More On: Gun Control
At the National Rifle Association, Donald Trump said, 'If we can send $40 billion to Ukraine, we can protect our children's schools.'
Both public safety policies are based on racism and damage African Americans disproportionately.
Repealing the marijuana ban is "an essential racial justice issue," according to Sheila Jackson Lee, a black Democrat who has represented downtown Houston in Congress since 1995. She has sponsored or co-sponsored proposals to remove cannabis from the list of federally prohibited narcotics twice in the previous three years, reversing a 1937 prohibition. "Thousands of men and women have suffered needlessly from the federal criminalization of marijuana," Jackson Lee said in 2020, "particularly in communities of color."
Gun restriction, like the war on drugs, has a long history of racism and disproportionately impacts African Americans. On the latter, though, Jackson Lee has a quite different purpose.
In 2021, Jackson Lee submitted a measure that would establish a complex national system for licensing gun owners, registering guns, and punishing violators with the same severe mandatory minimum sentences that she vehemently opposes when imposed on drug criminals. Jackson Lee portrays her proposed limits as reasonable public safety measures, just like marijuana prohibitionists have done for decades.
Jackson Lee exemplifies a typical paradox. Progressive politicians currently are strongly opposed to marijuana prohibition and condemn the war on drugs, owing to its prejudiced beginnings and racially imbalanced consequences. Despite the fact that such regulations have a very comparable history and current impact, they are strongly in favor of tougher gun restrictions.
Drug and gun control are unjust because they penalize behavior that violates no one's rights, eroding civil freedoms, contributing to mass imprisonment, and unfairly restricting millions of Americans for the rest of their lives. All of this would be true even if the policies had an equal impact on diverse racial and ethnic groupings. The drug war's unequal impact is especially troublesome for progressives who denounce "institutional racism," and you'd think they'd regard gun restrictions in the same light.
Both sorts of policy have historically targeted racial and ethnic minorities, both officially and implicitly. Worse worse, the costs of these two tactics compound. People convicted of drug offences lose their ability to bear weapons for the rest of their lives, and illicit drug users are also prohibited from owning firearms. Whether or not drug offenders use weapons to threaten or injure others, having a gun exposes them to harsher sanctions. Drug possession leads to re-incarceration for gun law violators, and gun possession leads to re-incarceration for drug law violators. The costs of these interlocking bans are significantly linked to race, which, according to Jackson Lee's argument, should make both of them illegal.
The Racist Roots of Drug Control
The early advocates of marijuana prohibition were especially alarmed by marijuana use among racial and ethnic minorities. A 1917 report from the U.S. Department of Agriculture described El Paso, Texas, which banned the possession and sale of cannabis in 1914, as "a hot bed of marihuana fiends," who included "Negroes, prostitutes, pimps and a criminal class of whites" as well as Mexicans. "This menacing evil" and "malicious vice" was said to be especially notable "in the army and among the Negroes." The report quoted a police captain who warned that marijuana inspired "a lust for blood," made users "insensible to pain," and imbued them with "superhuman strength"—claims that would later be recycled in stories about a wide range of psychoactive substances, including crack cocaine, PCP, methamphetamine, and the synthetic cathinones known as "bath salts."
In the 1930s, when Federal Bureau of Narcotics Commissioner Harry Anslinger began drumming up opposition to marijuana, he reiterated and exaggerated the concerns that had already led to the prohibition of the plant in around 20 states. "Fifty percent of the violent crimes perpetrated in regions populated by Mexicans, Turks, Filipinos, Greeks, Spaniards, Latin-Americans, and Negroes may be related to the misuse of marihuana," Anslinger stated in a 1934 report to a League of Nations commission.
Anslinger kept a file of stories that reflected his anxieties about drug-facilitated miscegenation. One such item described "colored students at the Univ. of Minn." who were "partying with female students (white) smoking and getting their sympathy with stories of racial oppression. Result pregnancy."
In the run-up to early opium and cocaine prohibitions, the scenario was identical. The first legislation of its sort in the United States, San Francisco's 1875 prohibition on opium dens, was in line with a slew of measures targeting Chinese immigrants in California, including limits on their ability to hunt, fish, own land, and testify in court. Chinese immigrants were using opium to entice white women, according to the San Francisco Examiner and other publications controlled by William Randolph Hearst. Similar attitudes led to the passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 and the Opium Exclusion Act of 1909, both of which prohibited the importing and possession of the substance for smoking. Five years later, the Harrison Narcotics Tax Act essentially outlawed the use of opiates for non-medical purposes.
That law also banned recreational use of cocaine, which figured in terrifying tales similar to the ones Anslinger would later promote regarding marijuana. In a 1914 New York Times article headlined "Negro Cocaine 'Fiends' Are a New Southern Menace," the pathologist Edward Huntington Williams averred that "the cocaine-sniffing negro" was a "peculiarly dangerous criminal" because the drug magnified his "courage" and "resistance to shock," making him impervious to ordinary bullets.
"The most passionate support for legal prohibition of narcotics has been associated with fear of a given drug's effect on a specific minority," David F. Musto notes in his classic 1973 drug policy history, The American Disease. "Certain drugs were dreaded because they seemed to undermine essential social restrictions which kept these groups under control."
The Racially Skewed Impact of Drug Control
The blatant manifestation of racism by drug prohibition proponents became socially and politically untenable over time. However, in some situations, the basic goals were the same.
In a 1994 interview with writer Dan Baum, John Ehrlichman, President Richard Nixon's primary domestic policy adviser, revealed that his former boss's war on drugs was a manner of punishing the administration's political rivals. "We knew we couldn't make it illegal to be either against the war or black," Ehrlichman said. "But by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did."
Although predictions of violent crackheads recalled earlier fears of reefer-crazed or cocainized "Negroes," African-American leaders who supported the strong political reaction to the "crack epidemic" in the 1980s probably did not share Nixon's views on racial issues. Because the vast majority of people charged with possessing or selling crack were black, the scientifically baseless decision to treat smokable cocaine as if it were 100 times worse than snorted cocaine—a policy that President Joe Biden supported as a senator—led to stark racial disparities in the penalties imposed on federal drug offenders.
Similarly, modern advocates of the war on cannabis may be racial prejudice-free. Despite this, African Americans continue to be disproportionately affected by marijuana prohibition. Despite identical rates of cannabis usage, black individuals are 3.6 times as likely as white people to be arrested for marijuana possession nationwide, according to a 2020 research from the American Civil Liberties Union.
These differences aren't limited to crack and marijuana. "Black and white Americans sell and use drugs at similar rates," the Brookings Institution reported in 2016, "but black Americans are 2.7 times as likely to be arrested for drug-related offenses." And "at the state level, blacks are 6.5 times as likely as whites to be incarcerated for drug-related crimes."
Progressive critics of the war on drugs are acutely aware of its bigoted history and ongoing racial disparities, which they emphasize at every opportunity. "The War on Drugs has been a war on people—particularly people of color," says the opening line of a legislative summary that Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D–N.Y.) and two of his colleagues, Sens. Cory Booker (D–N.J.) and Ron Wyden (D–Ore.), distributed when they unveiled a marijuana legalization bill in July. "The Cannabis Administration and Opportunity Act aims to end the decades of harm inflicted on communities of color by removing cannabis from the federal list of controlled substances and empowering states to implement their own cannabis laws."
The Black Tradition of Arms
These legislators, like virtually all Democratic politicians, appear to be oblivious to comparable issues with gun restrictions, which they tend to embrace instinctively. Booker, who supports federal gun licensing, a ban on "assault weapons," and a 10-round magazine limit, is representative of African-American leaders, who are predominantly Democrats and support increased gun controls. But as Fordham University law professor Nicholas Johnson shows in his 2014 book Negroes and the Gun, it was not always thus.
Johnson details the long "black tradition of arms" in America, beginning with the struggle against slavery and continuing through the murderous racist violence that followed the Civil War, the vicious oppression of the Jim Crow era, and the civil rights movement of the 1940s, '50s, and '60s. Black leaders such as Frederick Douglass, Ida B. Wells, W.E.B. Du Bois, T.R.M. Howard, Roy Wilkins, and Martin Luther King Jr. unambiguously endorsed the right to armed self-defense as a crucial safeguard against the racist aggression that government officials commonly ignored when they were not actively participating in it.
As a remedy against kidnappers who sought to return people like him to slavery, Douglass recommended "a good revolver, a steady hand and a determination to shoot down any man attempting to kidnap." Wells declared that "a Winchester rifle should have a place of honor in every black home" and "should be used for that protection which the law refuses to give." Even King, the very embodiment of peaceful resistance, relied on firearms for "that protection."
In 1956, after his home in Birmingham, Alabama, was bombed, King applied for a permit to carry a gun. Despite the potentially deadly threats that King faced as a leader of the Montgomery bus boycott, the county sheriff said no. "I went to the sheriff to get a permit for those people who are guarding me," King told fellow protest organizers. "In substance, he was saying, 'You are at the disposal of the hoodlums.'" Several years later, King noted that "all societies" accept "violence exercised merely in self-defense" as "moral and legal," adding that "when the Negro uses force in self-defense, he does not forfeit support" and "may even win it, by the courage and self-respect it reflects."
The National Association for the Advancement of Colored Individuals (NAACP), according to Johnson, "cut its organizational teeth" defending black people who used weapons to combat racial brutality. Most notably, the group recruited renowned trial lawyer Clarence Darrow to defend Detroit physician Ossian Sweet, who was charged with murder in 1925 after he and his associates used weapons to remove him and his family from a white neighborhood.
Sweet's triumph was the centerpiece of a fundraising effort that helped establish the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, which is today known as the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund (LDF). Since 1957, the LDF has won significant victories against segregation, voting restrictions, and other types of racial discrimination, having grown out of the NAACP's legal department.
The Racist Roots of Gun Control
White supremacists realized the threat that armed black people posed to the current social order, just as African Americans recognized the potentially lifesaving importance of weapons. In a 1995 Kansas Journal of Law and Public Policy essay, historian Clayton Cramer said, "The historical record provides convincing evidence that racism underpins gun control laws—and not in any subtle fashion." "For most of American history, gun prohibition has been publicly asserted as a way to put blacks and Hispanics 'in their place,' as well as to calm whites' racial anxieties."
Beginning in the 17th century, when Virginia made it illegal for black people to carry firearms, whether free or enslaved, the colonies and states that followed established a succession of race-based limitations on gun ownership. After the 1831 slave uprising led by Nat Turner, Virginia made it illegal for free blacks to "keep or carry any firelock of any kind, any military weapon, or any powder or lead." Tennessee revised its constitutional guarantee of the right to arms, restricting it to "free white men."
Terrified at the prospect of further insurrections, legislators in Southern states prohibited the transfer of firearms to slaves, limited their use of these otherwise common tools to hunting expressly authorized by their masters, required free blacks to obtain gun licenses, and authorized the seizure of guns found in their homes. "Overall," legal scholars Robert Cottrol and Raymond Diamond observed in a 1991 Georgetown Law Journal article, early gun control laws "reflected the desire to maintain white supremacy and control."
If "negroes" were recognized as citizens, Supreme Court Chief Justice Roger Taney warned in the infamous 1857 case Dred Scott v. Sandford, they would be entitled to all "the privileges and immunities of citizens," including the right to "keep and carry arms wherever they went." The Civil Rights Act of 1866 and the 14th Amendment tried to make Taney's nightmare a reality after the Civil War. The Civil Rights Act was a direct response to the postbellum Black Codes, which limited or forbade African Americans from owning guns, among other things. The right to bear arms was also one of the "privileges or immunities" given to "all individuals born or naturalized in the United States," according to the discussion leading up to the 14th Amendment's passage in 1868.
In practice, however, that right was frequently denied. Eight years after the 14th Amendment was ratified, in United States v. Cruikshank, the Supreme Court held that the federal government had no authority to stop members of terrorist groups like the Ku Klux Klan from disarming black people. It said the remedy for such private aggression lay with state governments.
Meanwhile, the same governments were enacting gun laws that appeared to be racially neutral on the surface but were discriminatory in effect. Bans on inexpensive handguns, which foreshadowed restrictions imposed by Congress nearly a century later, and discretionary carry permit laws, which resembled current laws, still enforced by several states, that give local officials broad discretion over who is allowed to bear arms, were among the measures. The latter strategy gave cops carte blanche to deny civil rights activists like King the right to use arms in self-defense and to imprison anyone who dared to do so against the law.
The 1968 Gun Control Act, which was mostly enacted in response to political killings, did not explicitly attempt to disarm black people. But "among the act's most significant restrictions," Johnson notes, "were import limits on small, cheap handguns derided as 'Saturday Night Specials'—a label that combined references to cheap little guns dubbed 'Suicide Specials' and the tumult of 'Niggertown Saturday Night.'"
Robert Sherrill, an investigative reporter, concluded in his 1973 book The Saturday Night Special that members of Congress were attempting to bribe the public "Black people's access to guns has been cut off. " "They opted to shut off these sources while keeping over-the-counter sales available to the rich," he said, since lawmakers "probably connected inexpensive weapons with ghetto blacks and felt cheapness was particularly the trait of imported military excess and the mail-order business."
Similarly, California's Mulford Act, enacted in 1967 and prohibiting open carrying of loaded firearms, was enacted in reaction to armed Black Panther patrols in Oakland that were attempting to police the police. The bill was backed by then-Gov. Ronald Reagan and the National Rifle Association, both of whom went on to become fervent Second Amendment supporters.
The Racially Skewed Impact of Gun Control
The Gun Control Act of 1968 also described broad categories of Americans who were not allowed to possess firearms, including "unlawful user[s]" of controlled substances and people convicted of crimes punishable by imprisonment for more than a year, meaning nearly all felonies. The Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act of 1993 made those disqualifications enforceable through background checks that federally licensed firearm dealers are required to conduct before completing sales.
According to official survey statistics, the exclusion for illicit drug users affects around 60 million people in the United States. This covers persons who use prohibited medications prescribed for others or who use them against their doctor's orders, as well as all cannabis users, even those who reside in places where marijuana is legal. According to the study results, the rates of illegal drug usage among black and white Americans are practically comparable. However, because African Americans are more likely to be arrested for drug possession, they are more likely to be discovered breaking this clause of the Gun Control Act if they own guns.
People with criminal histories are prohibited from possessing firearms, regardless of the nature of the offense or when it was done. Because black men are more likely to have criminal histories, it disproportionately impacts them. According to a 2017 research by Sarah Shannon of the University of Georgia, 33 percent of male African Americans have been convicted of a crime, compared to only 8% of the overall population. In other words, even if their offenses were nonviolent, occurred long ago, or both, millions of black males have irrevocably lost their Second Amendment rights.
When a person with a criminal past is discovered with a gun, it is considered a new crime, punishable by up to ten years in prison under federal law. In certain situations, mandatory minimum sentences apply to firearm offenses. When they do, the defendants are mostly black.
18 USC 924(c) prescribes a five-year mandatory minimum for anyone who possesses a firearm "in furtherance of" a drug trafficking offense or a crime of violence, whether or not he actually used it. The gun sentence, which must be served in addition to the sentence for the underlying offense, rises to 25 years for each subsequent violation. 18 USC 924(e), also known as the Armed Career Criminal Act, requires a 15-year mandatory minimum for a defendant caught with a gun after three or more convictions for "a violent felony or a serious drug offense." According to a 2018 report from the U.S. Sentencing Commission, about 53 percent of people sentenced under those two provisions in fiscal year 2016 were black, while 16 percent were white.
Racial disparities also can be seen at the state level. According to FBI data, African Americans, who represent about 14 percent of the U.S. population, accounted for 45 percent of arrests for weapon offenses in 2020.
Some of the variances might be attributed to racial inequalities in violent crime rates. However, this is far from the full story, as even nonviolent drug charges can result in arrest and penalty for breaching firearms regulations. The most prevalent underlying violation generating penalties under 18 USC 924(c) was drug trafficking, which accounted for 46 percent of cases in fiscal year 2016, according to the US Sentencing Commission; other weapon offenses accounted for another 8%. Furthermore, merely residing in a jurisdiction with severe gun laws—as many cities with substantial black populations do—increases the chances of being arrested for a weapon violation.
In 2020, an anti-gun initiative in Washington, D.C., generated controversy because of its racially skewed impact. The program encouraged federal prosecution of people with felony records who illegally possessed firearms. Under the D.C. Code, that offense is punishable by at least a year in prison—three years if the original felony was violent. But sentences under federal law tend to be even more severe: nearly five years, on average, even when mandatory minimums don't apply.
D.C.'s felon-in-possession crackdown, which was backed by the District's African-American mayor, Muriel Bowser, was originally advertised as a citywide measure. But in practice, the program focused entirely on three police districts that overlapped with wards that were 64 percent to 92 percent black. By comparison, black people represented 45 percent of the District's total population. D.C. Council Member Charles Allen complained that the program "targeted District residents of color," imposing "harsh penalties on Black residents whose neighborhoods have historically been underinvested in and overpoliced."
The experience with New York City's "stop, question, and frisk" program, which was dramatically scaled back in 2014 after years of complaints that it routinely harassed young black and Latino men for no reason, demonstrates how gun control harms racial minorities even if it does not result in people being sent to prison. Stop-and-frisk interactions nearly never turned up weapons, but they did occasionally turn up marijuana, resulting in charges for "public display" of marijuana, another illustration of the dangerous interplay between gun and drug regulation. The lack of gun seizures didn't bother then-Mayor Mike Bloomberg, a millionaire who funds the gun control campaign. He said that the program's goal was to prevent violence by discouraging young males from carrying firearms.
Bloomberg's reasoning, while he didn't appear to recognize it, was in violation of the Fourth Amendment, which, according to the Supreme Court, requires officers to have reasonable suspicion of criminal conduct before stopping someone and reasonable suspicion of being armed before frisking them. The fact that pat-downs seldom turned up any firearms revealed that New York officers were breaking the ban on a regular basis. However, given the state's strict gun control regime, which reserves the right to bear arms to people who can demonstrate "proper cause"—a standard that cannot be met by claiming a general interest in self-defense—the assumption that anyone who actually had a firearm would be breaking the law was reasonable.
Prosecuted for Exercising Their Rights
New York State Rifle & Pistol Association v. Bruen, a case before the Supreme Court this term, asks whether the Empire State's carry permit regime is compatible with the constitutional right to bear guns. The Black Attorneys of Legal Aid and numerous other public defense groups argue that New York's virtual prohibition on public ownership of weapons places a disproportionate burden on black and Latino people in a brief stating that it is not.
"Each year," the brief says, "we represent hundreds of indigent people whom New York criminally charges for exercising their right to keep and bear arms. For our clients, New York's licensing requirement renders the Second Amendment a legal fiction. Worse, virtually all our clients whom New York prosecutes for exercising their Second Amendment rights are Black [or] Hispanic." That situation, the public defenders say, "is no accident," since "New York enacted its firearm licensing requirements to criminalize gun ownership by racial and ethnic minorities," and "that remains the effect of its enforcement by police and prosecutors today."
They are referring to the Sullivan Act of 1911, which required a license to own handguns and "gave local police broad discretion to decide who could obtain one." The brief quotes gun policy scholar David Kopel, who describes the Sullivan Act as a response to "concerns about organized labor, the huge number of immigrants, and race riots in which some blacks defended themselves with firearms." The brief notes that the law was enacted after "years of hysteria over violence that the media and the establishment attributed to racial and ethnic minorities—particularly Black people and Italian immigrants."
According to the public defenders, the limits imposed as a result of such concerns continue to have an impact ""New York police have stopped, questioned, and frisked our clients on the streets," says one client. Our customers' houses have been entered with weapons drawn, terrorizing them, their families, and their children. For days, weeks, months, and years, they have forcibly abducted our clients from their homes and communities, abandoning them in filthy and dangerous jails and prisons. Our clients have lost their jobs, children, livelihoods, and ability to reside in this nation as a result of their actions. Our clients have been labeled as "criminals" and "violent offenders" for the rest of their lives. All of this has occurred solely as a result of our customers exercising a fundamental right."
Benjamin Prosser, for example, "was prosecuted for carrying a gun for self-defense after he was the victim of multiple violent stranger assaults and street robberies." Sam Little, "who had survived a face slashing and lost multiple friends to gun violence, was prosecuted after carrying a gun to defend himself and his young son."
Shelly Parker and Otis McDonald, both African-American litigants who challenged municipal firearm restrictions in Washington, D.C. and Chicago, were motivated by similar concerns. They believed that because they couldn't rely on the government to protect them from violent criminals, the government should not restrict them from protecting themselves by keeping firearms in their homes for self-defense. These cases resulted in historic Supreme Court judgments holding such regulations to be incompatible with the right to keep and bear arms guaranteed by the Second Amendment. The question now is whether the Court will apply same rationale to situations outside of the home.
Does Gun Control 'Protect Black People'?
If the Supreme Court does rule against New York's carry permit law, it will be rejecting the position urged by the organization that grew out of a fundraising campaign built on the successful defense of Ossian Sweet and other African Americans who armed themselves against racist aggression. The NAACP LDF, which describes itself as "the nation's first and foremost civil rights and racial justice organization," thinks the Court should uphold New York's law because "history supports [its] authority to impose public carry restrictions, particularly to protect black people."
The National Urban League joined the NAACP LDF's brief in New York State Rifle & Pistol Association v. Bruen, which states that restrictions on public firearm possession are a "important tool" in "addressing the vexing problem of handgun violence in cities," which disproportionately harms African Americans. The brief stresses the risk that weapons in the hands of white supremacists pose to black people, rather than the role that guns in the hands of black people have historically played in fighting white supremacist violence. "Past or present-day racial discrimination in the enforcement of gun restrictions is a grave and unlawful injury," it concedes. However, it claims that upholding the 14th Amendment's equal protection provision is the solution.
By contrast, the NAACP decided to support repealing the federal ban on marijuana after concluding that the war on weed discriminates against racial minorities. In 2010, years before the national organization took that position, its California chapter described legalization as a civil rights issue, saying pot prohibition "has been unfairly applied to our young people of color."
The NAACP LDF's position in the New York gun case exemplifies a shift in thinking that was already underway by the late 1960s. Johnson identifies three reasons mainstream African-American organizations like the NAACP, which had long embraced the black tradition of arms, became full-throated supporters of gun control.
Moderate black leaders, who had traditionally sought to draw a line between armed self-defense and political violence, realized that the rise of militant groups like the Black Panthers made that boundary more difficult to make. According to Johnson, once "a strong black political class formed on the crest of a progressive coalition," newly empowered African-American politicians tended to draw their policy cues from that coalition, which favored stricter gun control. "Gun bans provided a remedy with the persuasive logic of no firearms equals no gun crime" as "black-on-black violence grabbed greater attention." As a result, an alliance formed that appears logical now but is startling from a historical viewpoint.
In 1999, the NAACP filed a lawsuit against gun manufacturers, alleging that they were "oversupplying" weapons, a claim that a federal jury dismissed in 2003. Jesse Jackson, the first black presidential candidate to win a major party's primary in 1988, was jailed in 2007 for blocking the entry to a suburban gun store that he said assisted Chicago residents break the city's firearm ban. Three years later, the Supreme Court invalidated the restriction, which was identical to one struck down by the court in 2008 in Washington, D.C. In both cases, the NAACP LDF sided with the government.
Conspicuously Exercising Their Rights
African-American academics like Johnson, Cottrol, and Diamond aren't the only ones who disagree with the anti-gun dogma. According to a 2017 Pew Research Center poll, 24% of black people in the US possess weapons, compared to 36% of white individuals. Recent research suggests that the chasm may be closing.
In a year defined by pandemic-related fear and large, often violent protests against police mistreatment, gun sales soared in 2020. According to the National Shooting Sports Foundation (NSSF), a trade group, a disproportionately high percentage of buyers—40 percent in early 2020—were first-time gun owners. According to a study of gun dealers conducted by the National Shooting Sports Foundation, sales to black consumers increased by 58 percent in the first half of 2020 compared to the same time in 2019.
Deviation from the anti-gun norm also can be seen on a more organized level. Since 2015, the National African American Gun Association, which has chapters in most states, has sought to "motivate as many African American men and women [as possible] to go out and purchase a firearm for self-defense and to take training on proper gun use." That group and Black Guns Matter, both of which filed briefs urging the Supreme Court to reject New York's carry permit law, argue that armed self-defense has been essential in vindicating African Americans' civil rights.
The Dallas-based Huey P. Newton Gun Club, which was created in 2014, takes a page from the Black Panthers by openly exercising the right to bear guns in response to police mistreatment. In 2015, the group's founder, Charles Goodson, told Reason's Zach Weissmueller, "We are suggesting armed self-defense as it relates to the problem with black people here in America when it comes to interacting with police agencies." "We've had a lot of support from conservatives, such as members of the National Rifle Association. We don't consider ourselves to be on the extremes of the right or left."
Brent Holmes, a Virginia activist who gained notoriety by prominently bringing weapons to anti-police brutality marches in Richmond, believes it is as necessary for African Americans to express their Second Amendment rights. In 2020, he told Reason writer Qinling Li, "I feel I'm channeling my forefathers."
A self-described "black militia" established in Atlanta, the Not Fucking Around Coalition (NFAC), pursues a similar tactic. The organization dispatched 300 openly armed members to a demonstration in Louisville, Kentucky, in July 2020, which was sparked by the deadly police killing of Breonna Taylor the year before.
More Gun Control = More Black Prisoners
It is unlikely that the NFAC's outspoken advocacy of Second Amendment rights, or even the National African American Gun Association's more subtle support for armed self-defense, would gain any momentum among black lawmakers. On the contrary, the majority of them are hell-bent on enacting additional weapon prohibitions that will increase the number of people who may be locked up in their communities.
Sheila Jackson Lee's measure, which would create a federal system to license gun owners and register their guns in 2021, stipulates harsh minimum penalties for anybody who fails to comply with the law's standards. That's a striking departure from Jackson Lee's support for sentencing reform and her criticism of a criminal justice system that is "often more effective at creating criminals and collateral damage than actual justice."
Jackson Lee's registration requirement applies to currently owned firearms as well as guns purchased after the bill takes effect. The bill would give current owners three months to report "the make, model, and serial number of the firearm, the identity of the owner of the firearm, the date the firearm was acquired by the owner, and where the firearm is or will be stored," along with "the identity of any person to whom, and any period of time during which, the firearm will be loaned to the person." New buyers would have to report that information on the date of purchase. Failure to comply would be punishable by a minimum fine of $75,000, a minimum prison sentence of 15 years, or both.
Under Jackson Lee's bill, every gun owner would have to obtain a federal license, limited to people 21 or older who pass a criminal background check, undergo a "psychological examination," complete at least 24 hours of training, and pay an $800 "fee" for liability insurance. The bill would expand the already overbroad federal criteria that disqualify people from gun ownership to encompass anyone who was ever treated in a hospital (even voluntarily) for a "brain disease" or a "mental illness." It also would authorize denial of a license to anyone who "has a chronic mental illness or disturbance, or a brain disease," is addicted to alcohol or illegal drugs, has attempted suicide, or has "engaged in conduct that posed a danger to self or others," as determined by "prior psychological treatment or evaluation."
If an applicant fails to pass this test, possessing a firearm becomes a crime, punishable by the same fine and jail sentence as failing to register the weapon. This is true for both current owners and new buyers. People who have had their licenses for less than five years would have to renew them every year, while those who have had their licenses for five years or more would be eligible for three-year licenses. If a gun owner fails to renew his license, he will face the same consequences as if he had never obtained one.
Because gun owners would be naturally hesitant to identify themselves and their weaponry so that they might be recorded into a government database and obliged to apply for permits, the system Jackson Lee envisions is absolutely impracticable. Voluntary participation is the exception rather than the rule for politicians seeking significantly less ambitious gun registration systems. Because the Justice Department would lack the resources to go after millions of refractory gun owners even if it knew who they were, Jackson Lee's punitive punishments would be imposed haphazardly on the few who occurred to catch the government's notice.
Who do you think those folks are? Jackson Lee should know about racial prejudice in police as a politician who opposes it.