by Charles M. Blow
On Tuesday (Jan., 5th), in an emotionally charged speech, President Obama announced a series of relatively modest executive orders to aid in preventing guns from getting into the wrong hands.
The proposal would expand background checks through a clarification of existing regulations, increase funding for mental health care, and promote the development of smart guns.
The speech itself accomplished more than the executive actions are likely to accomplish. Viewed in political terms, the president injected this issue more firmly into the national debate as only a president can. Because a sitting president, even an exiting one, is always in the next presidential race: Other candidates are either running, at least in part, against his legacy or to extend it.
But there is one point that I was aching to hear articulated that wasn’t covered in the president’s speech, and is rarely mentioned in discussions about gun regulations: How our response to gun regulations is not now, nor has ever been, wholly ideological but is also ethnocentric and class-based.
I firmly believe that part of the current intransigence is because those gun homicides disproportionately affect poor minorities. (Gun suicides disproportionately affect white people.) Indeed, the only time that national figures seem to get fully engaged is in the wake of mass shootings that involve white people, either as shooters or victims.
Indeed, you have to explore the history of gun regulations to fully appreciate its racial dimensions.
In 2011, Adam Winkler spoke about his book “Gun Fight,” and the origins of gun control, saying, according to The Wall Street Journal:
“It was a constant pressure among white racists to keep guns out of the hands of African-Americans, because they would rise up and revolt.”
“The KKK began as a gun-control organization. Before the Civil War, blacks were never allowed to own guns. During the Civil War, blacks kept guns for the first time — either they served in the Union army and they were allowed to keep their guns, or they buy guns on the open market where for the first time there’s hundreds of thousands of guns flooding the marketplace after the war ends. So they arm up because they know who they’re dealing with in the South. White racists do things like pass laws to disarm them, but that’s not really going to work. So they form these racist posses all over the South to go out at night in large groups to terrorize blacks and take those guns away. If blacks were disarmed, they couldn’t fight back.”
It was about white terror.
After Prohibition and the Depression gave rise to gangsters and outlaws who posed a threat to white America’s sense of safety, the Firearms Act of 1934 was passed. As the gun law expert Robert Spitzer, of the State University of New York at Cortland, told NPR in 2013, the law required machine gun owners to pay a hefty tax, be fingerprinted and be listed on a national registry; as a result, sales of machine guns plummeted.
Again, white terror, but this time from other white people.
America was again stirred to action on gun control when, in 1967, armed members of the Black Panthers entered a largely white place of power — the California State Legislature. As The Times’s film critic A. O. Scott noted in his review of Stanley Nelson’s fascinating documentary “The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution”:
“When a group of Panthers demonstrated at the Statehouse in Sacramento carrying loaded rifles and shotguns, the organization drew national news attention and (at least temporarily) rallied many political conservatives, including Gov. Ronald Reagan, to the cause of gun control.”
Reagan said of the Panthers’ action at the time:
“I don’t think that loaded guns is the way to solve a problem that should be solved between people of good will. And anyone who would approve of this kind of demonstration must be out of their mind.”
(This episode stands in stark contrast to the armed white men now occupying the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon.)
In response to the Panthers, the California legislature passed and Reagan signed the Mulford Act, which banned the open carry of firearms in the state. The N.R.A. supported the measure. The bill’s author, Don Mulford, said at the time, “We’ve got to protect society from nuts with guns.”
Edward Wyckoff Williams even claimed in The Root in 2013 that “the NRA actually helped craft similar legislation in states across the country.”
The year after the Mulford Act, the federal Gun Control Act of 1968 was passed.
Once again, white terror.
In recent decades, as the N.R.A.’s political power has grown, it has also taken on more of an absolutist position against any new regulations and politicians largely have bowed to the group’s stance.
Two notable exceptions were the 1993 Brady Bill requiring background checks for gun purchase and the assault weapons ban of 1994 — which has since expired — both of which were signed by Bill Clinton.
But in addition to the N.R.A.’s influence, the face of homicides is becoming increasingly black and poor — two groups we have traditionally marginalized and ignored.
As Richard V. Reeves and Sarah Holmes of the Brookings Institution pointed out last month, 77 percent of white gun deaths are suicides while 82 percent of black gun deaths are homicides.
But even then, it’s not the whole of the black population at risk of these homicides.
As William J. Wilson, also of Brookings, wrote last month:
“Segregation by income amplifies segregation by race, leaving low-income blacks clustered in neighborhoods that feature disadvantages along several dimensions, including exposure to violent crime. As a result, the divide within the black community has widened sharply. In 1978, poor blacks aged twelve and over were only marginally more likely than affluent blacks to be violent crime victims — around forty-five and thirty-eight per 1000 individuals respectively. However, by 2008, poor blacks were far more likely to be violent crime victims — about seventy-five per 1000 — while affluent blacks were far less likely to be victims of violent crime — about twenty-three per 1000, according to Hochschild and Weaver.”
There is now precious little political will to further inhibit the largely white gun-buying population — according to the Pew Research Center, whites are twice as likely as blacks or Hispanics to have a gun in the home — in order to help reduce the scourge of homicides among poor black people, particularly when the shooters are often black themselves. These killings are simply attributed to racial culture rather than to the complicated interplay between poverty, crime and gun culture.
And, since the federal government wouldn’t do enough to deal with this problem, local municipalities have employed other methods to get guns — many of them illegal — out of the hands of criminals. But those efforts, such as New York City’s morally indefensible racial dragnet program called stop-and-frisk, did as much damage as good in the black communities.
Lawmakers refused to act, and local politicians and police departments overreacted. Poor black people were caught in the middle.
That, alas, is less about a response to white terror, than a nonresponse to black pain.
(This column originally appeared in the New York Times JAN. 7, 2016 under the title “Gun Control and White Terror”)
Charles M. Blow is a New York Times Columnist and nationally-known commentator: “I invite you to visit my blog By The Numbers, join me on Facebook and follow me on Twitter, or e-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org.”