With the recent shootings of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, combined with the shootings that occurred in Dallas, the United States has endured a very dark week. Both Alton Sterling and Philando Castile were shot by police, their deaths leading to national outrage and various protests. During a Black Lives Matter protest in Dallas, five police officers were shot and killed by a lone gunman. After this week, the debates concerning civil rights, police brutality, and gun rights have all been combined into a continuous 72 hour display. Both Alton Sterling and Philando Castile were shot because they were carrying a firearm, but this has raised questions about why the officers involved in the shootings did not check to see if they had a license to carry or own a weapon. Philando Castile had a license to carry a concealed weapon and was still killed by an officer, and with the recent shootings in Dallas and various reactions from organizations such as the NRA, the perception following owning a weapon has begun to show a stark racial contrast.
The Second Amendment is one of the better known amendments to the Constitution. It reads, “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.” Since the inception of the United States, gun rights have been a topic of discussion, mostly concerning whether to limit the right to bear arms or to leave it unregulated. One of the oldest lobbyist groups in the United States is the National Rifle Association (more famously known as the NRA) which was founded in 1871. Throughout the years, the NRA has been involved in various legislations concerning gun rights and gun laws. However, their stances have not always remained the same. There was once a time where the NRA actually fought for gun regulation, such as in the 1920s and 30s. The president of the NRA at the time, Karl T. Frederick, actually assisted in drafting legislation that today, the NRA would consider a flagrant violation of the right to bear arms. Frederick didn’t even consider the Second Amendment when creating and supporting gun rights legislation, stating that the ability for law-abiding citizens to have guns does not lie in the Constitution but in legislative action and public sentiment. However, when this issue becomes intertwined with the racial history of the United States, gun rights start to take a slightly different stance.
The right to bear arms was not always afforded to people of color, most notably, those who were black. In the American South, especially, gun laws were written in such a way that those who were black could not even own a firearm. Like other constitutional rights that were stripped from African Americans, the right to own a firearm was added to the list. There was legislation passed later that made sure blacks and other minorities would be able to express their right to bear arms, but even the perception and right to own a weapon was looked down upon by whites when concerning blacks and other minorities. In a study published by Political Behavior, researchers cited the presence of racial resentment shared by whites, noting that this resentment often lead to the idea that blacks and other minorities were seeking “special rights” at the expense of the government and whites. This can be applied to affirmative action, a program that is often seen as giving blacks and other minorities an unfair advantage to whites. When it comes to gun rights and gun laws however, this racial resentment shifts toward crime and protection. In a study published by the Pew Research Center, protection was named the number one reason for owning a weapon. Couple this with the stereotypes of black criminals and the need for protection became a racial issue.
Alton Sterling and Philando Castile were shot and killed because they were in possession of a firearm. Owning a firearm is legal in the United States, and yet simply based on the knowledge that they had a gun they were killed, without even checking if they were legally owning the weapon or not. However, upon further investigation, Philando Castile was licensed to carry a firearm and even allegedly informed the officer that pulled him over that he had a concealed-carry permit and a gun on his person. This did not stop the officer from shooting him and effectively killing him in front of his girlfriend and daughter. Why was he shot? He had a license to carry a weapon. He was obeying the officer and following his commands. And yet he still ended up dead. The bigger question is why the NRA took almost two days to respond to the incident, compared to the statement that was issued just after the incidents in Dallas unfolded. Many members of the NRA are upset at the lack of attention given to the shootings of Philando Castile and Alton Sterling, especially noting the double standards faced by gun owners of color versus white gun owners.
The events that have occurred this past week have left the United States with many questions. Many are asking what is to be done now, especially when concerning gun control and racial relations. One thing that must change is the negative perception of minorities who own weapons. While the right to bear arms is a right that is heavily debated, it is still a right. Therefore, it is afforded to all citizens of the United States, regardless of their race, religion, or any other factor that makes them different than the majority. The NRA has a responsibility to acknowledge the events that have occurred this week, regardless of the circumstances surrounding them. If the NRA is truly concerned about the rights of individuals to carry firearms, their lack of attention payed to the events in Minnesota show that when it comes to blacks who own guns that race matters. The media is also responsible for the perceptions surrounding minorities and violence. By constantly showing videos and pictures of dead colored bodies, the public is becoming desensitized and essentially used to the image of blacks or minorities getting shot and killed. After the events in Dallas, the media treatment surrounding the officers that were killed or wounded were in complete contrast to both Alton Sterling and Philando Castile.
Pew Research Center: