Black, American, and Armed

Scott Takushi/Pioneer Press via AP, File

An activist hangs a sign on the gate of the Minnesota Governor's Residence in St. Paul. 

African Americans who exercise their Second Amendment right to bear arms find themselves caught between the two irreconcilable narratives of gun rights and racial justice. One storyline justifies African American deaths to assuage whites’ fears of violence by blacks, and the other regularly forces blacks to prove that they are reaching for a wallet or a driver’s license, not a gun.

What is irrefutable, however, is that a black person carrying a legal weapon can face deadly consequences. On July 6, 2016, a police officer pulled over Philando Castile for a routine traffic stop in St. Anthony, a suburb of St. Paul, Minnesota. In a video live-streamed by Castile’s girlfriend, Diamond Reyes, Castile calmly told Officer Jeronimo Yanez that he is a licensed gun owner and has a firearm in the car, facts that he did not have to disclose under Minnesota law. Yanez told Castile not to reach for the weapon and Castile and Reynolds both repeatedly reassured Yanez that he would not do so. Moments later, Yanez fired at Castile.

A jury acquitted Yanez of murder last month.

The senselessness of Castile’s death is more than a travesty—it strikes real fear into law-abiding black gun owners like Louis Dennard, an African American Army veteran and a gun-owner for more than 30 years. Dennard’s answer to this deadly conundrum is the African American Gun Heritage Club, the Minnesota chapter of National African American Gun Association (NAAGA). “We are a civil rights organization focused on self-preservation of our community through armed protection and community building,” reads the national association’s vision statement. Dennard purchased his first handgun because he worried about people shooting in movie theaters and other crimes. Now, the police are “a portion of society [that] you have to worry about,” he says.

African Americans have carried guns for decades to protect their communities. During Reconstruction, Southern states enacted Black Codes that prohibited African Americans from owning guns, while white vigilante groups like the Ku Klux Klan invaded black settlements to seize weapons from newly freed slaves. Many years later, black gun owners protected civil rights activists who embraced nonviolence. Martin Luther King owned guns in the early years of the civil rights movement and supported the right to bear arms. The issue later disappeared from public discussions until the late-1960s when the Black Panthers called for African Americans to exercise their Second Amendment rights to protect their neighborhoods from racist police officers.

Although Dennard has seen an increase in fears about police violence within the black gun-owning community, he believes that the worries of the black gun owners have not been embraced by groups like the National Rifle Association (NRA) or individual white gun owners. The NRA has had little to say about police brutality or the rights of black gun owners. Two days after Castile’s death, the NRA released a vague statement that failed to even mention Castile’s name.

The NRA did not respond to a request for comment.

Dennard, who is not an NRA member, feels that the group’s “rubber stamp” response typifies how the NRA ignores black gun owners’ concerns. Moreover, white gun owners are not tuned in to national conversations surrounding race and police brutality. A new Pew Research Center study found that politically conservative and/or Republican-identified white men are the most likely to own guns, with both black and Hispanic Americans about half as likely as whites to have a gun at home.

Not surprisingly, there are stark differences between the attitudes of gun owners and anti-police brutality and racial justice activists. A 2013Racism, Gun Ownership, and Gun Control” study published by the National Institutes of Health found that, for American whites, every 1 percentage point increase in stereotypical beliefs about blacks meant a 50 percent increase in the odds of having a gun at home. The report also found that whites who hold negative stereotypes about blacks often oppose gun control policies and keep a firearm at home.

Black Americans overall and Democrats, the groups most likely to “strongly support” Black Lives Matter, are also likely to support tighter gun control restrictions. Dennard does not find comfort in public conversations on racism and police violence in the Black Lives Matter movement. Dennard, who describes himself as more "anti-bad-policing” than “anti police,” believes that conflict resolution and de-escalation is the key to quelling police violence. Tactics like blockading streets and chanting are ineffective, he says. “[BLM activists] are different than their parents and grandparents that marched during the 60s,” Dennard says. “They’re loose cannons and they haven’t helped.

Today black support for gun ownership is markedly lower in black communities than in white communities. Where does that leave Dennard and other black gun owners who do not feel that they fit in with gun-rights conservatives or the pro-gun control progressives? They have decided to band together with like-minded people. Since Trump’s inauguration, NAAGA’s membership has doubled, and Dennard says that there has been a spike in interest in his own Minnesota chapter in recent months, with some new members citing Trump’s “craziness” and those who put him in office as reason for arming themselves.

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