I’m not quite sure why we need guns. I don’t say that as a way to dismiss people who feel like they do, or to get people to rally to my side in agreement. I just sincerely don’t understand why we need to have them in the United States.
Usually, when I ask people why they feel like we need to have guns, they say that we were promised the right to bear arms in the Constitution. The United States Constitution is a document that establishes our country’s fundamental laws and provides basic civil rights to citizens. However, there are also those who argue that the right to bear arms was only afforded to militias during times of war. I know that there are people who interpret the constitution as providing every individual with the right to bear arms.
My father and I often discuss politics and I’m not ashamed to admit that I enjoy arguing with him. Whenever we broach the topic of guns, though, I’m not sure where I stand. My father believes that he should have a gun to protect his family. Since the Constitution is open to interpretation, he says, I can decide what I want it to mean for myself. I used find rules comforting; they meant that I wouldn’t have to stress too much about making choices. But a rule like this is difficult because there isn’t a straight answer.
The absence of a straight answer is why we have open carry laws in some parts of the country and not in others. Open carry allows people to carry a gun in plain view, as opposed to carrying a concealed firearm, which is actually legal in all 50 states. However, open carry laws are different depending on where you are: California, Florida, Illinois, New York, South Carolina, and Texas all ban the practice of open carry, while 13 states require a special permit to open carry. The remaining 31 states don’t require a permit. Rules can also fluctuate depending on the size and capability of the gun.
One aspect of U.S. gun law that tangles up my thoughts is how people who advocate for open carry sometimes justify their arguments. In the wake of the Orlando shooting at Pulse nightclub, a pro-gun writer named Charl van Wyk, along with many others, argued that the mass killing could’ve been prevented if someone besides the shooter had been wielding a gun. However, when it comes to police shootings, gun lobbies tend to believe differently: Alton Sterling was killed by a police officer, and people blamed the fact that he was carrying a gun for his death—despite the fact that he was in an open carry state.
Perhaps my ambivalence about guns has something to do with the double standards that emerge when Black people carry guns. John Crawford III can be shot in Walmart for picking up a BB gun in an open carry state, while white men who shoot BB guns in Walmart can be taken into police custody without losing their lives.
In 2014, the writer and editor Charles C. W. Cooke argued that the U.S. has never wanted people of color to own guns. In an opinion piece for the New York Times he explained that the first laws regulating gun ownership were meant to keep Black and Native American people from getting them. In Massachusetts of 1631, it was illegal to sell guns to Native American people, while Virginia and Tennessee banned gun ownership by Black people in 1640 and 1870, respectively. Even after the Civil War, Black Codes prevented gun ownership by Black people.
The attempts to prevent people of color from owning guns goes even further; the first major ban on open carry was a bill drafted after the Black Panther Party began their armed patrols of the State Legislature in Sacramento, California. The bill was signed in 1967 by then-California Governor Ronald Reagan. The Federal Gun Control Act of 1968 followed soon after, a reaction to “Saturday night specials” or “cheap handguns owned by the poor.” Cooke points out that neither bill was opposed by the National Rifle Association.
This knowledge is what makes me bite my lip with uncertainty when my family members speak of wanting to get guns to protect our family, and when I see Black TV characters declare that a gun will protect their households. It’s a nice idea, and they certainly weren’t the first to think of it. In 1892, Ida B. Wells, a journalist, suffragist, and early leader in the Civil Rights Movement, wrote: “[A] Winchester rifle should have a place of honor in every Black home, and it should be used for that protection which the law refuses to give.” But each time a Black person brings up the idea of getting a gun, I think about the gun control debate—and our absence within it.
I don’t believe that organizations that lobby for gun rights, such as the NRA, are interested in pursuing gun rights for Black people. I’ve come to this conclusion after observing their silence after the deaths of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile. In the gun debate, I feel like the mostly white members of the NRA are not thinking about anyone but themselves.
Ever since the Sandy Hook shootings, there has been a renewed push for more restrictive gun legislation, especially from the political left. However, the push to reduce gun ownership has often first taken the right to own a gun from Black and other people of color. I’m not being dramatic, this trend has shown itself in history.
The Black Panther Party was founded by Huey P. Newton and Bobby Seale in 1966, during a time that is often reduced to of Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech and Rosa Parks refusing to leave her seat on a bus. When I was younger, we spoke about Rosa and Martin in school, but Malcolm X, the leader who declared, “We want freedom by any means necessary. We want justice by any means necessary. We want equality by any means necessary,” was rarely discussed. His words make me think about the Black Panther Party’s Ten Point Program; the first point states: “We want freedom. We want power to determine the destiny of our Black and oppressed communities.”
The Black Panther Party created “survival programs” such as free clothing distribution, classes on politics and economics, free medical clinics, lessons on self-defense and first aid, transportation to prisons for family members of inmates, an emergency-response ambulance program, drug and alcohol rehabilitation, and testing for sickle-cell anemia. One of the most notable programs was the Free Breakfast program: by 1969, the party served milk, bacon, eggs, grits, and toast to 20,000 school aged children, in 19 cities and 23 local affiliates, every school day.
In addition to survival programs, the Black Panthers utilized open carry laws to create armed police patrols in an effort to defend themselves from police brutality. By 1970, when Black Panther Party membership reached a peak with as many as 5,000 members and between 34 and 40 local chapters, Black people had already faced the violence that pushes some people to get a gun—lynching, bombing, and shooting.
According to The Age of Great Dreams: America in the 1960s by David Farber, the fact that the Black Panthers carried weapons openly and made threats against police officers helped garner their reputation as a violent organization. But I think this antipathy toward Black gun ownership has to do with the fact that Black people are viewed as threatening, whether we are armed or not. This is the reason white people so often see Black people holding “imaginary guns.” Despite all of their good work in the community, by 1969, the FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover considered the Black Panther Party “the greatest threat to the internal security of the country.”
If a robber starts the trouble, a gun will finish the trouble. White people have, historically, stolen from Black people, and yet we were demonized when we demand the return of what was stolen—as Black Panthers Ten Point Program did. It’s interesting, then, that in the U.S. we view guns as defensive rather than offensive weapons. Perhaps that historical theft is at the heart of white fear of Black gun ownership.
Watching someone steal from Walmart might be awkward or even a little scary, but watching someone die in Walmart is in a completely different ballpark. Leaving the world quietly and peacefully seems to me the best way to die, and I wish we all had that chance. A gun shuts down that opportunity: it is loud, dramatic, painful, even if it is quick.
And that’s the other issue with guns, they’re quick. So quick, in fact, that a gun could be fired by mistake. It’s not the same as almost anything else, where you can stop if there’s a misunderstanding. A cop can arrest a person who looks like they’re stealing from Walmart, but realize they were mistaken. But there’s no going back if he’s been shot by a gun.
I’ve held a gun, realized how heavy it felt in my hands. I remember picking it up in a family member’s home, pulling the trigger, and being chastised.
“You don’t know if there were bullets in there,” they said. “You should never do that!”
It was a stupid move, but it also made me think about what could’ve happened if there had been bullets in the gun. I could’ve hurt myself, shot the wall, maybe thrust my body back from the shock of it all. I visualized the gun falling to the ground, going off again, shooting me in the foot. There would be no going back after that, the mistake would have been made.
When it comes down to it, I would feel most comfortable with complete disarmament. Yes, I fear guns in the hands of the wrong people. I worry about people who walk around Walmart with guns, kids who shoot themselves, and robbers who could threaten my life. But more than that, I worry about those in positions of power with guns—police officers. If the people don’t have guns, police don’t need guns either. We could become a gun-free nation. ♦