By Scott Charles
I spent a recent morning at a correctional facility having a conversation about gun violence. My audience, a dozen Black teens between 15 and 17, were all awaiting trial for murder.
Nearly every one of them had taken someone’s life with a firearm before they were old enough to purchase a lottery ticket. Yet here they were, just kids, with their last days of freedom likely behind them.
As I stood before them, I could not help thinking about their families, their victims’ families, and this peculiar relationship that we, as Black people, have with firearms. These weapons have wrought so much misery on our communities and figured so prominently in maintaining our bondage. The conversation made me more convinced than ever that we are well past the time for a reckoning around our relationship with guns.
The latest data from the U.S. Sentencing Commission reveals that Black Americans, despite only representing 12% of the U.S. population, account for more than half of all individuals convicted of a firearms offense carrying a mandatory minimum sentence in 2016. Homicide kills Black men under 45 more than any other means. And police use of force is the sixth leading cause of death for young Black men, according to a 2019 study.
Without question, one of the great hustles perpetrated against Black folks was when the gun lobby boldly proclaimed, “The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.” This convinced some of us to suspend disbelief and imagine a world in which we can count on being seen as a good guy when we have a gun in our hands.
The reality is we live in a society in which 17-year-old Kyle Rittenhouse can casually stroll past police officers holding the illegally acquired AR-15 he had just used to kill two people. As a white male, Rittenhouse will never be seen as posing the same threat as 12-year-old Tamir Rice playing alone with a toy gun in a park in an open carry state, or John Crawford III holding the toy gun he had picked up in a Walmart in that same open carry state, or Philando Castile reaching for his lawfully held gun permit, or Amir Locke holding the legally owned firearm that he had grabbed to defend himself against what he assumed to be home intruders.
The fact that the Second Amendment ultimately works against Black people should come as no surprise. It is not a bug but a feature. Rooted in anti-Blackness, its language was crafted by those who profited from our subjugation with the intent of suppressing rebellion, not enabling it.
The fact is, nothing frightened white Southerners more than the idea of an armed Black populace reciprocating the treatment they had endured. While the authors of the Second Amendment are long gone, the ghosts of their fear persist today.
Today, Black applicants are up to 5.5 times more likely than white applicants to be denied a concealed carry permit. Homicides in which ‘Stand Your Ground’ is used as a defense are 10 times more likely to be ruled justified when the shooter is white and the victim is Black than when the shooter is Black and the victim is white. And even as white men increasingly open-carry semi-automatic rifles into highly charged public spaces, there’s a growing call to revisit the practice of stop-and-frisk in urban communities.
As historian Carol Anderson forcefully argues in her book “The Second: Race and Guns in a Fatally Unequal America,” “The Second Amendment is so inherently, structurally flawed, so based on Black exclusion and debasement, that, unlike the other amendments, it can never be a pathway to civil and human rights for 47.5 million African Americans.”
Despite the ways that gun violence disproportionately affects communities that bear the scars of structural inequality, gun rights activists would have you believe that gun control of any kind represents the “real racism.”
To accept that the same crowd that opposes such things as Critical Race Theory, voting rights, and athletes kneeling on sidelines is genuinely concerned about protecting the liberties of Black Americans requires a level of mental gymnastics that would humble Simone Biles. The suggestion that underserved communities somehow benefit from a proliferation of firearms that feeds cycles of retaliatory violence is naïve at best. At worst, it is an act of gaslighting that purposely seeks to imperil Black lives.
This is not to say that as Black Americans we should not enjoy all the same guarantees that are afforded our white counterparts under the Second Amendment — we should hold America to all the lofty promises found in her Constitution.
At some point, though, we must come to terms with the fact that the firearm has done little to guarantee our freedoms and even less to protect our lives. At some point, we must acknowledge that the prevention of gun violence is one of the most pressing civil rights issues of our time. With so many lives in the balance, I would argue that point is now.
Scott Charles is an award-winning violence prevention activist and victim advocate who works with gunshot survivors in Philadelphia. Follow him on Twitter: @TheScottCharles.