Our view: Verdict in Minnesota police shooting shows how some licensed gun owners are regarded by Second Amendment advocates as more equal than others
The National Rifle Association is not normally a shrinking violet in the defense of licensed gun owners, but last Friday's acquittal of Jeronimo Yanez, the Minnesota police officer charged with second-degree manslaughter and dangerous discharge of a firearm in the death of Philando Castile, produced not even a tweet from the NRA. Given the considerable coverage given the shooting — the victim informed the officer that he had a permit and a firearm during a routine traffic stop, and the aftermath was even streamed live by Mr. Castile's girlfriend on Facebook — that may strike Second Amendment advocates as peculiar. Perhaps it's more than that.
The case hinged on one fairly simple question:
Did Officer Yanez have legitimate reason to fear Mr. Castile? The officer testified at trial that he fear the driver was reaching for his gun and not his driver's license. Why? He believed Mr. Castile fit the description of a robbery suspect, there was an odor of marijuana in the car, and he had specifically warned him not to reach for his weapon. But there was clearly another factor involved as well: Mr. Castile was black, and his death last summer was the latest in a wave of violent encounters between police and young black men.
One can just imagine the internal meetings at NRA headquarters. On the one hand, here was a licensed gun owner who dutifully announced the presence of a firearm and a permit in his vehicle yet wound up on the receiving end of a seven-bullet barrage. He hadn't been driving erratically; he had a brake light out. He had no criminal record. On the other, the victim was black, and the NRA has a lot of police officers as members. And while the NRA may sometimes describe itself as a civil rights organization, its base is overwhelmingly white and politically conservative.
Or to put it more simply, the NRA doesn't advocate for the Second Amendment, it advocates for the Second Amendment on behalf of those who have the correct skin color and political leanings. Serving that constituency apparently makes it acceptable for a police officer to experience racial panic.
Thus, perhaps the only surprising element of the NRA's silence is that it didn't condemn the subsequent non-violent protests of the verdict or perhaps offer a gratuitous condemnation of Black Lives Matter, either of which might have landed Wayne LaPierre a prominent guest spot on Alex Jones' far-right radio show.
At the very least, the NRA's silence ought to make African-American gun owners question not just the organization's bias but perhaps their own choice to carry a firearm. Guns rights advocates have long used the "good guys with guns" argument that insists a semiautomatic handgun in your coat pocket could be the difference between life and death in a confrontation. Indeed, it can; the more people who are carrying guns, the more likely that arguments can escalate to impulsive violence with potentially fatal results. This escalation of risk is probably a big reason why most Americans oppose allowing people to carry firearms in public, according to a recent study published in the American Journal of Public Health, which found that even gun owners don't want them in bars or schools.
But leaving aside the usual gun control arguments, Second Amendment advocates should at least recognize the fundamental questions raised by the Black Lives Matter movement — that justice is not dispensed with a blind eye to race, today or ever.
Who the "good guy" is in any encounter between two armed individuals is clearly in the eye of the beholder, and that eye can easily be clouded by racial prejudice, even when one of the parties is a police officer. To recognize this longstanding problem is not to oppose the police, it is to advocate for civil rights. Shouldn't an organization that claims to support the Constitution find kinship in that quest?
We acknowledge our bias in the gun control debate. We have long believed that this country's love of firearms has been an unmitigated disaster for its citizens, and while Baltimore's murder epidemic has multiple causes, an easy access to deadly weapons has surely worsened the problem. So will the NRA recognize its racial bias and the manner in which African Americans have been made targets? Such an admission could be the start of more meaningful dialogue about gun violence and the especially deadly consequences for black men who are three times more likely to be victimized than their white counterparts.
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