Remember the John Grisham novel “A Time to Kill,” when the defense attorney pleads the case of a black man who is on trial for killing two white men in rural Mississippi in front of an all white jury? He takes the courtroom through an exercise where he asks everyone to close their eyes and imagine the trauma and plight of the defendant’s daughter, who had suffered unconscionable rape and torture at the hands of the two dead men. The climax of the scene, and theme of the novel, was when the attorney asked of the courtroom, “Now imagine that girl was white.”
The defendant was acquitted, the good guys won, and racial equality thereafter reigned in the South. (This was a work of fiction.)
I’d like to take you through a similar exercise. There’s a group of well-funded, professionally organized men who have interpreted our Constitution in such a convoluted way as to demand that it is their God-given right to own high-caliber assault weapons. They argue that a cross-referenced document of who owns what and how many of these weapons is an infringement of that right. They are arguing against background checks at gun shows and over the Internet to prevent criminals and the mentally ill with histories of violence from obtaining firearms. The thought behind this is more nuanced than a simple “Mind Your Own Business” argument: it simply means that the fear that it would make it easier for the government to collect these weapons is stronger than the fear of the general public, including children, that the unregulated masses within this group have unrestricted access to these weapons. Even though there have been an increasing number of mass public shootings and copy-cat mass murders and there have been no gun confiscations of legally held guns. The leader of this group has proposed an even wider berth of gun ownership, even within the confines of our children’s schools. That this would make enormous profits for this group and the gun manufacturers who support it, is not the point. The point is their right.
I want you to do something for me. Close your eyes.
Picture this group of gun-wielding men spewing pieces of the Constitution from well-memorized pamphlets handed out at meetings. Picture the signs that they display that say, “We don’t call 9-1-1. We shoot.”
Now imagine that that leader and his ilk are black.
Let’s question whether Republicans would cling to their Second Amendment rights to bear assault weapons if Wayne LaPierre was black. Imagine, if you will, instead of an oldish looking white guy, whose looks don’t incite fear until he opens his mouth and the crazy pours out, a black man. Samuel L. Jackson comes to mind. He’s spewing about his right to form a militia as given to him by God and the Constitution.
Do you feel differently? Tell me the truth – I won’t tell anyone.
To white America, in some parts of the country more than others, the idea of a well-organized black self “regulated militia” inspires terror. It sounds like the Black Panthers.
As it should.
The answer to that is not that black Americans are scarier than whites, but that once the members of a group puts their (financial) goal ahead of the human lives of our citizenry, they have become a threat. And they are scary. Yet we have become so complacent as a people to believe that white men are less threatening, despite the fact that an overwhelming majority of the mass murders that have terrorized the nation have been at their hands. Consider the mass hysteria induced by a handful of Saudis attacking the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, and look at the measures we’ve taken to combat the Muslim stereotype. We could point to statistics of black on black crime and of black on white crime to try to justify the stance of the NRA to stand absolute against any reasonable restriction of high-capacity semi-automatic weapons, but it doesn’t compute.
In fact, there was a time NRA stood up to help train black Americans to protect themselves from the Ku Klux Klan and the local police in the South. There was a very real threat of white Americans coming to inflict mortal harm on black men and the NRA used its power, much limited in scope than it is now, to support the right to bear arms for newly freed slaves after the Civil War. Where soldiers in the North were encouraged to keep their rifles after the war, black American soldiers in the South were told no go. Southern white men were suddenly very pro gun control.
Black Panthers came in the 1960s to rectify that, carrying guns to the letter of the law. They armed themselves to the gills with weapons and a superior understanding of the law, believing that the power of equal treatment came with the ownership of guns. California’s open carry laws stipulated that guns must be seen and carried in a non-threatening way, and as such, the Black Panthers paraded with them. Your liberal friends have passed around the Ronald Reagan meme, which quotes him as saying when he was Governor of California, “I do not believe in taking away the right of a citizen for sporting, for hunting, and so forth. But I do believe that an AK-47, a machine gun, is not a sporting weapon nor is needed for the defense of the home.” Reagan went on to say that he saw “no reason why on the street today a citizen should be carrying loaded weapons.” This was his response to the Panthers. He was all for gun control, if it meant limiting the access of guns to black citizens.
Somewhere along the line, the group of protectors known as the NRA was overtaken by white men with dollar signs in their eyes, and, as Lance Armstrong apparently did to himself, took a perfectly fine idea and pumped it full of steroids and padded their pockets doing it. And we let them. Because they don’t look threatening.
There are still threats of bad people doing bad things. There is still a need for protection. Some would argue that there is a real need for guns for domestic protection: for the house, to ward against intruders. Defenders of the NRA believe that the base of this group still stands for protection. Yet, the NRA’s official stance on arming a person who has committed domestic abuse on his wife, girlfriend, partner, friend? — Protect the domestic violence abuser. The NRA has strayed so far from its roots as a protector of victims that it is now a protector of perpetrators.
In most states, an order of protection will not translate into an order to surrender firearms, even if the order of protection is granted because of a threat with a firearm.
In too many cases, as in the those of Diane Dye of Oklahoma, or Stephanie Holten of Washington, or Deborah Wigg of Virginia, the protection of a man threatening to use his supposed constitutionally ordained firearm to kill his wife has trumped the protection of the woman he threatened. His rights to bear arms usurped her right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Or in these cases, her right to live, because two of the three are now dead.
At the hands of white guys.
If we’re looking at guns as a means of protection in this country, protection of the weak against the strong, the vulnerable against the powerful, the victims from the bullies, we need to look hard at who is writing our laws, who is financing our legislature, and most importantly, we need to adjust our ideas of exactly what a threatening mob looks like.
Jaime Franchi is a freelance writer living on Long Island. Her work can be found on Salon.com, Milieu Magazine, Punchnel’s, and soon in the New York Times “Motherlode” blog. www.JaimeFranchi.com. Follow her on Twitter at @Jaimimimama.