Instead of hurrying to condemn the shooting, as it had done when police officers killed White gun owners, the National Rifle Association initially sought refuge in saying nothing.
The NRA’s perfunctory response to Castile’s death shone a light on the way that race permeates the politics of gun control.
Decades ago, when Congress actually passed an assault weapons ban (one that, notably, was allowed to expire in 2004), the broad concern was around guns in the hands of people of color — Black Americans, specifically. Our modern Congress finds itself paralyzed now that we’re increasingly facing a different dimension of the issue: White people’s guns, and the consequences of their contested rights to have them.
Or as University of St. Thomas history professor Yohuru Williams says in the new CNN Films documentary, “The Price of Freedom,” “Throughout our history, the fear that African Americans could have access to firearms and use those firearms to the detriment of Whites is pervasive.”
Understanding this history requires looking back at the social and political pieties that helped to spur the US’s contemporary gun rights movement. Consider how, in the 1960s, fear of the Black Panthers played a role in motivating conservative politicians — and even the NRA — to push for new gun control legislation. The Panthers, formed to challenge police brutality, advocated for Black self-defense via gun ownership and “copwatching.”
To no one’s surprise, the backlash against this vision of protection was swift. In 1967, in response to the Panthers’ activities, then-Gov. Ronald Reagan signed the Mulford Act, named after Republican Assemblyman Don Mulford and which repealed a California law that permitted people to carry loaded firearms in public.
“The Mulford Act criminalized the open carry of firearms, and was designed specifically to disenfranchise and to disarm members of the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense because they were demonstrating in public — carrying firearms openly to shed a spotlight on police violence against Black and brown people in California,” Harvard University historian Caroline Light says in “The Price of Freedom.”
A different gun rights advocate
How distant all that seems now.
“Corporate-gun-lobby-backed politicians, commentators and advertisements openly touted loosened gun laws as ways for white citizens to protect themselves against dark intruders,” Metzl explains. “Meanwhile, black men who attempted to demonstrate their own open-carry rights were attacked and jailed rather than lauded as freedom-loving patriots.”
It’s the difference between vanquishing the supposed specter of Black criminality — seen in gangs and the weapons associated with them — and protecting the property of White conservatives.
Or put another way, the hypocrisy around gun ownership in the US is a broadcast of something indisputably fundamental: the country’s struggle to bolster a racial hierarchy.