White Supremacy and Guns: The Unbroken Link

The massacre of 21 in the Uvalde, Texas mass school shooting, with 19 of the killed being elementary children, shocked the conscience of the nation, or most of it. 

That mass shooting took place while grieving was still going on for the 10 victims of another slaughter in Buffalo.

While these gruesome stories made the headlines, they were only two of the 2500 mass shootings – in which four or more people, not including the shooter, are injured or killed – that took place in the United States this year as of early June. There have been so many incidents of mass killing that those with fewer than 10 victims seem to hardly penetrate the national consciousness.

By now there should be no doubt among anyone not in the pocket of the National Rifle Association that the proliferation of guns in the United States is a major factor, if not the major factor, in both the frequency and lethality of these attacks that are turning our communities into killing fields. Whatever demons drive people to kill massive numbers of innocent citizens, they’d be stymied without easy access to lethal weaponry. 

If there really is such a thing as American exceptionalism, one of the most “exceptional” things about this country is its romance with guns.  No other nation comes close to the concentration of firearms in private hands. The gun ownership rate in the United States is 120.5 firearms per 100 persons – more than one per person, and more than double the rate of the next highest independent country (Yemen, in the midst of civil war).  Neighboring Canada has a gun ownership rate of 34.7, and in the face of the ongoing US carnage it is about to strengthen its own already robust gun restrictions to head off a violent infection from the south.

It might seem that after a mass shooting many Americans would be appalled enough to surrender their guns or refrain from buying them in the future, but instead the opposite happens: People buy even more guns, either out of fear that the country is so unsafe they must arm themselves for self-defense, or out of a belief that government will finally get serious about controlling firearms so they’d better stock up while they can. Or both.

Getting rid of guns, especially the most lethal ones, is critical to stopping the killings. Of course, any attempt to restrict guns, or any classes of guns, will bring the gun lobby out on the streets, possibly accompanied by its armaments.

Which raises the question: Why the American love affair with guns? 

This is a complicated question with no easy answer, although many journalists, academics and politicians have grasped at the answer. We have a “frontier culture.”  We revere the Second Amendment. Guns are part of our spirit of “rugged individualism.”

Without a doubt, guns are at the heart of the current culture wars and intimately connected to the country’s political, racial, gender and regional differences.  According to the Pew Research Center, 41 percent of Republicans own guns against 16 percent of Democrats; 36 percent of Whites versus 24 percent of Blacks and 15 percent of Latinx; and 46 percent of rural residents against 28 percent of suburbanites and 19 percent of city dwellers. Most gun owners are men, 39 to 22 percent over women. In terms of firearms as an ideology and a way of life, the practitioners are largely rural, White, male and Republican.

But what has not been adequately explored is the role of race and racism, and specifically White supremacy, in the desire for gun ownership. And in saying this I look beyond the mass killings that were explicitly motivated by racism, such as this year’s Buffalo attack against Blacks, the 2015 shooting in Charleston, SC against Blacks (nine killed), the 2019 shooting in El Paso, Tex. targeting Latinx (23 killed), and the 2021 attack in Atlanta targeting Asian women (eight killed).  And these are just the mass shootings; to list all the racially motivated killings of Blacks by Whites (remembering Trayvon Martin and Ahmaud Arbery) would take up too much space. 

Too little attention has been paid to the connection between guns and racism in America. One of the few authors who has explored this nexus is Carol Anderson in her 2021 book The Second: Race and Guns in a Fatally Unequal America.  According to Anderson, a major factor behind the adoption of the Second Amendment was to ensure the existence of state militias to put down potential slave uprisings.  After the Civil War, White governments, mostly in the South, largely disarmed newly freed Blacks.  Why? Generally to emasculate and disempower them, but also because they feared armed uprisings against the White-supremacist state regimes they were putting in place. According to Anderson, law and jurisprudence in America has tended to interpret the “right to bear arms” as applying to Whites only.

The boiling over of Black frustration at the persistence of racism, and especially racist policing, after the May 2020 murder of George Floyd seeded a corresponding increase in fear among some White Americans of an imagined Black menace. A vivid illustration of this knee-jerk fear was the brandishing of guns by Mark and Patricia McCloskey, a White couple, against a peaceful Black Lives Matter march two years ago that passed their St. Louis home. The McCloskeys display – he pointed an AR-15-type rifle at the marchers, she a semi-automatic pistol – had so much resonance that not only did Missouri’s Republican Governor Mike Parson pardon the couple’s firearms conviction, but Mark McCloskey used his notoriety to launch a campaign for US Senate, running in the upcoming August Republican primary.

Paranoia about a menace to Whites by people of can be seen in the rise of “replacement theory,” the notion that third-world Black and Brown peoples are flocking to the United States, with the assistance of global elites and/or Jews, with the aim of overwhelming the existing White populations. Believers in replacement theory are becoming more than a fringe; they were well-represented in the deadly 2017 neo-Nazi rally in Charlottesville where marchers chanted “Jews will not replace us!”  The Buffalo killer also was a believer in replacement theory, perhaps best exemplified by William Pierce’s racist 1978novel The Turner Diaries that glorified violence in the name of White supremacy.

Most of us are well-schooled in the history of racist policing in America, but one element of the police harassment of the Black community has been to keep it disarmed. Black possessors of guns have been treated harshly, even if they owned the guns legally. Meanwhile, White gun owners hide behind the Second Amendment and are more likely to be left alone.

When the civil rights movement took flight in the 1950s and 1960s its leaders emphasized the need for peaceful tactics, and use or ownership of guns was not part of the strategy. But eventually, the persistence of racism, and particularly racist policing, gave rise to an armed Black resistance exemplified by the Black Panther Party. The Panthers never amounted to more than a tiny slice of the movement for civil rights, but their menace was magnified in the media and in the eyes of many Whites. According to Anderson, the rise of the Panthers in California under the relatively lax firearms laws of the time got the state serious about enacting stricter gun control – largely to shut them down.

The rising assertiveness of the Black empowerment movement took place concurrently with the late-1960s uprisings in major cities across the country – especially those following the 1968 assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. – which were fueled by frustration over the continuing legacy of Jim Crow: concentrated poverty and joblessness, poor schools, unhealthy environments, and the persistence of racism (including racist policing). This generated fear among many Whites that the unrest could be a threat to them, notwithstanding that the harm from the uprisings was seldom felt outside Black communities. Nevertheless, urban unrest contributed to an overblown fear, even paranoia, among some Whites that they were somehow endangered by social breakdown and that they’d better arm themselves. That so many of these Whites lived far from cities and from many non-Whites seemed not to allay their concerns.

Perhaps the obsession with guns among the White NRA crowd stems in part from a suppressed realization that minorities have legitimate, unaddressed grievances that might be taken out on them, just as southern Whites after the Civil War disarmed Blacks out of the same fear. They also harbor the feeling that in the unlikely event a racial uprising should visit White America, the authorities couldn’t or wouldn’t protect them.  This fear escalates when Democrats take control of the federal government under the assumption that they would push for gun control and be on the side of aggrieved Blacks rather than threatened Whites, and gun sales spike.

Sam Fulwood III, writing for the Center for American Progress, put it this way:

To this day, America’s wealth gap grows ever larger. Many people envision threats from “others” seeking to take away their property. Others, such as Tea Party adherents, talk of government takeovers and express open distrust that government is unable to defend and protect their interest by the rule of law. They are convinced it’s the citizen’s right to go it alone. With a gun.

Many, perhaps most, of the people who acquire guns, even high-powered ones, intend to use them only for self-defense. But this leads to an increased demand for lethal weapons, increasing the ubiquity of guns and making them available to those who wish to do harm.

How do we extricate ourselves from this escalating domestic arms race, assuming we summon the political will? The compromise gun safety measure that was enacted in late June barely gets to the starting line, in that it places no new restrictions on the most lethal weapons. Its call for expanded background checks, red-flag laws, mental-health programs and “school security” – i.e. turning what should be welcoming environments for learning into fortified camps patrolled by armed officers – fulfills the senators’ wish of appearing to do something about mass shootings without offending their NRA donors. The Washington Post’s Olivier Knox noted how much the Democrats had to concede just for the chance to pass something: “The top Democratic negotiator always predicted he wouldn’t get everything he wanted, while the top Republican always promised the bill wouldn’t have anything he didn’t want,” he wrote. And, of course, the new law does nothing about the underlying social tensions that drive gun sales. 

A necessary if not sufficient step toward ending the reign of guns is overcoming the nation’s legacy of White supremacy. This will be a long-term and difficult struggle but an essential one for so many reasons. It will require anti-racist activism and education over many years, and one focused on the younger generation rather than the entrenched views of self-aggrieved White adults. In the short term, banning automatic weapons would reduce the lethality of would-be mass killings, but such a measure is constantly frustrated by the very persistence of White supremacy. Effective gun control has also been stymied by the right-wing Supreme Court’s relatively new interpretation of the Second Amendment as permitting the private ownership of virtually all types of guns and ignoring the amendment’s language about their use by “a well-regulated militia.”  No one was regulating the Buffalo killer when he slaughtered innocent Black shoppers.  The proliferation of lethal weaponry in public places will only accelerate with the Court’s June 23 decision striking down restrictions on carrying guns outside the home.

The connection between racism and gun culture is only one of many threads in the tangled web of the nation’s gun violence, but one that must be more fully explored if we’re ever to envision our communities ceasing to be killing fields.

In the meanwhile, we need to get guns off the streets. But this might be as heavy a lift as ending racism itself. 

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