Is 2016 at the intersection of guns and race?
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When a younger, less gray-haired candidate Obama was caught in 2008 telling Democratic donors that rural small towners "cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren't like them," the presidential hopeful was widely derided by press, Republicans and reticent white voters itching for a see-black-man-melt moment. By 2012, he didn't raise it again, but a culturally Jurassic GOP desperately sought to revive it as the equivalent of Republican nominee Mitt Romney's 47 percent comment.

Fast-forward seven years, six gun massacres and six presidential gun speeches later, and the president's '08 remarks were prescient, if not altogether on the mark. For critics who wrongly viewed it as a gaffe, now could be a good time for President Obama to rock an I-told-you-so moment. Of course, he won't.


What we saw in Charleston two weeks ago, along with the effective shutdown reaction of conservatives to President Obama's relatively resigned critique on gun control, could present troubling red state implications for the upcoming 2016 cycle.

And, perhaps, the gruesome likelihood of Roof repeats if left unaddressed.

Since America avoids difficult conversations, that's where we're headed. There's been little spirited back-and-forth on gun control from lawmakers since we're all on rebel flags at the moment. But when guns do come up, it's either as a useful foil for partisans who sweat uncomfortably at talk of racism as a prime motivator or in the form of "Meet the Press" attempts to draw all attention from the white supremacist mindset that makes some people use them. Even in a second term where, presumably, he's free to go off script, Obama nervously struggled to convey the linkage between gun violence culture and America's racist roots. Adviser Valerie Jarrett tried it for him in a subsequent tweet, acknowledging "racism and hate are horrible realities, made worse by the accessibility of guns."

Yet, more uncomfortable to discuss is an increases in gun sales and support for right-to-carry laws that reflect a rather sizable chunk of the white electorate under the jittery impression someone's about to snatch the guns away. The question is how much of that sentiment is aggravated by race. A copious, yet highly controversial 2013 study by British and Australian researchers discovered that "for each 1 point increase in symbolic racism there was a 50 [percent] increase in the odds of having a gun at home. After also accounting for having a gun in the home, there was still a 28 [percent] increase in support for permits to carry concealed handguns, for each one point increase in symbolic racism."

Not all white people are Dylann Roofs — and not all black people are Aaron Alexises, the slain 2013 Navy Yard shooter (there is, however, a glaring disparity in who survives police responses and who doesn't). But many whites — including some of the 81 percent who believe people should be allowed to own firearms and the 46 percent who say, sure, you can carry it in public, too, according to a May YouGov poll — don't alleviate fears over a historically noxious mix of white supremacist movements and those who own guns within them. Roof is just the tip of that iceberg, as we've seen throughout history, because there's (unfortunately) little that's unusual about Caucasian men with political chips on their shoulder committing acts of mass domestic terrorism. Interestingly enough, a comparably lesser 62 percent of blacks believe in allowing gun ownership, despite the fact they're twice as likely to experience gun-influenced injury or death. Why are so many whites who are statistically less likely to die from gun violence feeling such a bond with the quintessential rifle on the gun rack?

One would argue that it's rooted in stars-and-stripes American independence and a colonialist grit that kicked the British troops out. Yet geography played a big role in that: Out of all 13 colonies, for example, South Carolina sported the largest population of pro-British Loyalists, many slave-owning landowners more afraid of revolting black slaves stealing guns than tyrannical and fully armed divisions of English redcoats. (Just saying.)

And while some conservatives might flippantly point out that 41 percent white gun ownership compared to only 19 percent black gun ownership is what makes certain communities safer, it's still not answering what's prompted the larger white voting population's tendency to rely on guns as a useful political tool. National Rifle Association (NRA) members account for barely 1.5 percent of the population and are largely white males. As we've seen, gun lobbies are pretty good at effectively muting any congressional debate on gun control.

Enter the Age of Obama. Not only has gun production spiked, but more Americans own guns for "protection" now (48 percent, according to Pew) than those who claimed to in 1999 (26 percent according to a ABC News/Washington Post poll at that time). And as Pew shows, suddenly in 2008, the number of folks favoring the right to own guns jumped from 32 percent to 45 percent — by 2014, it was 52 percent — compared to 46 percent that want gun control.

We've seen these nervous gun runs before: during tense racial inflection points such as Reconstruction, when black slaves were suddenly "free" and a wave of African-Americans entered elected office.

The problem isn't just Republicans or a vibrant gun lobby successfully leveraging the issue. Just as socially hazardous is a very flammable combination of racial dog whistle politics and the growing ease with which many citizens — especially in defiantly anti-fed and proudly red Southern and Western states — can access firearms. And it's not people of color who are mostly buying them: It's politically mobilized and angrily right-leaning whites with strong points to make (which could be why some Republicans in Congress don't want the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives collecting racial data on who's buying weapons). Thus, it's no coincidence that Roof told his victims that black people are "taking over" at a time Republican primary voters in that YouGov poll rank terrorism as the second most important issue behind the economy.

We can already see this will be a foreign policy election just as much as it will be an economy election. Rising gun revivalism aligned with unmitigated fear of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) skipping on your front doorstep is also driving a segment of the Republican electorate that just so happens to favor expanded access to guns. That could become a very powerful political message for Republicans to exploit in 2016. It's the sort of messaging, too, that adds a terrifying layer of friction to a time that is overseasoned with race and a perception that citizens of color are, instead, threats to contain at all costs.

Ellison is a veteran political strategist and contributing editor for The Root. He is also Washington correspondent for The Philadelphia Tribune, chief political correspondent for Uptown magazine, Sunday Washington insider for WDAS-FM (Philadephia) and a panelist on MSNBC's "Hardball with Chris Matthews." Follow him on Twitter @ellisonreport.