Anti-Racism Reading Group #6: Race and Gun Policy

In an effort to hold myself accountable to better anti-racism theory and practice, I’ve started hosting an anti-racism reading group in the Seattle area. In this series, I’d like to share both these readings and some of the discussion. You can read summaries of previous discussions here.

The topic of this month’s anti-racism reading group was inspired in part by the Parkland shooting and the resulting public demonstrations for better public policy to prevent future gun violence.

Given that one of the main purposes of this reading group is to improve our capacity to understand the impacts of racism, this seemed to be a good opportunity to explore how racism impacts the gun control debate in our country. The following readings were sent out in advance:

  1.  “The simple, surprising factor that explains America’s gun problem” by Jason McDaniel and Sean McElwee
  2. “Racism, Gun Ownership and Gun Control: Biased Attitudes in US Whites May Influence Policy Decisions” by O’Brien, et al.
  3. “Racial Resentment and Whites’ Gun Policy Preferences in Contemporary America” by Filindra and Kaplan
  4. “The Secret History of Guns” by Adam Winkler
  5. “A researcher explains how racial resentment drives opposition to gun control” by German Lopez

While people went through these readings, I asked them to consider the following questions:

  1. What are the ways in which race and racism influence how people perceive gun ownership and gun control?
  2. How has the politics of gun regulation varied with the politics of race in American history?
  3. Philando Castile was a gun owner who had a concealed carry permit. He was explaining to Officer Jeronimo Yanez that he had a legal weapon on his person when Yanez shot him to death. How does he fit into this story of race and gun ownership?

More background

To give us some broader perspective on gun violence in the United States, I shared some statistics on firearm deaths.

  • 33,599 Americans were killed by firearms in 2014 (source).
  • 21,058 of these deaths (about two-thirds) were suicides (source).
  • 11,726 of these deaths were homicides (source).
    • Black men were the victims of 5,871 (about 50%) of these lethal shootings, despite making up only about 6% of the total U.S. population (source).
    • The risk of firearm homicide for a Black male in the United States is 27.5 per 100,000 versus 2.5 per 100,000 for White males (source).
    • About 750 of these deaths were woman killed by their intimate partners (source).
    • About 1000 of these homicides were committed by police officers (source).
    • 18 of these deaths were the result of mass shootings with three or more victims (source).

Notable in these statistics is the fact that although victims of mass shootings make up less than 0.1% of all gun deaths in a given year, these events capture national attention and trigger calls for gun control far out of proportion to that fact. Some factors that may contribute to this disproportion are:

  • Mass media caters to a predominantly White audience that finds mass shootings  to be a more credible threat to the personal safety than more common forms of gun violence which are more like to affect marginalized populations.
  • People’s reactions to these events seem to be proportionate to the extent to which they can imagine themselves (or people whose lives they value) being a victim of future events. Because the majority of people who die from firearm injuries have severe mental illness (in the case of suicides) or are Black men (in the case of homicides), the majority population in the U.S. does not see gun violence as a credible threat.
  • If at baseline, you don’t perceive yourself or your loved ones to be at a high risk of being the victim of gun violence, you are also unlikely to perceive benefit of policy change to reduce this risk and are thus less likely to advocate for it.

Other reflections on these statistics included

  • Beyond mortality, the impacts of gun violence include disability resulting from firearm injuries, PTSD experience by survivors as well as the family and friends of victims, and the particular grief of parents who lose children to gun violence.
  • The particularly strong public reaction to the Parkland shooting may be because:
    • These are kids who are particularly well versed in the language of activism and strategic use of social media.
    • The affected kids are majority White and relatively affluent.
    • There is a perception of increase frequency of school shootings (though defining and tracking this is surprisingly difficult).
    • The fact that their was an armed officer at Parkland who failed stop the shooter somewhat deflated the “good guy with a gun” argument.
  • Someone pointed out that this Tuesday’s walkout at Miami Northwestern Senior High School in protest of two students killed by gun violence received much less media attention, perhaps related to the students at this school being predominantly Black.
The history of gun regulation in the United States

The Secret History of Guns and The Gun Show by More Perfect both explore the history of gun ownership and gun regulation in the United States. They begin their narratives in the development of citizen-militias in the lead up to the Revolutionary war, but one of our participants noted that even before this there was the promotion of White settler gun ownership for the particular purpose of violent theft of indigenous lands.

Most interesting to me here was the examination of the shifting politics of gun regulation in the 1960s and 1970s before the issue had formed the firm partisan divide that we see today. Several specific events seemed to have had significant contributions to these shifts:

  • Activism by The Black Panther party that included openly carrying loaded firearms for self-defense from police and carrying loaded rifles into the California State Assembly in May 1967
  • Civil unrest against White supremacy in the United States (often referred to as “race riots”) in the summer of 1967 which increased White people’s fears of being the victim of gun violence.

While causality is hard to determine, the article makes the case that these events led to the Omnibus Crime Control and Safe Streets Act of 1968 and the Gun Control Act of 1968. Arguably, the passage of these laws was meant specifically to allay the White population’s fears of violent retribution from a Black underclass pushing back against the abuses of the White supremacist state.

While certainly not prominent supporters of this legislation, the NRA certainly did not oppose these regulations vigorously. However, dissent soon arose within the ranks of the NRA’s membership and in 1977, there was a coup of sorts in the NRA in which an extremist faction took over leadership of the NRA during their annual meeting in Cincinnati. It was only after this change in leadership that the NRA became the hardline political behemoth that they are today.

Something about the narrative and identity of gun ownership has been compelling enough to make the NRA’s blessing or rejection a major determinant of viability in American politics. Some factors that came up during discussion included:

  • Gun ownership is associated with a number of positive identities including independence, power, and masculinity. Threats to gun ownership thus also threaten these positive identities.
  • Opposition to gun regulation may be a manifestation of a broader rejection of the federal government’s regulatory power in libertarian ideology.
  • Fear of government overreach, which at its extremes devolves into conspiratorial fantasies about the imminent need to violently overthrow a tyrannical government, is allayed by gun ownership. Moreover, heroic fantasies of rebellion feed into positive self-image which is threatened by restrictions on gun ownership.

Additionally, the Filindra and Kaplan paper describes a shift in the politics of racial animosity in the post-Civil Rights era in which, the language of supposedly race-neutral rights was used to maintain racial disparity and push back against efforts to achieve racial equity through programs that specifically sought to improve the material conditions of African Americans. For example, “homeowner rights” was the language used to oppose housing desegregation efforts. This, they argue, had a substantial influence on post-1977 shift in NRA politics which focused on “gun owner rights” and strongly opposed the federal government’s authority to regulate gun ownership.

Coincident with this shift was the rise of strong anti-government views in the Republican party which allowed White voters to advocate for the reduction or elimination of programs which benefited Black people in more socially acceptable race-neutral language. In other words, the more that federal governance became perceived as a tool to dismantle White supremacy, the more the Republic party worked to dismantle the federal government. In this way, pushing back against gun regulations was a part of a broader mission to disempower a federal government which was increasingly seen as a threat to White supremacy.

Race, racism, and gun policy preferences

While no single factor is likely the overriding determinant of an individual’s policy preferences, it is important to understand how race and racism affect people’s behaviors.  To explore this, we read Filandra and Kaplan, 2015 and  O’Brien, et al. 2013.

The Filindra and Kaplan paper opens with a discussion of racial resentment and which they describe as “an expression of prejudice that rests on elevating individual rights and traditional values associated with individualism to an ideal status, and castigates blacks as lacking in those values not because of innate characteristics but as a result of a political choice to push for ‘special’ rights from the state.” In research, it is most often quantified using the Symbolic Racism Scale.

In the Filindra and Kaplan study, the authors primed about half of their subjects by showing them pictures of black faces before asking them questions about policy proposals and beliefs regarding guns. They found that this priming was associated with reduced support for gun regulation when compared to the group who did not receive this priming. Additionally, they found that subjects who scored higher on a measure of racial resentment were more influenced by this priming to more strongly reject gun control.

For the second part of the study, they analyzed data from American National Election Studies (ANES) and found that racial resentment was associated with preferences for decreased gun regulation, even after controlling for political values and beliefs.

Importantly, the authors point out that their result is context dependent. Although racial resentment may make White Americans less likely to support gun regulation in the present era where narratives of racial animosity are coded in the language of individualism, this is not a hard and fast relationship. In the 1970s when fear of White victimization by gun violence perpetrated by Black Americans was the more dominant narrative, racism could clearly have pushed policy preferences in the opposite direction. This is pertinent today in which narratives of White victims of gun violence in school shootings seems to be pushing the discourse back toward favoring gun control.

Fair warning, my ability to critically evaluate the methods of both of these papers is extremely limited, I’m much more familiar with methods used in biomedical research. If you have thoughts about the methodology of either of these papers, please leave a comment below!

Black gun ownership

While overall, Black people are more likely than White people to support gun control legislation, the Black population is not monolithic and there are groups like Black Guns Matter supporting gun ownership. Philando Castile himself owned a concealed-carry permit and was legally carrying a firearm when he was shot to death by police officer Jeronimo Yanez. The NRA’s silence in the wake of he death was noted by many in the racial justice community.

As the McDaniel and McElwee article points out, efforts toward gun regulation with criminal penalties for non-compliance are likely to be disproportionately enforced in Black populations. This should temper our enthusiasm for attempting to solve the issue of gun violence through such mechanisms.

There is clear precedent for this caution in the “law and order” politics of the late 20th century which was initially strongly supported by the Black community who were disproportionately the victims of violent crime, but then afterwards became the victims of violent police response to this crime.

Conclusions

We concluded as always with consideration of what concrete interventions might be possible based off of our readings and discussion. These include:

  • Given that the majority of gun deaths are suicides, those of us that are healthcare practitioners need to continue to work on screening people for suicide risk and then making sure that they do not have easy access to firearms when they experience suicidality.
  • To reduce the rate of accidental firearm injuries by children, we need to make sure to screen for the presence of firearms in households with children. If parents are unwilling to completely remove firearms from the household, we need to ensure that other safety measures are taken such as trigger locks and firearm safes.
  • Dismantling the racism that leads people to devalue the lives of marginalized people killed by gun violence is necessary to generate the political will to take the problem seriously. Alternately, efforts to increase the political power of these marginalized communities who are directly effected may be a more expedient path as “winning over White people” has been a unreliable political strategy historically.
  • Addressing the racial resentment which drives opposition to government interventions seen to benefit Black communities may facilitate sensible gun safety laws.

If you have additional thoughts please feel free to leave them in the comments below. Additionally, if you know me in real life and you want to be included in the listserv for meeting invitations and discussion, please shoot me an email.

 

Author: Harrison Kalodimos

I'm a family medicine resident at Swedish Medical Center in Seattle.

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