Back-to-back mass-shooting tragedies in El Paso, Texas and Dayton, Ohio have led predictably to a chorus of mainstream progressives begging for government to curtail or take away our individual rights. The refrain is a familiar one: confronted with such tragedies, only hardcore right-wingers would oppose gun-control measures. Neither side of the debate seems to seriously question the premise that strong support of protections for individual gun ownership belongs to the political right, but is there any reason in principle to accept this premise?
Too often ignored in the popular debate is the relationship between stricter gun laws and structural, institutional racism. Advocates of gun control are guilty of abstracting the policy itself from the people and institutions that will ultimately enforce it.
This points to a more general problem with mainstream progressivism: it refuses to grapple in any serious way with institutions and incentives. Instead it simply assumes that every problem has government solution that can be easily applied. Also, it presumes that government agencies such as, regulatory agencies, police departments, and courts, are staffed with benevolent guardians who will apply the solution exactly as its advocates intend.
Political, social and economic problems become far more complicated if we can’t facilely take these things for granted. Passing a new law is not like waving a magic wand. Indeed, gun control proponents should be reminded that all laws are ultimately enforced with violence and threats of violence — seemingly enforced, that is, at the point of a gun.
The racialized history of American gun laws is well-known — or at least it should be; these laws have systematically targeted out-groups at key points in the country’s history, relegating black Americans to second-class status in favor of a political and economic status quo.
In the years following the end of the Civil War, Southern whites resolved to ensure that blacks would be defenseless, that they would remain subordinated, still effectively held in bondage. In fact, before the turn of the century “gun control was almost exclusively a Southern phenomenon,” designed to preserve the racist social and economic system of the South.
Legal scholar David Kopel notes that at the congressional hearings leading up to the passage of the 14th Amendment, supporters testified that whites were “seizing all fire-arms found in the hands of the freedmen,” a clear violation of their constitutional rights.
Forcibly disarming blacks in the South was among the early Ku Klux Klan’s reasons for organizing and one of its first goals. They knew what today’s well-meaning advocates of gun control do not — that the black letter of the law is one thing and de facto power relations are quite another.
These gun control laws were passed to disarm black citizens. We might do well to keep this history in mind today when we consider how new, more restrictive gun laws will be applied. Were the mere dictates of positive law the panacea that mainstream progressives believe they are, the history of this country would have looked very different.
Today, gun control legislation aggravates the criminal justice crisis in the United States, having a disproportionate impact on black Americans. The most recent available data from the United States Sentencing Commission shows that in fiscal year 2018, more than 56 percent of federal firearm offenders were black.
Black American are more likely than any other group, to be convicted of and subject to a firearms offense carrying a mandatory minimum. For the country’s black communities, on-the-ground enforcement of tougher gun laws will mean more harassment at the hands of the police, more arrests and more harsh prison sentences.
For example, stop-and-frisk, infamous for its role in the police harassment of black Americans, is a favorite among policies employed to enforce gun control measures.
Few on the left or right have had the courage and common sense to suggest that if we are to enact more restrictive gun control measures, we should begin with police officers, who are many orders of magnitude more dangerous to American society than are mass shooters.
Viewed through this sociological and historical lens — that is, correctly understand — favoring tighter controls and restrictions on gun ownership is a right-wing position, an authoritarian one that favors those with power at the expense of the poor, vulnerable and powerless.
Some left-wing groups are beginning to understand this and respond accordingly, abandoning the irrational and baseless conventional wisdom that support of robust gun rights is somehow conservative. The Trigger Warning Queer & Trans Gun Club and the Socialist Rifle Association are just two of the growing number of politically left-wing gun clubs and affinity organizations popping up with the goal of arming and preparing vulnerable groups.
In principle, gun control is not a liberal or progressive cause, but an authoritarian, socially retrograde one that puts vulnerable groups in harm’s way. Favoring strong gun rights for every single individual is a radically left-wing stance if ever there was one, placing the vulnerable on level ground with would-be oppressors both inside of government and outside.