Bernie Sanders' latest racial blind spot: Hillary's right on gun control -- urban vs. rural really means black vs. white

Sanders' remarks on "rural" gun owners did have unsavory racial implications. It's good for Clinton to call it out

By Amanda Marcotte

Senior Writer

Published November 4, 2015 8:31PM (EST)

Perhaps it is time for Bernie Sanders supporters to accept that he's weak on gun control move on. The defensiveness isn't helping anyone.

The latest example comes courtesy of William Saletan of Slate, who is lobbing an accusation at Hillary Clinton -- that she's playing the "race card" on gun control -- that would more normally come out of Republican mouths trying to silence the opposition on this issue.

Saletan previously wrote a piece denouncing Hillary Clinton for teasing Sanders over a moment in the Democratic debate when Sanders told her not to shout. The anger of that piece felt like an overreaction; Hillary and her supporters delivered more of a mild nose-tweaking than some outraged accusation of misogyny. Now Saletan's overreacting to an even more reasonable point -- though not a joke -- that Clinton is making about one of Sanders' talking points justifying his lax voting record on gun control: That there are some ugly racial implications to it.

At issue is a comment Clinton made during a speech to the NAACP: “There are some who say that this [gun violence] is an urban problem. Sometimes what they mean by that is: It’s a black problem. But it’s not. It’s not black, it’s not urban. It’s a deep, profound challenge to who we are.”

Saletan thinks this is an unfair dig at Sanders. The Republicans haven't called violence an "urban" problem during the debates -- though Saletan fails to note whether they have said such a thing in non-debate circumstances -- so it must, in his opinion, be a talking point aimed squarely at Sanders:

In the debate, Sanders began by saying, “As a senator from a rural state, what I can tell Secretary Clinton [is] that all the shouting in the world is not going to do what I would hope all of us want.” A couple of minutes later, Sanders told former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley: “We can raise our voices, but I come from a rural state, and the views on gun control in rural states are different than in urban states, whether we like it or not.” O’Malley insisted that the issue was “not about rural and urban.” Sanders replied: “It’s exactly about rural.” Only one other candidate used the word “urban” during the debate: former Virginia Sen. Jim Webb. A week later, on Oct. 20, Webb quit the campaign. So when Clinton, on Friday, spoke scathingly of people who call guns an “urban problem” but mean it’s a “black problem,” it’s obvious to whom she was referring.

No doubt Clinton is poking a weak spot in her opponent's case, but Saletan is also missing the forest for the trees here. Sanders most likely didn't intend for his talking point about rural vs. urban gun ownership to have any racial implications. But those implications are nonetheless there. I doubt that Clinton or any of the other people troubled by his remarks believe he is speaking out of anything but ignorance. But that ignorance is still a problem.

Racism is baked into the DNA of the gun control debate. The gun lobby loves to gin up support and sell weapons by scaring white people with poorly concealed racist fantasies about black people coming to get them, and how they need guns -- apparently a lot of guns -- to keep the scary hordes away.

Take, for instance, a video released by NRA executive vice president Wayne LaPierre last week where he, using thinly veiled code words, and basically tells white people that Obama is arming up black criminals while taking their guns away to leave them helpless. "Nothing illustrates America's breakdown like the way the president's hometown celebrates its holidays. Memorial Day: 12 dead, 56 wounded. The Fourth of July: 10 dead, 53 wounded. Labor Day: 9 dead, 46 wounded. This kind of third-world carnage has become absolutely … normal," LaPierre begins, going on to insinuate that Obama is deliberately trying to cover up "multiple people were murdered by criminal gangbangers with illegal guns in Chicago."

"Under the existing federal gun laws, he could take every felon with a gun, drug dealer with a gun and criminal gangbanger with a gun off the streets tomorrow and lock them up for five years or more," he continues. "But he won't do it, his Justice Department won't do it, and the media never asks why."

Duh duh DUM. You, the viewer, should be picking up on his implication, that Obama is somehow conspiring with Chicago "gangbangers" to make "the good, honest Americans living out in farm towns in Nebraska or Oklahoma" live in fear. Of people in Chicago. (He also tosses in a reference to good people "working"---though he doesn't say living---"two jobs in inner-city Chicago or Baltimore," but that bit of ass-covering fools no one.)

This is far from the only time that LaPierre has used barely concealed racist fears that black people are criminal to suggest that white people need to arm themselves heavily to protect themselves.

And let's not forget that Ronald Reagan was for gun control when the fear was Black Panthers owning guns, but against gun control when it was perceived as preventing white people from getting guns.

If you're familiar with this history and rhetoric, it's not hard to hear the racial implications of suggesting that "rural" folks are responsible, safe gun users -- while "urban" folks are not. On the contrary, it's hard not to hear that. Sanders may mean well, but his constituents who insist that they are just wholesome gun owners, unlike some people, probably do not mean well.

Is Clinton using this fact to garner support? Absolutely. But the bigger picture is this. Racism fuels much of the opposition to gun control. We live in a country where black men (or boys) have been shot for holding toy guns or even just a toy sword in one case. "I thought he had a gun," is the  excuse we expect after police shoot unarmed black men.

But when a white man was openly walking around the streets of Colorado Springs shooting people dead over the weekend, one witness said her call to 911 was blown off initially because open carry is legal in the state.

Also, there's this: Sanders is wrong. The assumption that "rural" people who own guns are responsible and that it's just those urban people who are screwing it up for the rest of us is not borne out by the evidence.

Research compiled by the Harvard Injury Control Research Center shows that there's a strong correlation between homicide rates and gun ownership, both on a state and household level. While some cities do have a criminal gang problem that leads to high murder rates in neighborhoods that have a gang problem, there is a lot of gun violence beyond that, much at the hands of those "law-abiding" citizens we hear so much about. In addition, the suicide rate is strongly correlated to the gun ownership rate, because having access to a gun makes someone in the throes of a depressive episode that much more likely to both try and succeed at suicide. Look past the racially tinged stereotypes of responsible-rural people and lawless-urban people and a much more complex picture emerges.

There's no use in denying that race is an issue in how people think about gun control and the threat of gun violence. If Clinton scores a political point on this, well, good. Maybe Sanders will rethink that horrible talking point about rural people. Whether he intends to or not, he is perpetuating ugly stereotypes about who is and isn't responsible.

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By Amanda Marcotte

Amanda Marcotte is a senior politics writer at Salon and the author of "Troll Nation: How The Right Became Trump-Worshipping Monsters Set On Rat-F*cking Liberals, America, and Truth Itself." Follow her on Twitter @AmandaMarcotte and sign up for her biweekly politics newsletter, Standing Room Only.

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