative movement, wrapped in the language of government over-reach.
By 1980, thirteen years following the Black Panthers’ march into the California Statehouse, the Republican party and the NRA had shifted their stance, backing the same gun rights policies it once opposed, and for the first time backing a candidate for President who had also changed on guns: Ronald Reagan.
The shift in gun control is entangled with race, which run through the statistics and polls: Gun ownership is almost double amongst whites as it is blacks, and a clear white majority support gun rights, and a clear black majority supports gun control.
There is another far uglier statistic on guns and race: Black homicide rates from guns are twice that of whites. It has left many minority neighborhoods in chaos. Driven by demands for solutions, and unable to get gun control legislation passed, the mayors of cities have responded by empowering aggressive and often violent police activity, treating minority neighborhoods as war zones to be occupied, stripping minorities of many basic civil rights.
The irony is not lost on the African American community. The demand by whites for guns after integration has resulted in police profiling and mistreating blacks in largely segregated neighborhoods.
Really little has changed. The police that came into the Bronx liquor store that Friday night all had clubs attached to their belts, that looked eerily like the clubs that the white kids in my middle school shop class had made thirty-five years ago.