Second Amendment Rights: Not Applicable for Black People
Jessica ShotwellJessica Shotwell is a Health Equity Intern at the Center for Global Policy Solutions, where she focuses on evidence-based policy research. Her interests include the social determinants of health, racial/ethnic health disparities, and social policy reform. She is currently a Senior at Middle Tennessee State University, and plans to attend graduate school to get her Ph.D. in Sociology and Social Policy.
On the Fourth of July, Dr. Maya Rockeymoore, president, CEO, and founder of the Center for Global Policy Solutions, tackled the reality of our country’s exclusionary Declaration of Independence in her op-ed, “A Declaration of Inclusion on Independence Day.” But, in the following days, we were reminded yet again that the “inalienable rights” our country’s forefathers declared do not apply to everyone.
Specifically, the shooting that took the life of Philando Castile just two days after the Fourth of July reminded the African American community once again that somehow Second Amendment rights, as outlined in our nation’s Bill of Rights, do not apply to black people.
Castile was shot and killed during a traffic stop in Minnesota while his fiancée, Diamond Reynolds, and four-year-old daughter were watching in the car. Castile informed the police officer about his handgun and permit. With his hands raised, he reached for his wallet after the officer asked him to get his license and registration. Reynolds begins to record after the officer fatally shot Castile four times. The video shows the officer with his gun, still pointing at Castile, as he says “I told him not to reach for it. I told him to get his hand off it.” Expected to get his license and simultaneously not move in order to follow that order, Castile’s life was cut short. Second Amendment rights did not apply to him.
In this tragedy, there is a black person with a gun, which may be legal on paper, but is illegal in reality. This is not the first time that Second Amendment rights have not covered African Americans. From the 1857 Dred Scott Supreme Court decision that banned black people from citizenship because it would give them the right “to keep and carry arms wherever they went” to the black codes placed into law after the Civil War that prohibited black people from owning and carrying guns, our country has a considerable history of keeping African Americans from truly having the right to bear arms.
Probably the most memorable moment involving blacks and the Second Amendment occurred in 1967. Members of The Black Panther Party, led by Huey Newton and Bobby Seale, marched, armed with guns, into the California State Capitol in protest against state legislator Don Mulford’s new gun-control legislation. Although California was an open-carry state at the time, those second amendment rights did not apply to black people, and black people with guns presented a perceived threat. In retaliation for the march, then California Governor Ronald Reagan signed the Mulford Act into law—one of the strictest pieces of gun control legislation in the country at the time. The National Rifle Association (NRA), today the most powerful gun-rights lobby in the United States, backed the law.
The NRA remained silent as Philando Castile’s fiancée’s video went viral across the nation. NRA members and non-members alike have expressed their disapproval of the NRA’s silence via social media, calling for the most influential gun-rights advocacy organization to make a statement on the unlawful killing of licensed gun carrier Philando Castile.
It took just hours after the horrific shooting on July 8 that tragically ended the lives of five Dallas Police Department officers for the NRA to post a Twitter message expressing their condolences and honoring Dallas police officers for their heroism. It was not until later that afternoon (two days after the Minnesota killing) that the NRA posted a general message with regards to Philando Castile. Referring to his death as “the reports from Minnesota,” the gun rights lobby only managed to call the incident “troubling,” adding that that the incident must be “thoroughly investigated” before commenting.
Despite the NRA’s continual defense of a citizen’s right to bear arms, its history of having supported gun-control legislation in response to a demonstration by armed African Americans as well as its delayed response to the shooting of Philando Castile reveal a bias regarding who they actually defend. The NRA’s distance from the issue highlights some bigger questions: Who is advocating for Black gun owners and their rights if the largest gun-rights lobby group in America is not? Is there a hidden clause to the Second Amendment that applies to Black people?
Unfortunately, death at the hands of police officers is all too common for African Americans. Our country is in dire need of systemic change when it comes to policing and the African American community. Historically, we have seen Black lives disregarded as lives are taken at the hands of those who are supposed to serve and protect. These killings serve to reaffirm the bigoted notion that being Black warrants use of lethal force. The presence of a gun, even when permissible by law, seems to increase this perceived threat. We have seen Second Amendment rights not only exclude a whole population, but also used as a reason to kill them. It is time for all Americans, including gun rights advocates, to speak up regarding African Americans and their Second Amendment.