Editor’s Note: Today’s guest post, by Jon Childress, is a must-read on the racial politics of guns in America.
If you haven’t been following (on social media, not cable news) the finally-concluding force escalation against protesters by police after the fatal shooting of unarmed Michael Brown by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, you’re missing what should one day be required reading in US history classes. The myth of a post-racial America now burns as brightly as the tear gas canisters used by the increasingly militarized police to dispel peaceful protesters seeking justice for what is sadly one of four killings of unarmed black men by police in the United States just this month.
Given the response to the unarmed protesters in Ferguson, Missouri, it’s not difficult to imagine what even worse excessive response or racist media skew might have transpired had the citizens of Ferguson decided to exercise their constitutionally-guaranteed right to bear arms.
The Second Amendment to the United States Constitution reads:
A well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.
While protesting, the citizens of Ferguson suffered under a potentially unconstitutional curfew; according to the amendment, bearing firearms to undo this curfew could have been a constitutionally-protected act. Of course if they had, you’d struggle to find one American surprised by the result: the citizens of Ferguson would’ve been slaughtered where they stood.
As a Means of Confronting the State
Let’s dispel this deeply-ingrained American myth: in 2014, no citizens of any country could possibly withstand even the opening volley of a standoff against their nation’s military. Ferguson police, like many modern US police forces, are carrying M4 assault rifles and riding in mine-resistant, ambush-protected vehicles (MRAPs) as a result of federal programs distributing surplus military equipment. Surplus—meaning the military has too many M4 assault rifles, too many MRAPs, too many 40mm rail-mounted grenade launchers for firing too many flash-bang and tear-gas canisters. And that’s what they’re willing to share—most of which is illegal for US civilians to carry even with the Second Amendment in place.
Perhaps we should consider ourselves lucky that the US’s last two waged wars were against guerrillas wielding improvised explosive devices (IEDs) and not aircraft, or our police forces might instead be armed with 105mm Howitzers and flechette rounds.
As a Means of Self-Defense
If you (like me, admittedly) despise guns, prepare to clutch your pearls, because using guns for self-defense probably works according to the the 2013 Center for Disease Control (CDC) report on gun violence commissioned by President Obama. Surveys stated anywhere between 100,000 and 500,000 annual uses of guns in defensive situations, with “consistently lower injury rates among gun-using crime victims compared with victims who used other self-protective strategies.”
Time to dust off the ol’ ammo box and have your kindergartener packing heat; it’s about to get Wild Wild West up in here! Except that guns don’t magically appear only when needed for self-defense. This allows for a slew of less defensive uses in the interim.
For instance, the report found that “87% of violent crimes involve a handgun.” One wonders how much gun self-defense could be reduced were those committing violent crimes relieved of their favorite weapons via stricter gun control laws.
(Like a lamp-bound djinn, once the above is spoken, the following argument always appears: only licensed handguns would be affected by stricter gun control! Criminals will roam free with their boundless supply! Not so, says the CDC. Their report found that “almost all guns used in criminal acts enter circulation via an initial legal transaction” and that “the share of crime gun traces attributed to [high-volume] dealers only slightly exceeded their share of handgun sales”—i.e. the chance of any dealers’ firearms being used in crime is about equal once balanced against their sold volume.)
The context of self-defense is often unclear. If we broaden the defended to include not just the immediate self but one’s family or household, are guns still as effective?
The report found that the majority of the approximately 40,000 suicide deaths in 2010 in the US involved firearms and that “firearm-related suicides significantly outnumber homicides for all age groups.” One wonders how many suicides could be prevented were the at-risk relieved of the most successful means of impulsive suicide. Apparently, so do the researchers, as “it is not understood how frequently firearms are associated with premeditated or impulsive suicides. Therefore, additional data about context of suicides are required.”
While much lower than suicides or homicides, a 2013 New York Times review of accidental firearm-related deaths found that “accidental shootings occurred roughly twice as often as the records indicate, because of idiosyncrasies in how such deaths are classified by the authorities.” This, according to the New York Times, puts accidental gun death as the 5th or 6th topmost killer of children under age 14, with 259 deaths counted in 2013. Here, a contradiction emerges with the self-defense mythos, because the recommendations for child-proofing firearms are irreconcilable with the requisite storage—loaded and nearby—to keep a firearm readily available for self-defense.
The CDC concludes that “if gun ownership raises the risk of suicide, homicide, or the use of weapons by those who invade the homes of gun owners, this could cancel or outweigh the beneficial effects of defensive gun use.”
Well What For, Then?
So, firearms are worthless for confronting the State and may otherwise kill more people than they defend. Why, then, would anybody fight so hard to retain the right to brandish them?
The skeptical community is no stranger to cognitive biases, so it shouldn’t surprise that “the vast majority of gun owners say that having a gun makes them feel safer,” despite the evidence being at best inconclusive. But I’m talking about a different bias—a tribalistic argumentum ad populum.
I’m not saying people who own guns are inherently racist. I’m saying that those supporting the right of individuals to carry and brandish firearms are entirely unaware of the white privilege that support entails.
Self-defense implies the presence of a threat. Unfortunately, the CDC report lacks details on what exactly constitutes a firearms-defensible threat. To the police of Austin, TX, though, the answer is overwhelmingly clear: black people. A review by RH Reality Check found that though only eight percent of Austin’s population is black, six out of the ten “non-violent victims of police killings in Austin, TX from 2002-2012” were black people. Austin isn’t alone. USA Today found that “nearly twice a week in the United States, a white police officer killed a black person,” and this from only 750 self-reporting law enforcement agencies out of the over 17,500. If the homicide of a black person exhibiting non-violent behavior can repeatedly be labelled “justifiable” by police, a very clear message emerges: to the police, the very existence of black people constitutes a threat.
This contrasts spectacularly with white people, who seem to not constitute a threat even when armed. The Bundy ranchers and their hundreds of armed supporters survived a multi-day standoff against Las Vegas police with little violence, even when openly threatening and targeting officers with assault rifles. On a separate months-long armed standoff with police, the Browns were peacefully arrested “without a shot being fired and with no one getting hurt.”
These anecdotes demonstrate why a mostly-white armed protest could—though vocally unwelcome by residents—fearlessly parade through Houston’s mostly black 5th Ward sans police interference, while the citizens of Ferguson—during the protest over the death of Michael Brown—were met with armed and armored police resistance on the very first day.
Regardless of origin or intent, today, the Second Amendment is for white people only. White people—the majority demographic—don’t consider each other a threat even when brandishing weapons; black people are considered kill-on-sight even with hands raised. To fight for a right that does little more than paint a target on your back is absurd. That is why the only people fighting for this right are those doing the targeting.
Author’s Bio: Jon Childress is a public-transportation and cycling advocate, software developer, and chiptunes aficionado trying to make craters and and burn bridges in Madison, WI. He occasionally haunts Twitter.
Featured Image Credit: Scott Olsen of Getty Images from the recent Ferguson protests.