According to a recent survey by the Pew Research Center, for the first time in decades, a slim majority of Americans now favor gun rights over gun control, and a major ingredient in this development is growing African American support for gun ownership. In fact, as the Pew Center reveals, African Americans’ views on gun rights have swung dramatically in just the past two years: “54% of blacks say gun ownership does more to protect people than endanger personal safety,” the study reports, “nearly double the percentage saying this in December 2012.”
What has happened over the past two years to occasion this remarkable change in African Americans’ support for gun ownership? Part of the answer—perhaps the biggest part—can be found in recent highly publicized police killings of unarmed black men. In Ferguson, Mo., last year, police officer Darren Wilson shot and killed Michael Brown, after he approached Brown for reportedly stealing cigarillos from a local convenience store, and the two men scuffled. In Staten Island, police officers detained Eric Garner for selling loose cigarettes, and in seeking to restrain Garner, suffocated him instead. This incident was recorded on a bystander’s cell phone—as was the police shooting in North Charleston, South Carolina last month. After Walter Scott had been pulled over by officer Michael Slager for a purported traffic violation, Scott took off running (apparently for fear that Slager would discover his unpaid child support). Officer Slager fired three bullets into Scott’s back. Most recently, the city of Baltimore erupted in protests and riots upon the death of Freddie Gray, who suffered a fatal spinal cord injury in police custody.
Incidents like these prompted Samuel Mosteller of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC)—Martin Luther King’s former organization—to argue that more African Americans should “exercise their Second Amendment rights,” so that they might protect themselves better against police violence. But a recent NPR story suggests that African Americans are also arming themselves to deal with the relative lawlessness of the neighborhoods many of them inhabit. A reporter spoke with residents of Detroit, for example, where average police response time is nearly an hour.
In sum, police are either absent or overwhelmed, or they are part of the problem of violence, in which case it makes good sense for citizens to be armed. Both arguments suit the NRA just fine. The gun lobby works tirelessly to arm ever more Americans, expand the laws that enable us to carry guns in public spaces, and drum up extreme levels of fear that support its radical agenda. But more armed citizens will not make police work any easier—if anything, they will only make it more challenging.
There is good reason to believe that police shootings owe a lot to the fact that so many of the citizens they "serve and protect" are already armed. With more than 300 million privately owned guns in America, police must presume that the citizens they pull over, even for routine traffic stops, could have a gun. They must always be on edge, always fear the worst. This was borne out in the killing of Tamir Rice in a Cleveland playground earlier this year. Police had been summoned on reports of a man with a weapon; when they spied 12-year old Rice with his toy gun in hand, they opened fire, killing him. In a similar incident, on the other side of Ohio, police shot and killed John Crawford in a Wal-Mart, when he was walking the aisles—talking on his cell phone—with an air rifle in hand. It was reported afterwards that the officers involved in this incident had only just been trained for responding to "active shooters"—i.e., mass shooters, like at Columbine and Sandy Hook—and “were taught to be aggressive,” according to the prosecuting attorney. This is not to say that race wasn’t a factor in either case; it likely was. (Rice and Crawford were both African American.) But police error in similar incidents is compounded by the fact that they must fear armed citizens all the time.
Some gun rights proponents would also like us to know that police are poorly qualified, especially in comparison with gun owners –an argument that is sure to degrade the situation even more. The widely quoted gun rights proponent and Fox News contributor John Lott made this claim in a recent column, when he criticized the New York Times for coverage that disparaged concealed handgun permit holders. “Police are the single most important factor for reducing crime,” he wrote, “but even police commit crimes on very rare occasions. Even more law-abiding than police, however, are permit holders.” Lott explained that “firearms violations among police occur at a rate of 6.9 per 100,000 officers. For permit holders in Florida, it is only 0.31 per 100,000.” Of course, one might simply point out, this disparity can be explained by the fact that police officers are called upon to use their weapons far more often than are armed citizens—so they have many more occasions to make mistakes; their weapon use is not limited to the firing range.
Of course, we may see dramatic changes in the statistics Lott cites if his argument becomes more popular. He effectively goads gun owners into vigilantism. What else should we—and especially gun owners—take from his argument, if permit holders are more trustworthy and better with their weapons than the police?
How would armed citizens have handled the Michael Brown situation in Ferguson differently? Would they have made it any better? If Brown felt inclined to scuffle with a police officer, why not an armed citizen, too? How many merely suspicious situations will armed citizens, untrained and inexperienced in gauging credible threats, escalate into violence? Is there any reason to believe that in an armed society, citizens with guns, who feel emboldened or compelled or obliged to use them, will be any less on edge than are our police? George Zimmerman is a case in point, of course. As neighborhood watch captain, he ignored police advice, and went to confront unarmed teenager Trayvon Martin, whom he deemed suspicious looking. Martin did not take kindly to Zimmerman’s advances; the two men fought, and Zimmerman shot and killed the teenager.
With NRA support, we have been busy building a ‘Shoot first’ society. This is the upshot of Stand your Ground laws, now on the books in twenty-plus states. Such legislation says gun owners are justified in using ‘deadly force’ if they feel merely the threat of ‘great bodily harm.’ And “citizens feel threatened all the time,” former Miami police chief John Timoney pointed out, “whether it’s from the approach of an aggressive panhandler or squeegee pest or even just walking down a poorly lighted street at night. In tightly congested urban areas, public encounters can be threatening… This is part of urban life. You learn to navigate threatening settings without resorting to force.” Except in a Stand Your Ground world; then you may navigate threatening settings with a gun on your hip, ready to draw.
The gun rights movement warns of a society riddled with pervasive threats—increasingly, they come from police officers, or their absence, or their recklessness. And the NRA gets its way: there are more guns on our streets than ever. This in turn makes the job of policing that much harder—and the possibility of police violence more frequent. Perhaps police might retreat from criminal encounters, which increasingly risk turning out badly—where someone dies, or they are charged with a crime. Either way, the gun rights movement will bellow that we need still more guns and more armed citizens. Despairing in the face of criminal and police violence, African Americans appear to be joining this view.
We are mired in a classic negative feedback loop. The gun rights movement is good at making its predictions come true. It bemoans a society delivered unto violence, coming from every corner, and will make sure of that.
Firmin DeBrabander is an Associate Professor of Philosophy at the Maryland Institute College of Art, and author of "Do Guns Make Us Free?: Democracy and the Armed Society."