The NRA Says Gun Control Is Racist. They Would Know.
If the NRA wants to talk about race, they could start by talking about their history of promoting racist gun laws
Facing heightened scrutiny in the aftermath of the Valentine’s Day mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, the National Rifle Association has launched an all-out social media blitz aimed at undermining the student activists from Parkland and portraying gun control advocates as racially insensitive.
In a series of videos released ahead of last Saturday’s March for Our Lives event, NRA-TV host Colion Noir mocked and condemned the Parkland shooting survivors who organized the march, singling out David Hogg and accusing the teen of not caring about the safety of black Americans. Rapper Killer Mike, whose real name is Michael Render, joined Noir in one of the videos, defending gun ownership and accusing gun control advocates of not caring about shooting deaths when the victims are black. Render made the valid point that not all progressive activists are genuine allies of black Americans—but he did it while speaking on a propaganda outlet owned by the NRA, an organization that uses racism to stoke fear and promote gun policies that disproportionately harm people of color.
The talking point is not a new one. The NRA has a long history of invoking the racist origins of gun control as a rationale for opposing new gun laws while accusing gun control advocates of wanting to deny blacks the ability to defend themselves.
Beneath the cynical talking point lies an ugly truth: Throughout American history, gun laws—like many other areas of law and justice—have been motivated by racist fear appeals, shaped by racial prejudice, and executed in racially unjust ways. Of course, the NRA should be well aware of this, given that the organization has been at the forefront of the movement to design and pass laws that are racist both in intent and outcome.
Race, Guns, and the Birth of the NRA
Gun rights and gun control have always coexisted. During the earliest days of the country, the Founding Fathers established strict gun control laws that denied gun ownership to slaves and free blacks alike, as well as law-abiding white men who didn’t pledge loyalty to the Revolution. Meanwhile, those men who were allowed to own guns were mandated, under a 1792 federal law, to purchase a military-style gun and ammunition—and then, to report for frequent check-ins, where their weapons were inspected and registered.
As UCLA law professor Adam Winkler detailed in a 2013 article, the post-Civil War era ushered in a slew of new gun control laws. The primary aim of these laws was to disarm blacks as part of a broader effort to maintain white supremacy. This time period saw the passage of the Black Codes, which allowed states in the South to prohibit newly freed slaves from possessing guns.
“To enforce these laws,” Winkler explained, “racists began to form posses that would go out at night in large groups, generally wearing disguises, and terrorize black homes, seizing every gun they could find.”
Eventually, these groups converged under one name: the Ku Klux Klan.
The NRA, which also formed in the aftermath of the Civil War, got involved in politics and started actively promoting gun control legislation in the 1920s and 1930s, following in the footsteps of—and sometimes advocating for the same very policies as—the KKK. Among the first pieces of legislation they sponsored was the Uniform Firearms Act, a model law drafted by then-NRA president Karl Frederick. One of the provisions of the law stated that no one could carry a concealed handgun in public without a permit from the local police. Another provision laid out the requirements for obtaining a permit, stating that they would be granted only to “suitable” persons with a “proper reason for carrying” a firearm.
Much like the Black Codes, the Uniform Firearms Act was toothless without enforcement. For that, legislators turned to local law enforcement, which in many areas of the country—particularly the South—had forged informal alliances with the KKK. Not surprisingly, the “suitability” provision of the law was frequently used to deny gun permits to blacks and immigrants. As Winkler noted, it was this very law that allowed police to turn down Martin Luther King Jr.’s request for a firearm permit in 1956, after his home was firebombed.
The 1960s ushered in another wave of NRA-backed gun control laws, many of which were enacted in an effort to disarm black nationalist groups that had begun to take up arms to defend their communities during the tumultuous and often violent civil rights era. When the Black Panther Party (BPP)—whose members carried weapons to guard against police brutality — led an armed protest at the California capitol building in 1967, then-Governor Ronald Reagan responded by signing the Mulford Act, which prohibited open carry of weapons in public places. The NRA was among the groups that supported repealing open-carry laws in California to restrict black self-defense.
The following year saw the passage of the Gun Control Act of 1968, signed into law by then-President Richard Nixon. The law banned “Saturday Night Specials”—cheaply-made handguns often confiscated in minority communities—and also expanded the licensing of gun dealers and barred felons from owning firearms. The NRA was not shy about taking credit for the law’s passage, touting it in the pages of American Rifleman, the group’s signature publication. While not stated explicitly, the racist underpinnings of the new legislation were not exactly a secret. As one critic commented at the time, the federal law “was passed not to control guns but to control blacks.”
The NRA’s Deadly Agenda
Like so many other areas of American law, gun laws are “race neutral” on paper, but not so much in their application—a reality that the NRA doesn’t want or care to talk about.
Consider the example of Stand Your Ground (SYG) laws, an extension of the Castle Doctrine that allows a person to use lethal self-defense—without the duty to retreat—wherever he or she “reasonably fears” serious injury at the hands of another person. First passed in Florida in 2005, SYG laws have now been enacted in at least 24 states thanks to an aggressive lobbying push by the NRA and its allies in the right-wing American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC).
SYG laws are equitable on the surface—that is, they claim to offer the same rights to everyone, regardless of characteristics like race, class, or gender—but the statistics on SYG cases reveal stark racial disparities. The laws, as applied, result in a disproportionate increase in firearm homicide rates among people of color, while also making it easier for their killers to walk free.
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One study, published by the Justice Policy Center at the Urban Institute, found that in states with SYG laws, 34 percent of white on black homicides are ruled justified, while just 3 percent of black on white homicides are ruled justified. Meanwhile, in states without SYG laws, the percentage of homicides ruled justified was not found to be associated with race.
Comparing states with and without SYG laws, the study found that white on black homicides were more likely to be ruled justified in SYG states than non-SYG states. However, the opposite was true for black on white homicides: In states with SYG laws, black on white homicides were less likely to be ruled justified than in states without SYG laws. Specifically, in states that enact SYG laws, white on black homicides have more than double the odds of being found justified (compared to states that don’t have SYG laws), while black on white homicides have less than half the odds of being found justified.
In another study, researchers looked at the outcomes of SYG cases in Florida from 2005 (when the law was enacted) through 2013. After controlling for other factors — such as who initiated the confrontation and whether or not the victim was armed — the analysis found that Florida SYG cases were half as likely to result in conviction when the victim was not white, compared to cases involving white victims.
The results of that study confirm earlier findings from a Tampa Bay Times analysis of Florida SYG cases, which revealed that the SYG defense was more than twice as likely to be used successfully when the victim was black and the killer was not black than when the victim was white and the killer was not.
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Of course, these statistics never make their way into the NRA’s talking points, nor are they considered by the NRA in its push for more states to adopt gun laws with racially disparate outcomes. Instead, the NRA deceptively cherry picks statistics and anecdotes that fit its narrative in an attempt to make these laws look more appealing to those who stand to lose the most from them. And when confronted by the deadly reality of policies like SYG, the typical response of the NRA is deafening silence. Even more cynically, when the NRA does choose to comment on issues involving race and gun violence, it often does so in a way that exacerbates the underlying biases and stereotypes that contribute to racial violence in the first place.
The Science of Racial Bias
Through their rhetoric and policy positions, the NRA celebrates vigilantism, encouraging people to take the law into their hands with a shoot first, ask questions later approach. They use fear appeals to scare people, and then tell us we need guns to protect ourselves from the overhyped threats they peddle. Years of research show that this is not only dangerous, but overwhelmingly likely to promote racially unjust outcomes.
One of the mechanisms that contributes to racially disparate outcomes in gun violence is shooter bias —a well documented phenomenon that refers to the biased propensity to “shoot first and ask questions later” when encountering a subject who is black. Researchers began studying this phenomenon after the 1999 shooting death of Amadou Diallo, an unarmed black man shot 41 times by police who mistakenly thought he had a weapon. In a series of studies using a shooter simulation video game with college students, community members, and police officers, researchers found that subjects were quicker to respond “shoot” to a black target and “don’t shoot” to a white one, and that they were more likely to shoot unarmed black targets than unarmed white ones.
More recently, a 2015 meta-analysis by researchers at the University of Illinois found that people will shoot at images of armed black men more quickly than images of armed men of other races, and take more time to decide not to shoot when presented with an image of an unarmed black man.
“[W]e found two main things,” study author Yara Mekawi told NPR. “First, people were quicker to shoot black targets with a gun, relative to white targets with a gun. And … people were more trigger-happy when shooting black targets compared to shooting white targets.”
Moreover, shooter bias against blacks increased in states with more lax gun laws. As Mekawi put it, “in states that had relatively permissive gun laws, the shooting threshold for black targets was lower than for white targets.”
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Another line of research tells us more about the sociocultural factors and mental processes that contribute to shooter bias. Broadly, studies suggest that there are at least two primary sources of shooter bias. First, there is a well documented and pervasive stereotype that black men are more dangerous than white men. Studies have shown that this stereotype contributes to the snap decision to shoot a black subject more quickly than a white subject (and also influences public opinion in the aftermath of police-involved shooting deaths). In addition to this phenomenon, research shows that people who believe the world is a dangerous place are more likely to act on biases against people perceived as “others”—i.e., those belonging to different racial and/or cultural groups.
Taken together, this research suggests that people are most likely to mistakenly shoot an unarmed black person when they have a preexisting belief that the world is a dangerous place—a belief that the NRA actively encourages in its advertising, promotional videos, and public statements.
Adding insult to injury, the NRA also employs tactics that heighten racial prejudice and exacerbate the stereotypes that contribute to shooter bias in the first place. As described in a 2015 study, “the language of individual freedom used by the gun rights movement utilizes the same racially meaningful tropes as the rhetoric of the white resistance to black civil rights that developed after WWII and into the 1970s.”
Perhaps it shouldn’t come as a surprise, then, that the most vocal supporters of gun rights are more likely to think of criminals as black, while envisioning law-abiding citizens as white. This also falls in line with research showing that racism and racial resentment are strong predictors of gun ownership and opposition to gun control.
The NRA’s Record On Race
While the NRA and its propagandists are happy to use race to argue against gun control — and even happier to use racism to stoke fear and sell guns to white people — they aren’t so open to discussing race when it comes to racial disparities in gun violence, policing, and related areas.
Alton Sterling, 37, was shot to death by police officers in Louisiana while he was pinned facedown on the ground with a firearm in his pocket. Philando Castile, 32, was shot to death by police officers in Minnesota after he disclosed that he was legally carrying a licensed firearm. Twelve-year-old Tamir Rice was shot to death by police officers in Cleveland as he walked through a park carrying a toy gun. The same year, 22-year-old John Crawford was shot to death by police while carrying a toy gun. Rice and Crawford were both killed in Ohio, an open carry state. The year before, 33-year-old Jermaine McBean was shot to death by police while carrying a toy rifle through his apartment complex in Broward County, Florida.
The NRA never launched a social media blitz drawing attention to these killings nor to other killings of lawfully armed black men or women—even when they were armed with nothing more than a toy gun. And when NRA board member Ted Nugent did weigh in on the killing of Philando Castile, he spread a false report on social media attempting to smear Castile and then tried to blame the shooting on President Obama.
Nineteen-year-old college student Kendrec McDade was shot and killed by police officers in Pasadena, California. The officers thought McDade was armed; he was found with nothing but a cell phone in his pocket. Timothy Russell and his passenger, Malissa Williams, were shot and killed in Cleveland after police officers fired 137 rounds into their car while pursuing them. Officers said they thought they saw a possible weapon, but no weapons or shell casings were found in the car or along the chase route. Just two weeks ago, 22-year-old Stephon Clark was shot to death by police in his own backyard in Sacramento, California. The officers claimed they thought Clark had a gun. It turned out to be a cellphone.
The NRA never launched a social media blitz drawing attention to these killings, nor to other fatal shootings of unarmed black men or women.
When 17-year-old Trayvon Martin was shot and killed by George Zimmerman — who got away with the killing thanks to Florida’s Stand Your Ground law—the NRA waited two months before saying anything about it. When NRA Vice President Wayne LaPierre finally broke the silence, he didn’t even mention Trayvon Martin’s name. He did, however, take the time to criticize the media for its “sensational reporting from Florida,” while Ted Nugent called the slain teenager a “dope smoking, racist gangsta wannabe.”
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When 31-year-old Marissa Alexander was given a 20-year prison sentence in Florida for firing a single warning shot after being attacked by her then-estranged husband, the NRA didn’t come to her defense—even though it called Stand Your Ground laws a human right after George Zimmerman used the defense to get away with killing Trayvon Martin.
But now, the NRA would like you to believe that it suddenly cares about the racial disparities in gun violence that it has spent decades exacerbating, exploiting, and then ignoring when confronted.
As discussed in this article, the problems surrounding race and guns in America are deadly serious. There is a need to address racial disparities in gun violence. There is a need to confront racism in the application of gun laws. There is a need to acknowledge the fact that gun violence in black communities is treated as an inevitability while gun violence in white communities is treated as a tragedy.
But the NRA has never been interested in any of this. It never will be interested in any of this. The NRA is only interested in selling guns — and it only cares about race to the extent that it can be used to further an agenda that, all too often, has deadly consequences for people of color.