Race, Taste and Gun Control (redux)

America the Beautiful

Tuskegee College Women’s Rifle Team, cir. 1950.

On Sunday, British ex-pat Charles Cooke wrote a controversial article in the New York Times about the racial overtones of gun control laws. (Please read it!) I read it thinking “yes, yes, yes!” Gun control laws are motivated by racial mistrust. I’ve been saying this for about two years now.

Cooke argues his point by pointing to contemporary events, but the history of gun control laws, particularly in the South, are uglier still: blacks with guns are harder to lynch, so the various state governments did what they could to make gun ownership as difficult as possible for them.

Of course, making it harder for blacks to legally own a gun does not keep guns out the hands of black criminals, just average black citizens trying to defend themselves. But lets face it, politicians don’t care very much about black-on-black crime.

Cooke points out that there is still a low proportion of legally armed blacks, but I’d like to point out that in some places (particularly Texas) black women are the fastest growing market for gun ownership, which I can only think is a good thing.  

The only thing I would add is that there is a strong class element to gun control too: upper class urban whites favor gun control because they are afraid of small-town whites, even though most small-town whites I know (and I’m surrounded by them) are harmless, semi-automatic rifles and all. It is a fear not based in reality but ideology and rhetoric.

If I were to write the article beneath all over again, I’d do it differently, but I’ll let it stand for now.       

1) When I was a kid (say, late 80’s and early 90’s), the main focus of gun control proponents was handguns. Handguns, they argued, had to be heavily regulated (or even banned) because they were involved in so many crimes; besides,  no one really needed handguns for hunting or home defense.

Today, the focus of gun control proponents is on semi-automatic rifles. No one, it is said, needs these weapons for hunting, and handguns are sufficient for self-defense.

Strangely, semi-automatic rifles are common in America, but they are not used in many crimes. Handguns are used in many crimes, but for some reason no one wants to ban them anymore.

2) When I was a kid, the poster boy for gun control, the ticking time bomb, the creepy other that was innately dangerous and needed to be disarmed, was a black, teen-aged boy. The thought of him carrying a “Saturday night special” (80’s slang for a cheap handgun) was enough to give respectable people fits.

Today, the poster boy for gun control is a middle-aged white guy with a John Deere hat. He has become the intrinsically dangerous other  that we as a society have to disarm. The thought of him carrying an “assault weapon” (contemporary slang for a semi-auto rifle) makes respectable folks’ stomachs turn.

Being white (though not yet middle-aged!) I feel a little guilty pointing this out, but statistically speaking the young black man is still much more likely to commit a crime than the middle-aged white guy.( Blame it on youth or poverty or city culture or a combination of the three, the last thing I want to be doing is perpetuating a hurtful stereotype, the important thing is to point out that the new stereotype is not based on any reality.)

What is going on here? Here is my opinion: the old focus of gun control, black boys with handguns, was based to some degree on reality (the scourge of black-on-black crime in America’s cities) and was based to some degree on prejudice: black people are intrinsically more violent and need to be disarmed. Maybe I have a hunting rifle, but if I don’t see the point in owning a handgun, no one should own a handgun.

It is a good thing that Americans today are not as conditioned to see black youths as intrinsically violent. But the new stereotype (middle-aged white guy with an AR-15) has an even more tenuous relationship to reality. The new irrational prejudice is that middle-aged white guys are intrinsically violent and need to be disarmed. Maybe I have a revolver, but since I don’t see the point in owning a semi-automatic rifle, so no one should own one.

In both cases, a major theme of the gun control argument is the intrinsically violent “other” who carries a weapon that is somehow more evil than the weapons I might have in my closet. What has changed is the race and the style of firearm.

A few external factors go into this transformation:

  • Violent crime rates in America have steadily fallen since the 1970s. Black on black crime is still the scourge of many cities, but it is not as awful as it once was, and it does not fascinate us as it once did.
  • Americans are more sensitive about anti-black racism (thank God), but it is fashionable in some circles to bash on the middle-aged white guy. In our last presidential election, Mitt Romney’s race was actually seen as working against him!
  • Gun ownership, especially handgun ownership, has been rising for years, so it is harder to demonize handguns for the simple reason that so many people own them. Easier to demonize the semi-automatic, even if it is not commonly used in crimes.

So, as long as I can remember, discussions of gun control have always been clouded by racial mistrust and the demonization of certain styles of firearm. Maybe this is why politicians don’t do very much about crime, they are arguing about the wrong things.


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