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Gun control's racist past and present

October 6, 2017
Al Jazeera

Gun control is again at the forefront of US public discourse following the mass shooting in Las Vegas on Sunday that left 59 people dead and more than 500 wounded.

Stephen Paddock, 64, had stockpiled 23 firearms in his 32nd-floor room, many with legal "bump stocks" that served to convert the guns into fully automatic weapons.

These upgrades allowed him to wreak havoc on the 22,000 concertgoers at the Route 91 Harvest country music festival for nine to 11 minutes, Clark County Sheriff Joseph Lombardo said on Tuesday.

The mass shooting was the deadliest of its kind in the last seven decades.

The calls for increased gun control have grown louder as the victims are mourned, even from the historically pro-gun country music community.

But the country's history reveals a dark side to gun control.

The implementation of stricter gun laws has always been marred by accusations of racism.

In many cases, regulations were specifically introduced in response to people of colour exercising their Second Amendment right to bear arms.

Gun ownership is part of the fabric that makes up US identity, with the right to bear arms found in the Constitution's Second Amendment, adopted in 1791. But racism in gun laws predates the founding of the nation.

A century earlier, the colony of Virginia had laws prohibiting slaves from owning guns.

After being emancipated as a result of the Civil War (1861-1865), southern states passed laws known as the "Black Codes", which disarmed and economically disabled African Americans in order to sustain enforcing white supremacy.

Saul Cornell, a professor at Fordham University and researcher who focuses on the history of gun control, said, "the story is very complex".

"Saying gun laws are always racist is just false," he told Al Jazeera. "Saying that gun laws have never been racist is also just wrong."

Even in the case of laws that are "race neutral", meaning they apply to everyone, there are examples of biased enforcement, Cornell explained.

Many point to laws passed in the turbulent 1960s, when Black nationalist groups took up arms to defend their communities, as examples of racist implementation.

The leftist Black Panther Party (BPP), whose members carried weapons to guard against police brutality, "invaded" the California capitol building in Sacramento in 1967.

California's then-Governor Ronald Reagan signed the Mulford Act shortly after that, prohibiting open carry of weapons in public places.

The following year would see the passing of the Gun Control Act of 1968, signed by then-President Richard Nixon. That law banned "Saturday Night Specials", cheaply-made handguns associated with crime in minority communities, as well as barring felons, the mentally ill and others from owning firearms.

Both of these laws were passed by Republicans and supported by the National Rifle Association (NRA), the most powerful anti-regulation gun lobby group in the US.

Today, such groups lead the charge to abolish gun restrictions.

There is "irony" in the fact that right-wing politicians and the NRA were "definitely in favour of gun control when there was great concern among white Americans", Clayborne Carson, a Stanford University professor and historian who has devoted his professional life to the study of civil rights campaigner Martin Luther King, Jr, told Al Jazeera.

The NRA changed policies in the 1970s, adopting its anti-gun control stance. The organisation has continued advocating for gun owners, though many have criticised the NRA for failing to speak for armed African Americans.

Gun ownership activists have taken to "open carry" demonstrations, during which the mostly white activists march in public spaces while carrying assault rifles, in recent years.

In 2013, a group of armed men from Open Carry Texas "trapped" four pro-gun control women inside a restaurant in Dallas.

Carson said that "few black people would survive very long" if they conducted similar protests in situations where they were likely to be confronted by police.

The silence of the NRA following the 2016 murder of 32-year-old Philando Castile after he clearly disclosed that he had a licensed firearm to Minnesota police officer Jeronimo Yanez during a routine traffic stop, hammered the point home for many African American gun owners.

Outcry from grassroots organisers prompted the NRA to issue a statement, calling the events in Minnesota "troubling" and saying it "proudly supports the right of law-abiding Americans to carry firearms for defence of themselves and others regardless of race, religion or sexual orientation".

Carson said it is "clear that the notion of openly carrying weapons is a new dimension of gun ownership that is explicitly and increasingly available to white Americans but implicitly denied to black Americans".

Nonetheless, African American gun ownership is on the rise today.

"Throughout much of American history gun control was a method for keeping Blacks and Hispanics, 'in their place' for lack of a better expression," Tiffany Ware of the Brown Girls Project (BGP), an initiative that aims to encourage and inspire black women and teaches them to responsibly own and use firearms, told Al Jazeera.

For many, the near-daily news of another black person killed by police has been motivation to exercise their Second Amendment rights.

The Guardian newspaper's The Counted database found that African Americans, who make up around 12 percent of the country's population, constituted almost a quarter of the 1,092 killed by police in 2016.

The US has experienced a noticeable increase in hate crimes in the months following the election of Donald Trump.

Ware said that "increasingly blatant racism" in the US under the Trump administration is another motivating factor.

"It's driven by fear and a need to protect those that we love," Ware said.

With this in mind, BGP began hosting workshops on self-defence, gun ownership and laws for Black women.

"We are the organisers of our families. We have to be prepared," Ware added.

The complicated relationship between the African American community and gun control makes it difficult to imagine new controls, the BGP's Ware said.

When asked what responsible limits would look like, she responded: "I really don't know. It seems to me that it's not the people who own firearms legally that are the problem."

Ware said she isn't against new controls and being a gun owner doesn't form an important part of her identity. Motherhood, her community and career, among other aspects, come first.

But systemic biases in the US must be dealt with, she said. Until then, she will continue carrying a weapon.

"The system is rotten with bias towards people of colour … With the knowledge and power that I have with a gun on my hip, I am a protector."

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