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I will never forget the day in eighth grade when my friend pointed a pistol at my face and pulled the trigger.
I’m old enough now that many of my childhood memories have faded into blurry black and white pictures, but thirty years later, that scene is a vivid color film in my memory. I can see the smirk in my friend’s brown eyes as he points the pistol at my forehead, the slightly blue shimmer of the metal in the afternoon light, the way that the flat side of the barrel reached a nipple of an opening, suddenly curving inward, and the explosion of sound as he pulled the trigger.
Time stretches in moments like these, and as time expanded before me, I thought about my teacher, Mr. Levi, and what he told me of space. He had taken a piece of paper from a three ring binder and, twisting it, folded it upon itself so the holes lined up. Then he drew an arrow going into the hole on one side, and another coming out of the hole on other side. Then he unfolded the paper, showing me an arrow going into a hole in the top of the page, and coming out a hole in the bottom, on the other side.
“This is a black hole,” he said in his heavy German Jewish accent, sounding every bit like Albert Einstein. “Once you cross the event horizon, you cannot get out. The gravity is so strong not even light can escape. You are sucked into the black hole and you come out somewhere else in space entirely. And you can never come back.”
As I stared into the barrel of that pistol, the light of the room seemed to disappear into its curvature just like a black hole. I remember thinking that it looked like a place from which nothing could escape.
My friend, we’ll call him Ralph, was a “latchkey kid” like myself. We were young children left to our own devices between the time we got home from school and the time our parents came home from work. Latchkey kids grow up fast, learning to do things like prepare for dinner, or even cook it, at a young age. We also learned to explore the world of our parents with a freedom other kids never know. The assurance of solitude provides many chances to experiment, and even to hide mistakes.
I remember the meticulous care Ralph took in opening the top drawer of his father’s dresser, and how he intently noted the placement of everything before pulling out the key. I remember the way he brought the chair from his room to reach the shelf in the closet, smoothing clothes he’d disturbed and rubbing down the marks on the carpet afterwards. Looking back, it’s obvious he’d practiced carefully for weeks, learning exactly how to remove and open his father’s gun safe so he could show me the contents, the most magical talisman a James Bond fan could ever see.
When Ralph pointed his father’s Walther PPK at my face and pulled the trigger, when I heard the loud ‘CRACK’ bounce off the walls in the room as the firing pin found an empty chamber, I thought it was the coolest thing I’d ever seen in my life.
As I watch my own children grow, that memory haunts me. My children can take great care with the smallest details of toy trains. At the same time, they can remain oblivious to the consequences of major actions like pushing their siblings while standing on a cliff. It wasn’t until I had children that I realized how close that dichotomy between care and carelessness had brought me to the event horizon of death.
Despite the care with which Ralph removed the safe and covered the evidence of his passing, I have no memory of him checking the chamber. I’m not even sure he knew how. With a minuscule change in the location of one small piece of metal, any light that I may have brought into this world could have been sucked into the black hole of that gun barrel, never to escape.
The Event Horizon of Gun Laws
I am not a fan of guns. Whether it is the memory of the Walther PPK, my preference for a good bow, or some fundamental aspect of my character, I see no reason we need have access to guns at all. My inclination is to support restrictive gun laws, and possibly even remove guns entirely.
But the more I consider the subject of guns, the more I find that the entire topic is, itself, a black hole. The closer I get, the more distorted it becomes, until I finally cross the event horizon past which all attempts at understanding and reconciliation are sucked in, never to escape.
With a minuscule change in the location of one small piece of metal, any light that I may have brought into this world could have been sucked into the black hole of that gun barrel, never to escape.
For instance, I dislike guns and would support legislation which wholly removed access to firearms. Yet I come from a family of hunters, and I strongly value hunting. Would I be willing to destroy the ability to do something I value because of my belief that guns should be restricted?
Arguably, such a complete removal of guns would not be needed. In the UK — where firearms are all but prohibited and even the police do not routinely carry guns — single shot sport weapons are allowed for hunting. There seems to me no good reason to allow private use of automatic weapons or pistols. But hunting weapons — even with extremely restrictive gun laws — could still be allowed, right?
And there’s the problem. Even while firmly believing access to firearms could be wholly removed, I immediately find an exception. Within moments of starting to consider gun laws, I have crossed the event horizon into the black hole where all definitive stances disappear.
Everyone who looks at gun laws eventually gets drawn in their gravity. Nowhere is that gravity stronger or more dangerous than at the intersection of guns and race.
A House Full of Guns
I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to suggest that lax gun laws and easy access to firearms are a fundamental reason for the success of the civil rights movement. Charles E. Cobb Jr. notes this eloquently in his excellent treatise on the subject titled This Nonviolent Stuff’ll Get You Killed.
“The tradition of armed self-defense in Afro-American history,” writes Cobb, “cannot be disconnected from the successes of what today is called the nonviolent civil rights movement.”
This is something many people — and not just people in the broader White demographic — either forget or never learn: Guns protected the Black people who were marching for freedom. If not for the threat of gunfire, many more peaceful protests — and possibly the movement itself — would have been silenced by violence.
“Simply put,” Cobb continues, “because nonviolence worked so well as a tactic for effecting change and was demonstrably improving their lives, some Black people chose to use weapons to defend the nonviolent Freedom Movement.”
Today, our view of the civil rights movement is far removed from the realities of the time. I never experienced the violence and bloodshed of white supremacy during that era, and I can’t even really imagine it. Even modern media representations of the civil rights movement make it seem as though success was all but inevitable, hardly a deadly and dangerous a situation at all. As Julian Bond quipped: “Rosa sat down, Martin stood up, and the White kids came down and saved the day.”
Civil rights icons such as Martin Luther King, Jr. and W.E.B. DuBois come across in our polished history as gentle pacifists, but Cobb notes that even Martin Luther King, Jr. had “a house full of guns” and that W.E.B. DuBois once wrote “if that white mob had come onto my campus, I would without hesitation have spread their guts over the grass.”
If that white mob had come onto my campus, I would without hesitation have spread their guts over the grass.
— W.E.B. DuBois
Black people’s access to guns was fundamental to the success of the Black Freedom Movement. This is in no small part because the main fighter against Black freedom was the government itself. American history is written with the blood of black families killed by white people who found themselves protected by our government’s belief in the supremacy of its white citizens.
Unable to rely on the government for security, Black people turned to the best protection they had: Constitutionally protected access to firearms. In their practice of “Copwatching,” the Black Panthers — portrayed by white media as a dangerous anti-American threat — were using our open gun policies specifically to protect innocent Black people from victimization by the authorities. This was so threatening to the white establishment it resulted in the Mulford Act, a law repealing the public’s right to carry a loaded weapon in public. Some of the first laws restricting gun rights in America were specifically designed to restrict access to firearms to Black people.
As I get closer to the topic of gun laws, my previous understanding of the benefit of our government becomes distorted by its gravity. I see the government simultaneously protecting gun rights while stripping them away. I see the government refusing to allow the Centers of Disease Control to even study the issue of gun violence and I ask myself, “What is the government trying to hide?”
Suddenly, crackpot gun rights activists spouting theories about government overreach start to look a lot less crackpot. Philadelphia in 1985 and Waco in 1993 start looking a lot more similar than I want to admit.
So I have to ask myself the question yet again: Do I really want more restrictive gun laws? In a society where the government has a history of being the largest threat to some people’s freedom for no other reason than they appear different, do I want that government removing those people’s much-needed right to protect themselves?
You’ll Shoot Your Eye Out
Of course, we are now blessedly removed from the brutality of the civil rights movement. Still, the actions of some members of our government suggests that it places a greater value on some lives than others. Few people listen to the choruses of “You’ll shoot your eye out” during A Christmas Story and assume young Ralphy will be shot by a police officer at the end of the movie. Yet this has happened in Black communities for decades. Small Tamir Rice, model student, alumni of Space Camp, was by no means the first to fall.
And here we come to yet another event horizon: Our lax gun laws that allowed the civil rights movement to succeed are now applied unevenly.
Twelve year old Tamir was shot less than two seconds after a policeman arrived on the playground where he and his sister were playing. He was told to “drop the weapon,” and in less time than it takes to think “But I don’t have a weapon,” his life was sucked into the black hole of a gun barrel, never to escape.
Following a settlement by the city of Cleveland, the Police Officer’s Union issued a statement that essentially supported the shooting by saying that “Something positive must come from this tragic loss. That would be educating youth of the dangers of possessing a real or replica firearm.”
The irony of this letter is astounding when we consider that in Ohio, a state where it is legal to openly carry a firearm, Tamir was shot for carrying a toy. His life was taken by a member of a police force that then justified the shooting by essentially saying that the law itself is dangerous.
We love our guns, and we spend every Christmas romanticizing the story of a young boy who wants to play with a rifle. Tamir was different from Ralph in only in one respect: He was Playing While Black, and everything a Black person does is suspect. It is not hard to read into the Officer’s Union statement the fact that we should be “educating youth of the dangers of possessing a real or replica firearm if you are Black.”
Unevenly applied laws are a well-known part of the Black experience. We see this writ large in The War On Drugs. For decades, drug addition in Black communities has been a crime problem, with increasingly draconian responses to combat the scourge. The term “epidemic” was only used after the issue began to affect White people. Our first Black attorney general put it more mildly than he could have: “Richard Pryor said, you know, famously — about cocaine — that it’s an epidemic now ’cause white people are doin’ it.’ There’s an element of truth to that.”
Both American history and current events show us that our application of the law applies differently to Black people than it does to white people. If an innocent child could be shot down for playing with a toy in a state where carrying a firearm enjoys legal protection, what would be the outcome on the Black community if guns were not legal? How easily could restrictive gun laws be used as justification for an increasingly draconian police response in the same way that The War On Drugs was used?
Again, the black hole looms. While I argue that more restrictive gun laws are necessary, I have to question whether the near absence of them is in a strange way almost as protective of Black people’s safety as it is detrimental, simply because the absence of a law is at least somewhat less likely to be applied unfairly.
If Black Lives Mattered
America has always had an uneasy time with the idea of Black agency. That is especially true when it comes to owning weapons. Even the National Rifle Association, arguably the strongest and most aggressively vocal lobby in the United States, is eerily silent when Black people are killed for legally possessing firearms — or toys. Yet, as uneasy as America is with Black gun ownership, it is apparently just as uneasy with Black health care.
As many have already noted, it is easier to access a firearm than mental health services. This is especially true in Black communities where mental health is most often treated as a criminal justice issue, the outcome too often being imprisonment or murder. Numerous studies have shown that Black people are less likely to have access to health care — especially mental health care — and when they do access it are less likely to receive the same level of care as their white counterparts.
Coincident with this, Black people are more likely to be imprisoned (and to be imprisoned longer) for the same offense as a white person. Black people are simultaneously less likely to be given a job than a white counterpart, and more likely to be fired from that job. Even before adulthood, Black children are subject to unfair disciplinary practices in school and suspended for infractions that are considered minor when committed by white children––and this happens as early as preschool.
Through this all, Black people are being systematically disenfranchised from changing the system due to voting restrictions and direct jabs at the Voting Rights Act.
This is the situation that created the The War On Drugs, and the situation in which guns wreak unspeakable damage. There are discrepancies in the availability of living wage jobs, education, and even preschool equality. Meanwhile, access to guns is easier than access to mental health care. It’s easy to understand that many believe we are making it easier for our Black youth to turn to the gun than to any opportunity our land has to offer.
Herein lies another event horizon: “Black on Black crime,” a phrase which illustrates exactly how Black America is seen as “other.”
Our media never discusses “white on white” crime, and never suggests that lower class white people won’t be able to rise out of poverty until they stop infighting with themselves. Blacks (and Latinos, Muslims, etc.) are the other — outside the norm of our culture and society. Because of this, “Black on Black crime” is actually considered an intelligible phrase.
“Black on Black” crime is the inability to respect that Black people are individuals an par with white people. Many in the Black community believe that this is fundamentally how the police see them — not as people, not as individuals, but simply as “a Black.” It’s hard to argue that’s not the case when so many Black people are harassed, arrested, or killed for meeting someone over coffee, or going on a wine tour, or playing with a toy in a playground, or driving to a new job.
Because of the consistent view as “other,” many Black people feel they need to protect themselves specifically from the government itself, a government that has a great many guns. This is only exacerbated by the behavior of our current Commander-in-Tweet. Violent crime rates have been dropping steadily for at least two decades, so that is likely not the reason NBC News reported a four-fold increase in minority gun purchases since November 2016.
Thanks to Black Lives Matter and similar groups, there is currently a national discussion on police violence and the improvement of police strategies, but the relationship between communities and their police force will never improve while the police see and treat the community as an other.
We arrive again at the black hole. I want to believe a public disarmament could result in a de-escalation of the police force. If we had fewer guns on the streets, could police afford to appear less like an occupying army working in a war zone? Could our police forces become a part of our communities and learn to de-escalate violence instead of appearing to encourage it? With tougher gun laws, could health care and even just basic humanitarian concern become our primary mode of response rather than a tactical encounter?
Sadly, both history and current trends in American government suggest otherwise. Still, many advanced, developed nations have unarmed police forces. Given the consistent reduction in violent crime rates nationwide, would it be so ridiculous to suggest American police forces consider disarmament along with the broader populace? Is it bizarre to suggest we at least try to walk a path of de-escalation?
The Value of a Life
When I was in Ralph’s house looking into the barrel of a Walther PPK, I had no idea that I really was staring into a black hole from which I would never escape. Thirty years hence, I’m still looking down that barrel. Now I have children of my own, and those children will have friends, and in this small, rural, mountain town, I can expect that many of those friends’ parents will own firearms.
I don’t want my children to live in a world of firearms, yet the more I think about firearm laws, the more I worry about the possible results. As I look at the issue of guns solely through the lens of Black America, it becomes a distorted picture. No argument has a clearly defined benefit over any other. Widening the scope of view to the entire country only distorts the image further. The more perspectives you consider, the harder it is to find a definitive answer.
I think I’m still on the side of removing guns. But if we remove guns, we have to remove them from everyone — the police included. I do think more restrictive gun laws would be a net benefit, though I have no doubt more restrictive gun laws would be unfairly applied to minority communities and result in more profiling, incarceration, and even death. Still, I can imagine a much kinder world for our children, a world without guns and the belief that an acceptable solution to a problem is to kill another person. I dream of a day when our society could learn to honor de-escalation more than “stand your ground,” but I also dream of a day when access to mental health care is not only available, but encouraged.
It is true that if we disarm America, we would still have criminals with guns, but I can’t buy into the argument that a few bad people with guns can be defeated by having more good people with guns. During my childhood, we believed that a Soviet Union with nuclear weapons could be defeated by a US with even more weapons. The result was something we called Mutually Assured Destruction — MAD — a black hole from which logic and reason could never escape. More guns as a solution to a problem of too many guns seems just as mad to me.
It was not more weapons that ended the cold war, but partnership, trade, openness, and even friendship. That is the only way I see out of this black hole of gun violence: Openness, deescalation, respect, equality.
The way out is the belief that access to mental health is more valuable than access to a weapon. The way out is the belief that equal access to education and job opportunities will improve the country for everyone. The way out is the belief that the way to police a community is to live as a part of it, and to deescalate its violence rather than arm yourself more heavily against it.
The way out is in the belief that a rich, healthy, or just a white life has no more value than a Black life, a Native American life, a Latino life, a Muslim life, a trans-gendered life, a homeless life, a drug-addicted life, or a broken life. Whether or not gun laws change, as long as we apply value unequally to the lives of our people, all hope we have will cross the event horizon into a black hole, never to escape.