On Sunday (October 1), a 64-year-old White man named Stephen Paddock opened fire from a Las Vegas hotel room window, shooting into the crowd at the Route 91 Harvest country music festival and later killing himself. With at least 59 people killed and 527 wounded as of press time, this mass shooting surpasses the 2016 Pulse nightclub massacre as the country’s deadliest shooting by a single triggerman.
Just like Pulse and other mass shootings before it, the aftermath of this tragedy is following a time-honored template: Law enforcement rushes to confirm or reject the assailant as a “terrorist” (read: Muslim, Brown-skinned). The Islamic State plays on our Islamophobia by claiming dubious responsibility.
Mainstream media outlets follow every new development, treating each revelation about the shooter’s weapons stash, motive and music preferences with the same unrelenting morbid curiosity. Their headlines blast all-caps superlatives like “WORST” and “DEADLIEST” with zero context. The thousands of Native and African Americans that White people slaughtered in Tulsa, Wounded Knee and countless other places don’t even register in their majority-White panel discussions. Moreover, their coverage unfailingly grants White shooters a narrative complexity (Was he a loner? What was his childhood like?) in death that they never give Black victims of police violence or the people who loved them (Did she provoke the officer? Why wouldn’t she just comply? Why did her second cousin steal that candy bar 10 years ago?).
Of course, politicians of all leanings send their “thoughts and prayers” to the victims, calling on the same higher power many conveniently forget when taking gun lobby money. And don’t forget the rush to pathologize White shooters. This time around, President Donald Trump is alleging that the shooter suffered from mental illness, and outlets are reporting that he was on anti-anxiety medication that could have caused him to act aggressively.
If your social media feeds look anything like mine, this Groundhog Day of a post-massacre cycle includes one other crucial aspect: critics, often liberal ones, who demand their legislators fight the National Rifle Association’s (NRA) lobbying power and impose gun control measures. They say things like, “We need action, not prayers,” and “I don’t get why anybody owns a gun.”
These arguments don’t endear the critics to Second Amendment groups and supporters who use deliberate and racist fearmongering to justify legalized assault rifles. But more importantly, they conceal the far more insidious racism lurking within their own beliefs. They say that gun control makes us safer without acknowledging why Black gun ownership rates grew over the past five years, especially after the election of Donald Trump. And their push for a nation without guns will fail, as it always does, unless they address two dangerous blind spots:
Most gun control measures rely on law enforcement that people of color rightfully don’t trust.
MC and political activist Michael “Killer Mike” Render once defended the Second Amendment by saying, “I represent a group of people who are being killed by the people who their tax money pays.”
Mike certainly doesn’t represent all left-leaning Black activists, but his statement addresses something that too many gun control advocates ignore. While gun-toting White racists threaten communities of color with an unyielding frequency, one of the biggest daily threats—particularly for African and Native Americans—comes from law enforcement. That threat existed when early U.S. municipalities first created police departments to recapture the enslaved, and it continues today, when they are killed at disproportionately high rates.
Most contemporary gun control legislation doesn’t stop police departments of all sizes from arming themselves to the teeth, greeting Black protesters with military-grade weapons and tactics, calling on the actual military to suppress pushback to their policing or appropriating activist chants while violently claiming public spaces for themselves.
It does, however, allow these agencies explicit authority to enforce who can have what guns. Last year, it relied on terror watch lists that target people of color to determine that ownership.
We cannot tell communities of color to trust law enforcement agencies—who don’t intervene when White supremacists fire into crowds or take racists to Burger King after arresting them for killing Black churchgoers—to protect them from mass shooters. They already have and exercise the means to kill people of color en masse.
Gun control measures did work—just not against White shooters.
The NRA’s current pro-Second Amendment stance contrasts with its previous support for gun control measures. The group successfully lobbied for both California’s Mulford Act of 1967 and its federal successor, the Gun Control Act of 1968. So it’s clear that the NRA can understand why certain people shouldn’t access assault rifles, machine guns or other mass murder-primed arms.
But to the NRA, “certain people” originally meant Black activists. The Mulford Act came barely two months after Black Panther Party members staged an open-carry demonstration at the California state capitol. The legislation repealed part of the state’s Penal Code 12031, which allowed people to carry loaded weapons—as the Panthers did while patrolling Black neighborhoods to ward off police abuse—as long as they were in the open. The Panthers still believed in guns, but without the law’s protection, other armed groups—like the Los Angeles Police Department—had legal authority to shoot up Party headquarters.
Repression like what the Panthers faced dates back to the antebellum period, when state laws prohibited people who were enslaved from even touching guns without a White supervisor. Free African Americans who owned guns risked seizure and violent punishment by White so-called “citizen patrols.” The end of the Civil War brought no relief as White supremacist governments enacted Black codes that effectively outlawed Black gun ownership.
Founded in 1871, the NRA did not participate in these gun ownership debates for much of its early history. That changed in 1926, when NRA president Karl Fredrick responded to perceptions of gun violence in immigrant communities by drafting legislation to restrict concealed carry practices. The organization then embarked on a gun control mission that primarily impacted people of color (including immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe, who had yet to be deemed “White”).
Thirty years later, the NRA was silent when the state of Alabama denied Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. a concealed carry permit after his house was firebombed. Decades later, the NRA is true to form, saying nothing when Black legal gunowners like Philando Castile are shot dead by police. Instead, it chooses to demonize unarmed activists who are fighting for equity as the real threat.
Gun control in America won’t work for all Americans unless advocates push to demilitarize police departments and advance measures that don’t disproportionately impact people of color. Gun control reform that does not go this route will end in laws that further empower police to seize weapons and use them against whomever they choose. History shows who they’ll target first.