Progressives Should Oppose Gun Control

Josh Ashkinaze, Contributing Writer

While we may associate gun sup­porters with angry white men in leather jackets and gun control supporters with hippies and peace signs, these stereo­types are only a product of recent times. Throughout American history, gun con­trol proponents were the powerful and the racist, not liberals and peaceniks.

Recognizing the roots of gun control advocacy — the intentional disarming of a marginalized population and selective enforcement of gun legislation — means opening up a new case against gun con­trol, one based on the systemic discrimi­nation that inevitably comes with arms legislation. The conservative and libertar­ian case against gun control is a matter of individual liberty. But after recognizing that gun control is consistently used to discriminate against minorities, there’s a case to be made that progressives, too, should be wary of gun control: It’s hypocritical that progressives champion equality while supporting gun laws with consistently discriminatory enforcement.

Let’s look at contemporary gun con­trol. Stop-and-frisk originated as a Su­preme Court interpretation of gun con­trol policy, not drug control policy. It’s no surprise, then, that 9 out of 10 of those stopped were Black or Latinx. And there is still extremely selective enforcement of gun control laws. In 2015, 47.5 percent of those convicted of firearms charges were Black. This sentencing disparity is especially important because the average firearms sentence in 2014 was a hefty six years. If we consider the resource-heavy sting operations that the Bureau of Al­cohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives conducts — these stings being the most advanced and militarized form of gun control — it is telling that over 90 percent of those arrested are ethnic minorities.

This is not just a recent phenomenon. Since Reconstruction, the enforced con­trol of firearms has resembled a war on minorities not unlike the war on drugs. Legislation crafted to control and regu­late firearms has never outgrown its rac­ist birth origins.

After the Civil War, southern states passed the Black Codes, a series of laws aimed at restricting freedmen’s social, political and economic freedom. One particularly important part of the Black Codes was essentially banning Black peo­ple from owning firearms. This was one of the primary goals of the Ku Klux Klan — to confiscate arms from Black people. In response to the general degradation of Black people in the South and the overt disarming of Black people in particular, the Reconstruction Congress managed to pass the Freedmen’s Bureau Bill, the Civil Rights Act of 1866, the 14th Amend­ment and the Civil Rights Act of 1870. These bills prohibited explicit civil rights violations against Black people, so the South had to get creative with policies to maintain the practice of disarming. They made nominally race-neutral laws that were still designed to disarm minorities, like restricting gun ownership to former Confederate soldier’s weapons and ban­ning cheap guns.

As an illustration of this trend, take the 1941 Florida Supreme Court ruling Watson v. Stone, in which a white man’s conviction for carrying a gun without a license was overturned. Florida Supreme Court Justice Rivers Buford was amazing­ly candid in his concurring opinion. He wrote that the gun violation in question was never meant to be applied to whites, anyway:

“The Act was passed for the purpose of disarming the negro laborers,” he wrote. “The statute was never intended to be applied to the white population and in practice has never been so applied … It is a safe guess to assume that more than 80 percent of the white men living in the rural sections of Florida have violated this statute.”

One of the most major gun control measures in the last 50 years, the Mulford Act, shows equally familiar racial under­tones. In the 1960s, the Black Panthers carried legal firearms to “patrol” officers during police stops. The notion of radical­ized Black people with weapons scared much of the public. Republican Assem­blyman Don Mulford channeled that fear to introduce the 1967 Mulford Act, which restricted carrying of loaded weapons. Reagan, an ostensible champion of indi­vidual liberty, signed the Act. Much like the South’s Reconstruction-era decision to ban inexpensive firearms, this was another case of nominally neutral gun control legislation passed in opposition to minorities owning arms.

If conventional gun control measures are largely discriminatory, what can we do about gun violence? There are two measures that would likely make an im­pact on overall gun violence without hav­ing predictably racist effects.

The first is developing a functional federal gun registry. Currently, the gun lobby has impaired the Bureau of Alco­hol, Tobacco and Firearms’ National Trac­ing Center, the agency that traces guns to owners. The Center is barred from using computerized records, and there is no national registration system, only this quaint West Virginia agency. If there was a working registry, it would be easier to trace firearms used in homicides. Addi­tionally, the subsidization of “smart guns” — guns with added technology to prevent another person from using the owner’s weapon — would be non-coercive and ef­fective. Let’s assume people actually used these. It would be harder to steal some­body’s gun, accidentally shoot yourself, accidently shoot others or “accidently” shoot others.

It is deeply ironic that progressives la­ment that minorities are targeted by law enforcement while supporting a move­ment that has historically been used by law enforcement to target minori­ties. From a libertarian or conservative standpoint, opposition to gun control is a simple matter of preserving individual freedom, and gun proponent rhetoric is filled with individuals who do seem to be­lieve that their hunting rifle is a bulwark to tyranny. Progressives don’t usually share this affection, but that’s irrelevant. You don’t need to be pro-gun to be wary of gun control. You just need to be against state-sponsored systemic discrimination.