Politics & Policy

Gun Control’s Black Lives Matter Problem

People take part in a protest to defund the police in a place they are calling the “City Hall Autonomous Zone” in support of “Black Lives Matter” in New York, N.Y., June 30, 2020. (Carlo Allegri/Reuters)
Gun-control advocates have reason to worry that their support for the police will make them the next casualty of cancel culture.

June has been marked in recent years by a flurry of orange-clad marchers promoting National Gun Violence Awareness Month. This year’s planned gatherings, however, fell victim to the COVID-19 pandemic and were overshadowed by Black Lives Matter’s nationwide protests against institutional racism within policing. But the gun-control lobby’s reticence isn’t out of respect for the lives of George Floyd or Breonna Taylor but rather concern for its own preservation.

For decades, gun-control advocates promoted greater police power as well as known practices of institutional racism within police firearms-licensing divisions. Now that there are calls to “defund the police,” many leaders of the gun-control lobby, who are mostly white, should rightly fear that their history of siding with the police and promoting policies now deemed racist by progressives may make them the next casualty of cancel culture.

Gun control in the U.S. has historically been rooted in racism of the blatant “no blacks allowed” variety. Fundamentally, it is difficult to subjugate a group if it’s armed. This is why restrictions on minority gun ownership pre-date not only the institution of slavery in the U.S. but the Founding itself. The modern gun-control movement has supported a more insidious method of using police discretion and biased background checks to suppress firearms-license issuance.

New York’s Sullivan Act is one of the best examples of gun-control laws that put minorities at a disadvantage, and it has been widely copied. Passed in 1911, the law addressed what was considered a growing problem of gun ownership among minorities, immigrants, labor organizers, and anyone seen as a threat.

The law accomplished this by allowing majority-white police departments broad leeway to determine licensing requirements. Police departments can add their own requirements; even if applicants deemed undesirable checked all the required boxes, the law’s “good moral character” clause could be used as a catchall to deny them. Reminiscent of practices any segregationist would appreciate, the NYPD License Division, with its perpetually white leadership and the blessings of the New York City Council, has used exorbitant fees, long English-only applications, expansive ID requirements, the need for applicants to take time off from work, and numerous other unconventional tactics to restrict license issuance. The NAACP and other civil-rights groups have denounced these impediments as unfairly putting blacks and other minorities at a disadvantage.

Organizations that support such discretionary licensing requirements, such as Brady United Against Gun Violence, seem to believe that the same police who allegedly beat, shoot, and asphyxiate people of color in the street would turn around and equitably issue them firearms permits. This makes no sense.

And what about background checks, the holy grail of the gun-control agenda? The public seems to have little idea of what goes into them. For example, the NYPD License Division’s background check includes marijuana offenses — and not just convictions, but mere arrests. The ACLU’s research shows that African Americans are 3.64 times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession (in New York the figure is in the double digits). You would think that inclusion of such arrests on background checks would raise social-justice concerns. There is a broad movement dedicated to reforming a racist justice system, yet the gun-control lobby doesn’t seem to have gotten the memo. Moreover, and perhaps most egregiously, peaceful protesters who came out to support the Black Lives Matter movement and were arrested for minor infractions stand to lose their gun licenses or their right to ever have one. Still, the gun-control lobby remains silent.

Maybe we shouldn’t be surprised. After all, groups like Everytown for Gun Safety were founded by Mr. Stop-and-Frisk himself, former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg. Like Bloomberg, most funders behind gun-control initiatives are wealthy whites who can afford to hire private security. But even if gun-control groups believe that minority groups shouldn’t be armed, why take the additional step of providing special privileges to the police?

We’ve all balked at the armored military vehicles that start in Fallujah, get bought up by police departments, and end up in Farmingdale. So why does every gun-control bill since the 1934 Firearms Act contain clauses that exempt police officers from “common sense restrictions”? The 2004 Law Enforcement Safety Act, for example, promoted by gun control enthusiasts such as Senator Charles Schumer (D, N.Y.), allows active or retired officers the right to carry weapons nationwide. Assault-weapon-weary New York, Connecticut, and New Jersey certainly think it’s okay for their police officers to possess military arms and jam as many rounds into them as desired. And if keeping guns in the home is so dangerous, why are police officers encouraged to do so? Don’t blue lives matter too?

If we are trying to instill in our police that they are of and for the people, why do gun-control advocates grant them a status akin to super-citizen? One of the simplest ways to reduce the number of police shootings is to hold police officers to the same standard of self-defense the rest of us are held to. Surely the gun-control lobby’s mantra that “only the police should have guns” no longer holds.

Perhaps the most striking contradiction inherent in the gun-control lobby is that its promotion of licensing discrimination and special police privileges comes on the backs of those seeking to reduce gun violence. Rank-and-file members of the gun control movement are good people, many of whose lives have been tragically touched by gun crime. It’s only right that they seek to stem further violence and advocate laws to help prevent the mass shootings and killings we witness in this country. But these folks know little about the discriminatory nature of the policies that the gun-control lobby’s leadership supports.

Some groups have seen the light: that the gun-control lobby is violating the tenets of progressivism even as it’s nestled amongst the progressive Left. In 2017, New York’s Gays Against Guns was one of the first to acknowledge that gun control is a tool “of American white supremacy.” But this is far from the norm. So far, the gun-control lobby has refused to comment on policy changes in response to the Black Lives Matter movement, nor have leaders apologized for their role in perpetuating institutional racism.

If the Black Lives Matter movement is going to rid America of every vestige of racism, it must hold America’s gun-control lobby to the same standard and demand the resignation of its leadership. As the movement’s slogan goes: Their silence is violence.

T. S. Furey is a fellow with the London Center for Policy Research.

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