Race, Gun Control and Unintended Consequences

Race, Gun Control and Unintended Consequences

Race, Gun Control and Unintended Consequences

Reforms could disproportionately impact those most affected by gun violence.


A man sits in front of a police line in Oakland, California, October 25, 2011. (Reuters/Kim White)

Vice President Joe Biden’s task force on gun control handed its recommendations to President Obama yesterday, who will announce them tomorrow. This is the first time in recent memory that one of our increasingly common acts of mass violence has sparked such immediate action. It may not bring solace to all of the victims’ families, but it has the potential to start preventing these horrors from happening in the first place.

But as encouraging as it is to see action to curb gun violence, an epidemic in this country compared to our peers, it is still worth pausing to ask what kind of action is being taken and what its consequences will be. Some reforms, like the “guns in every school” approach from the NRA, rightly strike many liberals as absurd. This direction is not just dangerous—it also will likely disproportionately impact the lives of young black and brown children. But other gun control measures that we might feel more comfortable with could have similar unintended consequences if we don’t pay attention to how they are implemented.

Few can forget the absurd news conference held by the NRA in the wake of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting, in which NRA CEO Wayne LaPierre called for putting “armed police officers in every school in this nation.” But it’s not as out-of-box as many of us might assume. Some lawmakers have echoed this call; Senator Barbara Boxer introduced legislation that would let governors use federal funds to have the National Guard secure schools and increase the money spent annually on things like metal detectors and security cameras at schools. But many schools already have armed policemen patrolling the halls and using these law enforcement gadgets. As Julianne Hing of Colorlines reports:

As of 2011, 68 percent of U.S. schoolchildren said police officers patrolled their school campuses… In 1999, that number was 54 percent. Last year, 70 percent of schoolkids went to schools where surveillance cameras were used, and more than half of students reported that locker checks were used as a security tactic. More than one in 10 U.S. students goes to a school with metal detectors on campus.

The militarization of school safety and orderliness most heavily impacts children of color. It effectively feeds the school-to-prison pipeline. Hing notes, “The rise of police officers and militarized security tactics in schools runs parallel with the rise of zero-tolerance school discipline policies in the 1980s and 1990s.” Those zero tolerance laws entail cracking down on behavior infractions with a heavy fist. As Jim Eichner of the Advancement Project told Hing, “What we know is that when you put police in school they arrest kids,” which means students going to jail for things like fist fights, talking back to teachers or even showing up late or wearing the wrong color socks.

The heavy fist doesn’t fall evenly. One study showed that black boys are three times more likely to be suspended than white boys and black girls were four times more likely than white girls. Studies have shown that if young children come into contact with the criminal justice system, that’s likely only the first time.

But the misguided idea that good teachers with guns will stop bad guys with guns is not the only possible gun control measure that could negatively impact people of color. The more restrictive gun control laws about to be passed in New York, for example, expand the number of assault weapons that will be banned in the state. Biden’s task force is likely to also push for an assault weapon ban. The evidence does seem pretty clear that fewer guns lead to less violence. But we can’t forget about the impact expanded criminalization could have as it’s implemented. The founder of Prison Culture, a blog focused on eradicating youth incarceration, took to Twitter shortly after the Sandy Hook shooting to warn against this problem. “I live in a city where black and brown kids some of whom I work with are currently locked up on ‘gun charges.’ These laws disproportionately impact and target the ‘usual suspects’ which happen to be the archetype ‘criminalblackman.’ As long our criminal legal system is racist and classist and heterosexist, it will be the marginalized who will be locked up,” the user said over a number of tweets. After all, as my Nation colleague Rick Perlstein explained last week, it was fear of gun-toting Black Panthers that led to some of the first strict gun control laws.

To understand the racist underbelly of our justice system, look no further than the extreme example of the War on Drugs. As Michelle Alexander writes in The New Jim Crow, despite similar drug use rates, “African Americans constitute 80 to 90 percent of all drug offenders sent to prison. In at least fifteen states, blacks are admitted to prison on drug charges at a rate from twenty to fifty-seven times greater than that of white men.” Meanwhile, the majority of dealers and sellers are white. (Everyone should read the whole book to get the full picture.) What may look like a colorblind law on the books can be interpreted and implemented in incredibly racist ways. So while it’s absolutely necessary that we pass laws that restrict the number and types of guns that are lawfully available, we also have to pay attention to whether those rules are fairly and evenly enforced.

We’ve seen the ways that gun control gets tied up in a ramped up police state before. The last time there was a significant push on gun control (also helmed by Joe Biden), back in 1994, an assault weapon ban was included in a comprehensive crime package. That package also included an expansion of the death penalty, the building of more prisons and the authorization of 100,000 more police officers. These are all policies that target people of color. African-Americans make up 12 percent of the population but 40 percent of death row inmates and one in three of those executed since 1977. African-Americans and Hispanics make up about a quarter of the population but nearly 60 percent of all prisoners.

As we continue to debate guns in this country, it’s also worth remembering who is the victim of this violence and who is the face of rising mass murders. As David Cole writes in The New York Times, “young black men die of gun homicide at a rate eight times that of young white men.” He gives the examples of Chicago, where African-Americans are 33 percent of the population yet 70 percent of the murder victims, and Philadelphia, where three quarters of the victims of gun violence were black. Meanwhile, the faces of those who go on shooting rampages are almost all white and male. Forty-four of the killers in the sixty-two mass shootings since 1982 were white males, according to Mother Jones. This entire issue, from causes to consequences, is steeped in race. To pretend otherwise is farce. To ignore how our actions play out in this context risks disproportionately harming those who are already affected by violence.

As John Nichols writes, the media attention showered on the NRA doesn’t match up with the group’s actual political influence. 

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