Protesting George Zimmerman’s acquittal will not protect black Americans from future encounters with men who approach them in the dark, suspicious that they are up to no good. Protection could come from doing as Zimmerman did — carrying a concealed weapon.
Unwilling to become victims of street crime or mass shootings, and afraid that Congress and the president will restrict their ability to acquire firearms in the future, millions of Americans are buying handguns and obtaining concealed-carry permits. In the first quarter of 2013, Sturm, Ruger’s backlog of gun orders reached 2.1 million, up from 337,000 in the same period last year, USA Today reported in May. Permit applications for concealed-carry weapons are up by double digits in state after state, the Wall Street Journal reported earlier this month. By the end of this year, every state will allow concealed carry, as the Journal noted. Americans are increasingly arming themselves for self-defense. If black Americans do not participate in this self-armament, they will find themselves at a more profound disadvantage than the one presented by the dreaded “institutional racism” that supposedly set Zimmerman free.
And Oklahoma, Tennessee, Wyoming, and Nebraska all have nearly matched or surpassed last year’s totals with half of 2013 still to go.
A dozen states surveyed for this article, including Texas, Utah and Wisconsin, issued 537,000 permits last year, an 18% increase compared with a year prior and more than double the number issued in 2007. Early figures for 2013 show many states are on pace for their biggest year ever.
Florida, home of Trayvon Martin and George Zimmerman, issued its millionth concealed-carry permit earlier this year and is up to 1.09 million already. There are 19.3 million Floridians. Imagine walking the streets of Tampa, population roughly 350,000. Statistically, one of every 19 people you pass would have a concealed-carry permit (if we assume that Tampa’s population has the same percentage of permit holders as the state).
For more than a century after the Civil War, it was understood that black Americans could most effectively protect themselves from gun-wielding white racists by arming themselves in turn. As Adam Winkler pointed out in The Atlantic in 2011, one of Congress’s goals in passing the 14th Amendment was to ensure that blacks in the South had the constitutional right to keep and bear arms to protect themselves from the roaming bands of white terrorists whose elected representatives were passing laws to disarm blacks. In the 1960s, Huey Newton and Bobby Seale armed the Black Panthers in Oakland so they could protect themselves from allegedly racist police officers. Winkler recounted how Newton’s practice of carrying a weapon openly drew a great deal of attention and triggered an attempt in the legislature to restrict gun ownership for the purpose of disarming blacks:
In February of 1967, Oakland police officers stopped a car carrying Newton, Seale, and several other Panthers with rifles and handguns. When one officer asked to see one of the guns, Newton refused. “I don’t have to give you anything but my identification, name, and address,” he insisted. This, too, he had learned in law school.
“Who in the hell do you think you are?” an officer responded.
“Who in the hell do you think you are?,” Newton replied indignantly. He told the officer that he and his friends had a legal right to have their firearms.
Newton got out of the car, still holding his rifle.
“What are you going to do with that gun?” asked one of the stunned policemen.
“What are you going to do with your gun?” Newton replied.
By this time, the scene had drawn a crowd of onlookers. An officer told the bystanders to move on, but Newton shouted at them to stay. California law, he yelled, gave civilians a right to observe a police officer making an arrest, so long as they didn’t interfere. Newton played it up for the crowd. In a loud voice, he told the police officers, “If you try to shoot at me or if you try to take this gun, I’m going to shoot back at you, swine.” Although normally a black man with Newton’s attitude would quickly find himself handcuffed in the back of a police car, enough people had gathered on the street to discourage the officers from doing anything rash. Because they hadn’t committed any crime, the Panthers were allowed to go on their way.
Stokely Carmichael told an interviewer in 1988 that to protect themselves against white terrorists in Alabama and Mississippi, 90 percent of Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee field staffers carried guns by 1963. Martin Luther King Jr. applied for a concealed-carry permit in 1956 in Alabama, but he was denied. He did, however, keep an “arsenal” of guns in his home, Winkler wrote.
Black Americans have a long history of using the Second Amendment for effective self-protection against racists. Rather than holding protests in front of courthouses, wouldn’t it make a much stronger statement if Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson organized a national march on local and state permit-issuing agencies to register 1 million black Americans for concealed-carry permits?
One has to wonder whether the remnants of the ’60s black leadership in America really want to empower black Americans. Or is their real goal a continued stance of dependency on the government — and the power brokers who serve as middlemen between constituents and public officials? Maybe it is just a lack of imagination.
Sharpton has announced that the goal of his planned protests is for the Justice Department to charge George Zimmerman with violating Trayvon Martin’s civil rights. Surely it would be more empowering for thousands of black Americans to let white America know that they are exercising their Second Amendment rights.
Without the help of so-called civil-rights leaders, some black Americans have been protecting themselves quietly for years. In Texas, where concealed-carry applications contain a box for the race of the applicant, the number of permits held by black men rose by nearly 400 percent from 2000 to 2011, and the number held by black women rose by more than 600 percent, according to research by pro-gun economist John Lott Jr. and verified by Politifact Texas.
Lott told me over e-mail last week that his research shows two groups benefiting the most from carrying concealed weapons:
1) People who are most likely to be victims of violent crime. That overwhelmingly tends to be poor blacks who live in high-crime urban areas. . . . Police are extremely important in deterring crime, but the people who benefit the most from owning guns are the ones who are most likely to face violent criminals.
2) People who are relatively weaker physically. That tends to be two groups: women and the elderly. The presence of a gun represents a much bigger change in the ability to resist an attack than it does for most men.
That could be why Zimmerman, described by his mixed-martial-arts instructor as physically soft and incapable of throwing a punch, decided to carry. It evens the odds.
Granted, carrying concealed is not an option for minors, such as Trayvon Martin, as state laws typically do not allow them to get the permits. Florida law restricts concealed-carry permits to people 21 years of age or older, for example. But Zimmerman did not know Martin was only 17. Were it widely known that black Americans were engaged in a mass effort to arm themselves for protection against predators, racist and non-racist, how likely is it that the next Zimmerman would recklessly confront a black man in a hoodie?
George Zimmerman understood that carrying a concealed weapon improved his odds of surviving a violent confrontation with a physically stronger stranger in the dark of night. It did, with terrible consequences. If another consequence turned out to be that a huge swath of black America gives prejudice the finger, saying, “Hey, the Second Amendment applies to us too, so be careful, cowboy,” wouldn’t that be something?
— Andrew Cline is editorial-page editor of the New Hampshire Union Leader.