How law enforcement thinks about gun ownership rights has everything to do with race. The bottom line is that open carry gun laws and gun ownership laws in general afford rights that the police often only recognize for white people. That sounds like a pretty inflammatory thing to say, but once you look at how white gun owners are treated as compared with black gun owners, the conclusion is inescapable.
Start with the white guys:
Alternet has published a story of recent incidents involving cops and white people with guns called, “8 White People Who Pointed Guns At Police Officers and Managed Not to Get Killed.” It includes transcripts and videos of armed white people aggressively confronting police officers, pointing guns at them, and shouting threats. And the police officers do their job by safely deescalating the situation. Joseph Housman, armed with a rifle and shouting curses and threats, had a 40 minute standoff with the police and didn’t even get arrested – no arrest, no charges, rifle returned to him. Other armed white people actually fired shots at police officers or civilians, and still the police refrained from shooting them. Think about the 41-day armed standoff at an animal refuge in Oregon early this year. Ammon Bundy and his heavily armed, anti-government gunmen were issuing threats, violating federal law, and committing acts of vandalism, yet law enforcement took a wait-and-see approach for weeks to deescalate the situation.
Compare that to the way that police gun down unarmed black people in epidemic proportions in our country. Think about how Tamir Rice was shot within seconds after police arrived where he was sitting on a swing with a toy gun. Statistics back up the anecdotal perception that police are trigger happy when it comes to dealing with black citizens. Now that there are finally groups tracking the statistics, we’ve learned that in 2015, police shot unarmed black people nearly twice a week. That is over 100 unarmed black people slain by police officers last year. It’s even more scary when a black person actually tries to invoke the right to bear arms.
Contrast the police efforts to deescalate actual threats by armed white people with the recent police shooting of Alton Sterling, who had a gun in his pocket, but by all accounts never touched it or even reached for it when he was shot and killed by an officer. The police used Mr. Sterling’s possession of his gun as a justification for shooting him while he was pinned to the ground by two officers. In the videos of the shooting, Mr. Sterling’s hands are pinned to his sides, the gun is tucked in his pocket, and there is no apparent reason for killing him. And the shooting occurred in Louisiana, which is an open carry state.
Similarly, consider the tragic story of Philando Castile, who was shot at a traffic stop for legally carrying a licensed gun (which he did not draw). Mr. Castile had been regularly busted for driving-while-black – he had been stopped by police while driving 46 times (and only 6 of those times were for things a police officer would notice from outside the car, like speeding). On the day he was shot, he was once again subjected to a traffic stop. According to his girlfriend’s live stream on Facebook, Mr. Castile notified the officer that he was carrying a handgun and that he was licensed to do so. This was in Minnesota, which allows concealed carry of guns. Mr. Castile was complying with the officer’s demand for proof of identification by reaching for his wallet when the officer shot and killed him. The officer’s claimed justification was that he feared Mr. Castile’s gun.
Notably, the NRA and gun rights advocates were silent about the police killing these two black gun owners because of their gun ownership. Yet, this is hardly surprising. Our country has a double standard. Gun rights are not for everyone. In fact, so much of the movement for gun ownership rights has revolved around fear-mongering and convincing white people that they need guns to arm and protect themselves from black people. Against that backdrop, police officers tend to shoot on sight when they see a black person with a gun. Even, as we learned from Tamir Rice, when that black person is a child and the gun is a BB gun. That is a far cry from the Constitution’s promise of equal rights under the law.