Would white open-carry activists support a black man with an AR-15?
We all have our favorite amendments to the U.S. constitution, and our least-favorites (I'd probably go with the 18th). But proponents of the 1st and 2nd amendments are the most active in the public sphere, always convinced that their amendment needs protecting.
With the 2nd amendment, ambiguous punctuation has kept legal scholars arguing for 200 years whether the authors of the Constitution meant to guarantee the right of individuals or well-regulated state militias to pack heat. But armed with a favorable 2008 Supreme Court ruling and the expectation that the government wants to restrict their perceived rights, gun right activists have been out in force recently. Particularly advocates of "open carry" laws, which allow people to openly carry loaded weapons in public.
The open-carry demonstrations became such an issue that several restaurants and retailers asked people not to bring their semi-automomatic military-style rifles in, since they were freaking out other customers. Even the NRA — or at least some "staffer" — thought that was a bad idea. Most states have some sort of open-carry law: Only six, plus Washington, D.C., ban the open carry of handguns. (Surprisingly, Texas and South Carolina are among the six.) And six plus D.C. prohibit open carry of long guns, like rifles and shotguns.
But open carry isn't enforced uniformly in places where it is permitted. Two days after cops in Ohio fatally shot John Crawford III, 22 and black, because he was carrying around an unloaded air rifle in a Walmart, and hours after a police officer shot and killed unarmed black teenager Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, journalist Jamelle Bouie posted this thought on Twitter:
I honestly think black people in open carry states should embrace the law and travel with guns out, in groups, in public.
— Jamelle Bouie (@jbouie) August 10, 2014
The implication is pretty clear — open carry is tolerated for white people, but groups of black people carrying assault rifles down the street would freak out the police, at the very least. If that seems too much of an inference, here's Bouie reacting to Crawford's death in the Dayton suburb of Beavercreek:
White guy in public with a real gun? Open-carry patriot. Black guy in public with a toy gun? A dead man. http://t.co/mc8kJHVciM
— Jamelle Bouie (@jbouie) August 7, 2014
What happened to Crawford is a clear failure of justice, made worse by the fact that a grand jury declined to indict the officers who shot him dead without apparently giving him a chance to put down the pellet gun. Ohio is an open-carry state, as Bouie and other have noted, so Crawford could legally have been carrying a real AR-15 in Walmart, as open-carry activists in the area have done before.
This isn't the only case of police demonstrating a troubling double standard on open-carry enforcement. Sometimes police arrest black open-carry marchers while leaving their white marchers alone, as apparently happened with mixed-race open-carry group Hell's Saints in Detroit last month. And while there are no reliable statistics on police homicides, it's pretty clear that police shoot and kill black people at significantly higher rates than Latinos or whites, and more of those fatalities are under suspicious circumstances.
The conclusion is almost inescapable: It's much safer for white people to legally carry loaded weapons in public than black people. And because the most high-profile open-carry activists are white Southern conservatives, it's easy to jump to the inference that white open-carry activists like it that way.
There's ample historical precedence for that assumption, and some open-carry groups seem to almost beg you to believe that there's still a rich vein of racism running through the movement.
Those photos are on the Facebook page of a Virginia open-carry group called Right to Bear Arms-Richmond that has, among other things, marched through predominantly black neighborhoods, causing frightened residents to call the police and lock themselves inside their houses. A white open-carry group in Houston called off a march through the historically black Fifth Ward in August when the community vociferously protested.
But don't fall for the easy stereotype. Right to Bear Arms-Richmond, for example, has an active black member. Open-carry activists aren't a monolithic group, of course, but if they genuinely believe that the 2nd amendment is absolute and allows them to carry big, intimidating weapons in public — as they seem to — then that's a right for every American, black and white.
Heather (Digby) Parton notes at Salon that white open-carry advocates, "however well intentioned, should realize that nice white men and women openly carrying firearms on the street aren't being gunned down on sight by police officers," and that "the worst thing that happens to them is they are forced to show their ID." But she also points out that the white open-carry group in nearby Medina, Ohio, rallied to Crawford's defense, welcome or not.
The relationship between black gun activists and white gun activists is actually pretty complicated, and surprisingly symbiotic, as UCLA constitutional law professor Adam Winkler explained at The Atlantic. Open-carry demonstrations were actually pioneered by the Black Panthers in the 1960s, prompting then–California Gov. Ronald Reagan and white politicians nationwide to embrace gun control laws.
"The gun-control laws of the late 1960s, designed to restrict the use of guns by urban black leftist radicals, fueled the rise of the present-day gun-rights movement — one that, in an ironic reversal, is predominantly white, rural, and politically conservative," Winkler writes.
Black groups still hold open-carry demonstrations: The Huey P. Newton Gun Club — named after the Black Panther who started open-carry activism — marched through South Dallas in August, for example. And as Mark Follman pointed out at Mother Jones, Texas Open Carry seems much more supportive of the New Black Panthers' armed marches than the "respectable" gun lobbyists for the NRA and the Texas State Rifle Association.
Black Americans have pushed for the right to bear arms since the end of the Civil War, and white Americans, mostly in the South, tried to stop them for decades. If you Google "New Black Panthers" and "Fox News," you'll get the sense that many white conservatives are still uncomfortable with black people peacefully displaying firearms in public.
But that's no reason to believe that white open-carry activists — who care enough about their right to haul around loaded AR-15s and handguns in public that they'll scare the bejeezus out of people trying to buy diapers at Target — don't also want black people to have that same right. We shouldn't assume that hard-core support for the 2nd amendment is automatically paired with opposition to the 14th amendment, which conferred many of the equal rights and equal protections of citizenship on all Americans, black and white.
Law enforcement should take note.