What Is The Difference Between a Black American and White American Exercising Their 2nd Amendment Rights?
Philando Castile’s shooting death, at the hands of a police officer in Falcon Heights, Minnesota, one year ago, was numbingly similar to a string of other killings of black men by police. But Castile’s shooting was notably different in one crucial respect: Castile was licensed to carry a gun. He carefully informed Officer Jeronimo Yanez—exceeding his legal requirements under Minnesota law, though following the advice some gun-rights advocates offer for concealed carriers when stopped by police. And yet Yanez almost instantly shot him. That aspect made the case a central focus not just for Black Lives Matter activists, but for some gun owners, too.
Castile’s killing raised the question of whether African Americans truly have a right to bear arms in practice. Even setting aside the questionable grounds under which Yanez had pulled Castile over (a malfunctioning taillight is a classic pretextual stop police use to question black drivers), Castile had done everything right.
There’s a long history of African Americans attempting to arm themselves to defend against state violence. During the post-Civil War period, many blacks armed themselves to protect against white supremacist violence. Southern governments responded by attempting to strip the right to bear arms. A century later,
the Black Panthers made a habit of openly carrying guns as a way of displaying to racist police officers in Oakland that African Americans couldn’t be pushed around. In response, the California legislature passed a ban on open carry, and Governor Ronald Reagan signed it into law. Today, some gun-rights advocates have argued that African Americans would be best served to get gun licenses. They point to the high rates of violence in places like Chicago and the killings of black men,
like Trayvon Martin and Jordan Davis, as proof that it’s better to be armed. The Castile case showed the naïveté of that view. His firearm didn’t serve as protection, but instead led directly to this death. This is not uncommon, as Jennifer Carlson, a sociologist at the University of Arizona, wrote in her 2015 book Citizen-Protectors: “My fieldwork shows that law-abiding men of color are … more likely to be harassed simply for choosing to carry a gun. They must navigate the widespread presumptions that they are criminals and that their guns are illegally possessed or carried.”
The criminal-justice system is not designed to put things back the way they were; a jury cannot bring Castile back to life. But it is designed to at least offer some posthumous indication of wrong and right. A jury’s decision to acquit Yanez of second-degree manslaughter and other charges, and the release of a dashcam video showing Castile’s shooting, raises some pointed questions for the justice system itself and also for the NRA.
In recent months we’ve seen a number of cases where courts have excused police for shooting citizens even after the police made mistakes—and the citizens were doing nothing wrong—simply because these citizens were exercising their Second Amendment rights. This is unacceptable, and it represents the most extreme possible deprivation of civil rights and civil liberties …. I’m aware of no evidence that Yanez panicked because Castile was black. But whether he panicked because of race, simply because of the gun, or because of both, he still panicked, and he should have been held accountable. The jury’s verdict was a miscarriage of justice.
Colion Noir, a prominent African American gun-rights activist and lawyer who hosts an NRA-TV show, agreed:
I don’t feel [Yanez] was out to take a black life that day, but it doesn’t matter because his actions cost Phliando [sic] his life. My legal mind can see why they couldn’t get to Manslaughter in the Second Degree based solely on the facts at hand, but Yanez walking away from this case a free and clear man is just wrong.
But since the verdict, the NRA has remained conspicuously silent, just as it did after the shooting itself, which has upset some members—and not just black ones—who complain that the nation’s largest and most powerful gun organization is giving the impression it doesn’t care about black gun owners’s rights, much less lives.
Republicans control the House and Senate and the White House, and there is a conservative majority on the Supreme Court. Even with a Democratic president, the massacre of 28 mostly children in Sandy Hook, Connecticut, did not push legislators to tighten the laws. Regardless of one’s views about the ideal state of gun laws, the open question at the moment is not about what the Second Amendment means but to whom it applies—and in particular, whether African Americans can expect it to protect their rights. Castile’s death and Yanez’s acquittal cast serious doubt that they can.
Complaining of the NRA’s silence, Jazz Shaw, a conservative pundit, writes, “We should all want the organization to speak up on behalf of the rights of all law abiding gun owners. The group has developed too much of a reputation as an organization populated by old white guys. But we don’t want the NRA to be just for old white guys.” The question is who “we” is. Shaw might not want that, but the silence of NRA leadership leaves the organization’s official position less clear.