By Zach Oaster
The recent events on a baseball field in Virginia ignited a firestorm of “I told you so” articles, memes, and social media posts from the liberal mainstream. “See, guns violence can affect Republicans, so now what?” Well, yes, obviously… occasionally a rich white dude in America gets shot too. The insistence on new “common sense” gun laws again fall uncritically from the lips of people who think that new laws would, for the most part, take these bad white domestic terrorist dudes off the streets.
But really, do we think that many (or any!) of the gun laws that have been proposed in the past couple of years would prevent these white male terror shooters from doing their harm? Do you think that “common sense” is so strong among (mostly white, privileged) liberals that we have weighed out and determined all possible consequences to such a call for more laws?
And so with that in mind, I propose this as a conversation that white liberals need to take seriously… and this is only the beginning of the conversation, not an exhaustive vetting. Please feel free to add nuance, elevate the discourse, and talk this through.
Gun laws affect people of color disproportionately, just like many/most other laws enacted in the United States. If you think that gun laws are any different from drug laws or property laws, then you’re probably white. Just sayin’.
(Editorial note: this is the point where it would be helpful to have watched the documentary film “13th” or to have read “The New Jim Crow” by Michelle Alexander)
Think about it. Background checks are predicated on past engagement with the criminal justice system. If you are a person of color who has grown up in an overpoliced neighborhood, chances are that a random stop and frisk has at some point yielded some kind of blemish on your record. If white people have called the cops on you for “looking suspicious” in the mostly white suburb while you visited your aunt and uncle, your surprise and confusion over being harassed can lead to a charge of “obstruction,” “failure to present identification,” “disorderly conduct,” or “resisting arrest.” Those who pay attention know that people of color need only exist in America to be the target of the criminal justice system. The legal system has already ruled many POC unfit to own guns, by virtue of the system’s design.
And looking intersectionally, the entire system of law is racist – not just the drug war or the prison system. The entire system of law is bent against the marginalized. Transgender people often spend years jumping through expensive and time-consuming state-imposed hoops to obtain legal ID that reflects their identity. People living in poverty, or who have immigrated, or don’t have 3-5 recent bills showing a permanent address often cannot obtain drivers licenses and voting registration.
But, of all the people in the world I would like to deny access to guns, it is the marginalized who are not on that list: those who our system of law does not protect, and those who have the most to fear from everyday so-called “civil” society that seeks to call out and harm people who just want to use the damn bathroom, or who can’t rely on the police to come to their neighborhood when called – even when extreme harm is befalling them or their loved ones. If there is to be any legal gun ownership in the United States, and arguably, this is likely to be the case for perpetuity, then I want to make sure that I’m not a party to putting up ANY new barriers to my QTPOC friends to pack heat.
So, yes, a more intensified background check system might weed out the occasional spouse-beating middle-aged white business owner from Illinois. But how many more people will be denied access to guns based on nothing more than the color of their skin or their neighborhood of origin? Yes, increased enforcement of existing gun laws might keep the mentally-ill white teenager from the ‘burbs from stockpiling guns meant to cause harm at his school, but we also have entire populations of people in the United States who wish that they could exercise their constitutional right to defend themselves legally and with minimal liberal-white-imposed legal barriers. Civil rights history has shown us that legally armed POC can affect a great deal of positive change for their communities – just spend a few hours reading up on the founding of the Black Panther Party for Self Defense.
But more to the point of this post, I urge you to read up on the history of white liberal suppression of black gun ownership in the United States, and how many of today’s existing gun laws were expressly a response to tamp down gun ownership among POC during past times of social unrest and public outcry for social justice. Then, and only then, can we check in on our notions of “common sense” and start to collaboratively craft social solutions that go beyond the knee jerk appeals for more laws. There is probably a way to reconcile the insistence that Black Lives Matter with the critique of America’s obsession with guns and violence, but knowing what we know about the system of law, suggesting that we need more laws (and thus law enforcement) to make society safer for everyone, including POC, is an oxymoron. We need to do better than that.
Zach Oaster is a public sociologist, shepherd, and artisan. He is a full-time graduate student of sociology at Western Michigan University as well as a longtime performer of music and organizer around social justice issues. Zach identifies as a radical queer godless apostate and heretical disaffiliated United Methodist. He prefers masculine pronouns, and has a fabulous talent for writing third person bios. Zach describes his academic research as, “exploring the conflicts within conservative political and social discourse, revealed at the intersection of neoconservative and neoliberal ideologies – especially as those discourses converge on issues important to the LGBTQIA communities.” Find out more about Zach at www.FatToaster.com, or on Facebook.com/ZachOaster.