Neither Justin Jones, of Nashville, nor Justin Pearson, of Memphis, had to convince anyone that racism fueled their expulsions. The Republican legislators who expelled them made that point forcefully enough. A legislature that had refused for years to remove a bust of Nathan Bedford Forrest, an especially vicious Confederate general and early Ku Klux Klan leader, moved with exceptional speed to remove lawmakers who had championed the cause of protesters — their constituents — seeking gun regulations in the wake of a mass shooting at a Nashville elementary school last month.
To make sure they were properly understood, the Republican majority permitted a white female legislator allied with the two Justins to stay: Only Black men were stripped of power. One sneering GOP legislator spoke to Pearson as if he were a neighborhood boy who had shoveled only half the driveway before wandering off to play.
But for all the condescension on display, fear seemed to be driving the day as White conservatives mounted a desperate defense against the incoming racial and generational tide.
The history of firearms in the US is similarly a function of White fear. From slave patrols to the murders of Blacks attempting to vote and the assassinations of Black leaders, guns have been a security blanket with which generations of American bigots have smothered Black aspirations and assertions of Black power.
Gun culture continues to be warped by racial aggression. Gun shows are notorious for trading in racist paraphernalia. When National Rifle Association leader Wayne LaPierre paints a vivid picture of “terrorists, home invaders, drug cartels, car jackers, ‘knock-out’ gamers, rapers, haters, campus killers, airport killers, shopping mall killers,” all of them determined to attack the frightened White men whose NRA dues maintain LaPierre in his preferred lifestyle, what color do his listeners see?
For some, the answer is painfully obvious. In 2015, Dylann Roof fired some 70 rounds at parishioners at Emanuel AME church in Charleston, South Carolina, killing nine. His gun, he said, was a tool of racial righteousness. “Somebody had to do it,” Roof later told police. “Black people are killing White people every day.”
The rhetoric of Donald Trump, champion of the NRA and “Second Amendment people,” is similarly saturated in images of Black criminality. While campaigning for president in 2015 Trump tweeted an obviously bogus statistic, from the comically phony “Crime Statistics Bureau — San Francisco,” purporting to show that 81% of White homicide victims in the US had been murdered by Blacks. (According to actual FBI statistics for 2014, the most recent year then available, 82% of White homicides were committed by Whites.) Trump repeatedly told his 2016 crowds that the murder rate was at a 45-year high — another preposterous lie but one that Trump evidently concluded was well-suited to red-hat mythology. Black neighborhoods were so violent, Trump said, that you go out to “buy a loaf of bread and you end up getting shot.”
To protect themselves from the Black crime wave, White people need guns — lots and lots of guns. A 2013 study by British and Australian researchers found a strong relationship between White racial resentment (“symbolic racism”) and gun possession and opposition to gun regulation in the US.
After accounting for all explanatory variables, researchers found that for each one-point increase in symbolic racism there was a 50% increase in the odds of having a gun at home.
That doesn’t mean that every gun owner is steeped in racial resentment any more than the prevalence of reckless gunners who leave firearms to be stolen by criminals or picked up by children erases the reality that some gun owners are meticulous and disciplined about the use and storage of their guns. But it’s perhaps worth noting that the guns-everywhere-for-everybody craze pushed by right-wing judges and politicians accompanies the latest racial panic about a declining White majority, and a threatening rise of non-White power.
Gun enthusiasts sometimes seek to reposition the racist roots of American gun culture beneath the tree of liberty. The disarming of Black Americans after Reconstruction, in this telling, is evidence of the horrors of a nation with too few guns. But the history of armed Whites disarming Blacks, in order to subjugate and terrorize them, is hardly a compelling argument against keeping guns away from dangerous people. It’s simply more evidence that guns have historically provided terroristic means to racist ends.
The same legislature that took deep offense at Jones and Pearson has essentially abandoned all constraints on gun possession; it is morally incapacitated in the face of gun violence. In Tennessee, as in most red states today, anyone with a hair-trigger temper, an alcohol problem and a brain banging with rage can buy a modern military arsenal, practically instantly, and carry it wherever unsteady emotions dictate. The conservative majority of the Supreme Court appears poised to extend that pathology nationwide.
Curtailing gun violence would require different laws rooted not only in evidence and facts but in different attitudes and rhetoric. No such aspirations were on display by Republicans in Tennessee. Their response to mass murder, enabled by a gun culture they consistently valorize and champion, was to shrug their shoulders. Then, naturally, they blamed the Black guys.
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This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Francis Wilkinson is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering U.S. politics and policy. Previously, he was an editor for the Week, a writer for Rolling Stone, a communications consultant and a political media strategist.
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