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A Quaker Argument against Gun Control

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In my youth I attended Powell House, a Quaker conference and retreat center near Old Chatham Meeting in upstate New York. Among the posters that covered the entrance hall to the youth center was one that impressed me. It read: “In one year, guns murdered 17 people in Finland, 35 in Australia, 39 in England and Wales, 60 in Spain, 194 in Germany, 200 in Canada, and 9,484 in the United States. God Bless America.” There was a picture of a handgun painted like the American flag below the text. I was convinced.

Like most Quakers, I assumed that limiting the legal possession of firearms was a good thing. Liberal Americans believe this generally, but Quakers in particular have long advocated restricting—even banning—possession of guns. Unfortunately, poor, African American communities would bear the brunt of these restrictions. The residents of these communities are vulnerable to police misconduct and have fewer legal resources than more privileged Americans. Doubling down on criminalization would only perpetuate the creeping racism that has bedeviled attempts at violence reduction since the 1960s.

Gun control has been racially charged from its inception. The term was coined after John F. Kennedy’s assassination in 1963, but the movement gained momentum a few years after that when the Black Panthers began openly carrying weapons in Oakland, California (at the time, there was a California law that allowed carrying a loaded rifle or shotgun in public, as long as it was publicly displayed and pointed at no one). In a 2012 article for The New Yorker, Jill Lepore noted—and she is not the first—that the original supporters of gun control were conservatives frightened by the prospect of guns in the hands of African American people. Until the culture wars of the 1990s, gun control was supported by both progressives and conservatives. The left turned a blind eye to racism, while the right exploited racially coded language about gun control to win votes in white, suburban America. As America’s cities grew less white and more violent in the 1970s and 1980s, the boogeyman for conservatives became the urban African American “thug.” When Ronald Reagan said in 1983, “There’s only one way to get real gun control: disarm the thugs and the criminals,” he wasn’t talking about white people.

During the culture wars of the 1990s, pro-gun organizations began to emphasize citizens’ vulnerability. The National Rifle Association (NRA) exploited this narrative. A 1990s promotional video for the NRA’s “Refuse To Be A Victim” seminars opens with a white woman alone in a parking garage. As she fumbles for her keys, a dusky man in baggy pants and oversized boots rushes toward her as the soundtrack alerts us to her vulnerability. He turns out—surprise!—to be an affable white man who just wants to say hi, but the implication is clear: white women visiting the city have to fear African American thugs from the alleys. This narrative has had far-reaching impact.

As a result, law enforcement has been mostly directed toward illegal gun ownership by poor, urban African Americans. Veiled in the language of being “tough on crime,” this practice undermines citizens’ trust of the American system of justice. While the United States has managed to eliminate the most explicit discriminatory language from its laws, police still target underprivileged communities by using laws that criminalize possession of drugs, guns, and other contraband. Since indigent Americans of color often have little legal recourse or savvy, they are low-risk targets for abuses of power. They don’t usually have the luxury of suing the police, and can rarely even post bail.

The most recent acknowledgement of the iniquity of law enforcement tactics was a federal court’s opinion that “stop-and-frisk” searches in New York City were not only unconstitutional under the Fourth Amendment’s ban on unreasonable searches and seizures but also under the Fourteenth Amendment’s ban on racial profiling. A police officer’s suspicion can be as nebulous as observing “furtive movements,” the most common justification for a stop. In a city that is only 25 percent African American, 55 percent of people stopped and frisked by police were African American. The police have especially targeted young men of color. According to the New York Civil Liberties Union, the New York Police Department stopped and frisked African American males aged 14 to 24 168,000 times in 2011. There were only 158,406 African American males in that age range living in the city’s five boroughs that year. Nine out of ten of those stopped were completely innocent. Only 1/10 of 1 percent of the stops led to seizures of guns. This program is not targeting illegal weapons; it is intimidating an entire population. New York City officials point to a falling crime rate, but the crime rate in that city as well as other major cities around the country started falling even before stop-and-frisk was implemented.

According to the U.S. Department of Justice and civil rights groups, racial profiling produces widespread distrust of law enforcement in targeted communities. People who distrust the police are more likely to engage in “street justice,” bypassing the system that has failed them. In Detroit, Michigan, the closest city to where I live, revenge killings and tit-for-tat turf wars are common. While it might seem that criminalizing the possession of the guns used in those killings could stop them, most of those guns are owned illegally in the first place. The truth is that many of these killings happen because of a deep, persistent distrust of the Detroit Police Department, who ran roughshod over Detroit’s poor, African American neighborhoods for decades. The last thing an African American Detroiter wants to do in a crisis is involve the police.

For the people—mostly poor, mostly urban, mostly African American—convicted of illegal gun possession, the consequences are severe and long-lasting. According to the U.S. Sentencing Commission, in 2011, the last year for which data is available, more than 49 percent of those convicted of federal firearm crimes were African American. Fewer than 13 percent of Americans are African American. The average sentence for firearm crimes in 2011, according to the Commission, was 83 months. This is longer than for any other crime except sex abuse, child pornography, kidnapping, and murder.

The clearest parallel to the enforcement of gun bans is the way our country treats the possession and use of marijuana. In The New Jim Crow, author Michelle Alexander documents that the use of marijuana is more or less the same across racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic groups, while enforcement of marijuana possession laws is not. Nationally, African Americans are 3.73 times more likely than whites to be arrested for marijuana possession, according to a 2013 report by the American Civil Liberties Union that used data from the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s Uniform Crime Reporting Program. It should be noted that while some states have decriminalized or legalized marijuana use, possession remains illegal under federal law.

In no state do marijuana arrests represent the state’s ethnic makeup. Where I live, in Ann Arbor, Michigan, marijuana arrests are few (the city famously liberalized its cannabis laws in 1974), and there is an annual “Hash Bash,” when police look the other way as the town dissolves into a smoky haze. In Detroit, hundreds of young African American men are arrested every year for possession of less than an ounce of pot, and the Detroit Police frisk students for drugs as they are leaving school. If the Grosse Pointe Police were to do the same at the cushy private school where I teach, there would be outrage and lawsuits. Further criminalizing firearm possession will compound the already lopsided enforcement of gun laws, just as the War on Drugs fell squarely on the shoulders of poor African Americans. All of this discrimination should be unacceptable to Quakers.

The most enduring legacy of Quakers in the United States is our fight for racial and gender equality. Though we are now known more for our involvement in the antiwar movement of the 1960s and 1970s, ending slavery and racism was our first national political struggle. The difficulty of gun control for Quakers is that its implementation seems to pit the testimony of peace against those of equality and community. Although banning guns seems peaceful, it’s not clear that criminalization of gun possession even works. No study has shown that such measures make a significant difference in the prevalence of gun ownership in a community. These laws only make more people criminals.

In a 2013 article for Harper’s Magazine, Dan Baum wrote, “The smart question is not ‘How can we ban more guns?’ but ‘How can we live more safely among the millions of guns already floating around?’” There is currently approximately one gun in the United States for every citizen—man, woman, and child. The guns are not going anywhere. Threatening to make gun owners into criminals stifles debate and leads down a road to selective enforcement, racial profiling, and mass disenfranchisement.

There are effective methods of controlling gun violence. One commonly cited suggestion is to limit the size of ammunition magazines that can be sold and carried. Such limitations should be accompanied by a trade-in policy, whereby old, illegal magazines can be swapped out for free in exchange for smaller ones. Additionally, since so many gun crimes are committed with stolen weapons, another suggested control is to require and help provide safe ways of storing guns. Some states mandate gun safes, but none provide help for poor people who can’t afford one. The best way to increase compliance would be to remove such barriers. A few states even hold gun owners accountable for crimes committed with their stolen guns if those guns were left unsecured. I am on the fence about this idea, as it, too, involves increased criminalization but also provides an incentive for gun owners to keep their weapons locked up. Conspiracy-minded gun owners will hate this final suggestion: a national registry of guns that would facilitate the reporting of stolen guns, and alert police to the presence of danger in the area (most stolen guns are used locally) and to the weapon’s appearance and original owner.

Most Quakers I have spoken to chafe at these ideas. I have been told that I have “given up” or accepted an unacceptable status quo. But Quakers have historically been both idealistic and clear-eyed in politics. We seek from God to learn the path to a world full of grace, harmony, and peace, but we have never been afraid to work doggedly and incrementally to bring ourselves closer to that goal. The Quaker struggle to promote an end to slavery began slowly—most seventeenth- and early eighteenth-century Quakers owned slaves when they came to the American colonies—but by 1775, they had convinced the Continental Congress to ban the import of slaves. In the late 1930s, Quakers provided the political pressure and manpower for Kindertransport, which extricated 10,000 Jewish children from Europe and cared for them in foster homes. Large, common-sense political and humanitarian initiatives have been a Quaker forte for centuries. On the issue of gun control, we can’t afford to fixate on a utopian world without guns to the exclusion of taking steps that might actually reduce gun violence.

When I was a child, the simple and compelling rhetoric of the poster at Powell House was enough to convince me that gun bans made good sense. The facts of gun violence in this country are stark and are most painfully brought home for most Americans after well-publicized tragedies like those of recent years (in Oak Creek, Wisconsin; Newtown, Connecticut; Aurora, Colorado; Clackamas, Oregon; and Isla Vista, California, to name a few). But the fallout from well-meaning laws is brought home every day in communities already left in tatters by addiction, police brutality, poverty, illness, and underemployment. What I could not have understood as a child is that banning handguns, which is a nice idea in principle, in fact serves only to exacerbate racial inequality in America. We cannot ignore the effects of our laws.

Our testimonies of equality and community exhort us to treat all people with the knowledge that there is a persistent and divine Light within them. This was the truth that led Quakers to fight slavery and segregation and the oppression of women. This is the truth that leads me to oppose further criminalization of firearm possession in America today.

Matthew Van Meter’s writing has appeared on Forbes​.com, Russia Magazine, and Russia Profile, where he was a columnist. A member of Moorestown (N.J.) Meeting, he lives in Ann Arbor, Mich., where he volunteers with the Michigan Criminal Justice Program and Shakespeare in Prison.


Posted in: August 2014, Features

20 Responses to A Quaker Argument against Gun Control

  1. Bill Samuel August 1, 2014 at 7:22 pm #

    City & State
    Rockville, MD
    The logic of this article would result in eliminating all criminal laws, since enforcement of criminal laws is clearly affected by the racism in our society. Gun laws are not unique in this regard (which the author concedes in pointing out the case of drugs). But is that the right answer? It won’t cure racism.

    The author fails to note the history of the “right to bear arms.” A number of those who advocated adding the Second Amendment cited the need to protect against African-American slaves and/or native Americans seeking their freedom. The origin of the lack of gun control was so that white men could exercise oppressive power over non-whites. This is a strange omission in an article which talks so much about the intersection between race and the ownership of guns.

    • Matthew Van Meter August 20, 2014 at 3:21 pm #

      City & State
      Ann Arbor, MI
      Indeed, your second point is a blind spot in the piece. I didn’t want to address the second amendment or gun ownership as such (if for no other reason than for focus), so I kept myself limited to criminalization of firearm possession, which is a cultural phenomenon of the 20th century. There is a much longer, more complex piece to be written on the fraught relationship between firearms and race, and the point you raise would be a centerpiece of that argument.
      To your first point, I think you may be extending the logic of my argument further than I intended. The problem with this particular set of laws (that is, criminalization of firearm possession) is that it seems to pit two Quaker tenets one against another. I could have written a Quaker argument against the war on drugs, but that issue is less difficult for principled Quakers to navigate–most Quakers I know would respond positively to such an argument. Firearms are thornier for us.

  2. Bob Moore August 3, 2014 at 7:16 am #

    City & State
    Guelph, Ontario
    If you favour limiting magazine size, locking up guns, and registering guns, you are not against gun control. I agree with you that criminalizing gun possession is not enough. A massive media campaign needs to be started to counter the public paranoia that makes guns seem like a solution.

    • Matthew Van Meter August 20, 2014 at 3:28 pm #

      I agree.
      I used “gun control” as shorthand for “criminalization of firearm possession.” This is, admittedly, a little bit glib. I am very much for regulation–some might say over-regulation–of firearms and firearm parts, but very much against any sort of criminalization of their possession (their misuse, of course, is already illegal).
      A follow-up piece to what I suggest here would talk about just the sort of mass-media campaign to which you refer. We have enough criminal laws as it is. The way to go now is working on the much more difficult fight for society.

  3. Tom Dwyer- August 4, 2014 at 9:47 pm #

    City & State
    Abington, PA
    The argument offered in this article is illogical; supporting sensible gun control is not racist and has no parallel to fighting segregation or slavery or supporting equality for women or any right-and-just cause that Quakers have supported throughout history. Having gun controls will negatively affect the African American community and perpetuate racism that has plagued the inner city poor? Last year a person was killed in Philadelphia by a gunshot wound almost everyday of the year (not to mention the 2000+ victims of gunshot wounds who were hospitalized), all victims disproportionately young men of color. Yesterday a three year old girl was shot and killed in the city by a reckless young man. Tell the families of these victims that gun controls will only make their lives worse. And please remember that almost every mass-murder shooting in America in the past fifteen years has been perpetrated by a Caucasian male. Tell the victims of Va Tech or Newtown or Columbine that controls on guns would have had only a negative affect on the inner city poor. I am sick to my stomach of reading and hearing about gun violence and of how the NRA has convinced a majority of Americans that no controls are warranted, that even the most modest regulation is a criminal act. This article patronizes African-Americans; poor black people want safe neighborhoods that are free from violence, drugs, and shootings. Suggesting that gun controls will victimize the victims even more is simply wrong, and in this Quaker’s mind, not supported by any of our fundamental beliefs or testimonies. I will continue to stand against gun violence by supporting sensible gun control.

    • Matthew Van Meter August 20, 2014 at 3:42 pm #

      Thanks for reading so carefully. I hope that I did not come off as callous or glib.

      I want to be clear, though, about my stance. I am not against the criminalization of murder (which is already illegal) or the reckless misuse of guns. In fact, I think we should tighten those laws and remove many of the self-defense loopholes that have cropped up in many states. I think that it should be almost impossible to legally use a gun against another human being. But there’s no evidence that prosecuting people for owning a gun does anything to curb the sort of violence you describe. Everything you mentioned is already against the law.

      I’m not pro-gun. Not by a long shot. I would be fine with banning the manufacture or import of guns. I would be fine with any sort of buy-back program, regulation, tariff, tax, or other way of actually reducing the number of guns in this country–as long as it does not involve making gun owners into criminals. If every gun in America disappeared tomorrow, I would not shed a tear. But throwing people–let’s be honest, mostly black and brown people–in jail for owning a gun when we think they oughtn’t does not seem to me like an acceptable solution.

    • Anthony Morgan November 3, 2014 at 2:39 pm #

      City & State
      Hollywood, Pa
      Amen Brother, Amen.

  4. Vincent Tkac, Esquire August 5, 2014 at 8:27 am #

    City & State
    Abington, PA
    Mr. Van Meter’s dilemma as a Quaker is that all of the responses to gun violence that he reviews in his article result in further “criminalization” of gun possession, which in turn – because of deficiencies in the justice system – inevitably fall disproportionately on African – Americans. Heading God’s Call advocates a response to gun violence that does not entail further criminalization of gun possession with the potential consequent disproportionate victimization of African – Americans. Heading God’s Call’s advocacy is centered on the voluntary compliance of firearms dealers in The Responsible Firearms Retailer Partnership: a 10- point code of conduct (the “Code”).
    This strategy has proven effective in Philadelphia where a multi-faith, multi-cultural neighborhood response, facilitated by Heading God’s Call resulted in a non-compliant firearms dealer shutting down in the face of public outrage. Heading God’s Call is active in Washington, DC, Baltimore and the Philadelphia metro areas, advocating throughout the Mid-Atlantic States. Prayer vigils, non-intrusive picketing, dialog and general public awareness are the methods that Heading God’s Call uses in its advocacy
    In this time of political divisiveness, let me emphasize that the advocacy of Heeding God’s Call is non-partisan, requires no state or federal action and relies for enforcement on the voluntary coöperation of firearm’s dealers, the un-coerced choices of consumers in the Free Market, and the good opinion of concerned citizens.
    The methods of Heading God’s Call align well with the Quaker Testimonies and the Quaker tradition of peaceful social change. I strongly urge PYM and the wider Quaker community to join with other faith communities already active in the field in supporting the advocacy of Heeding God’s Call.

  5. Bill Samuel August 5, 2014 at 9:46 am #

    City & State
    Rockville, MD
    The comment implies that Heeding God’s Call works directly on local gun dealers *instead of* legislative action. While that is the central focus, their actual position is both/and (“both social and legislative levels”):

    Heeding God’s Call is a faith-based movement to prevent gun violence.

    We unite people of faith in the sacred responsibility to protect our brothers, sisters and children.

    - Helping local faith communities organize advocacy campaigns to encourage gun shops to adopt a code of conduct to deter illegal purchasing and trafficking of handguns;

    - Providing support and resources for faith communities to form multi-racial, ecumenical and interfaith partnerships working together, on both social and legislative levels, to prevent gun violence;

    - Serving as a ‘connection point’ for congregations and partnerships to connect with, learn from and support the work of gun violence prevention organizations and efforts already in place; and

    - Advocating for faith communities to make commitments to raise voices and take action to prevent gun violence.

    (From their Web site)

    • Vincent Tkac, Esquire August 5, 2014 at 7:28 pm #

      City & State
      Abington, PA
      As soon as you introduce the element of influencing legislative action, you lose the Libertarians, because the implication is that government is the answer to society’s problems. There are quite enough lobbyists in America already, and government at the national level is dysfunctional. What is innovative about the approach of Heeding God’s Call to reducing gun violence is its efforts to work through public opinion and consumer choice in a free market. Also, while faith communities are motivated by a divinely inspired morality to reduce gun violence and may be historically the core of Heeding God’s Call, I would suggest that a successful campaign to reduce gun violence must be inclusive not only across faith communities but also be open to an alliance with those of no formal faith who are motivated by a sense of human solidarity to end the madness of gun violence.

  6. Steve Keach August 13, 2014 at 2:41 am #

    City & State
    Charlottesville, VA
    Why not improve regulations and restrictions on weapon and ammunition manufacture and sale? It seems to me a better solution than going after individual gun owners. Such regulation should cover international weapons trade as well. If we didn’t sell arms to other countries they wouldn’t have them to use against us when sentiment turns anti-american.

    Also, I agree with the comment regarding the origin of the Second Amendment. The right to bear arms doesn’t deserve it’s prominent status in our constitution.

  7. FJ Sello August 14, 2014 at 5:20 pm #

    City & State
    South Africa
    Frankly, this isn’t A Quaker argument against gun control: it’s A Quaker’s (ie one Quaker’s) argument and a poor one in every way. I don’t really understand why it was published in FJ. Historically, some Friends have chosen to take up arms — in this year marking the centenary of the start of the the first world war, we have cause to think about the different ways in which Friends’ conscience led them towards or drastically away from the means of war — but I have no tolerance for guns, nor for people who blithely stereotype on the basis of race and economic status. Martin Luther King didn’t dream about loosening gun control as the path to freedom. The real issue in the US is gross inequality. And guns, my Friend, are certainly not going to overcome that.

    • Matthew Van Meter August 20, 2014 at 4:04 pm #

      Thanks for your comment and for reading carefully. You are right that the “real issue” in the USA is systemic inequality. That’s just why I’m so wary of making yet another law criminalizing possession of something, as opposed to using it.

      However, I think you may be conflating my argument with another one. I argue against the criminalization of individual possession of a firearm. I think that throwing people in jail for owning a gun does not help the problem of gun violence. But I am not “for” guns.

      I am, moreover, very much FOR restrictions on the sale, manufacture, transport, import, and export of guns. If every gun in America mysteriously vanished tomorrow, I would be overjoyed. But that’s not going to happen, and making gun owners into criminals doesn’t lead us any closer to a world without guns. The only result of such a policy will be more people in prison.

      Martin Luther King, Jr. had little to say about gun possession, but he had plenty to say about the iniquities of the criminal justice system.

  8. Vincent Tkac, Esquire August 15, 2014 at 9:58 am #

    City & State
    Abington, PA
    “A Quaker Argument Against Gun Control” is the most egregious lapse in the editorial judgment of Friend’s Journal since it published — post 9/11 — Scott Simon’s infamous article (Dec. 2001) advocating suspension of the Peace Testimony for the duration of the War on Terror.

    • Lynne Watson November 17, 2014 at 11:21 pm #

      City & State
      Warminster, Pa
      I agree with the comments made by Vince. As a life- long Quaker I could not believe I was reading this article in a Quaker publication. My focal point is that most of the guns which kill people are illegally owned. We must fix this.

  9. Peter Larson August 20, 2014 at 8:23 pm #

    City & State
    Greensboro, NC
    I haven’t seen much in the current debate on guns that deals with the intersection of greater control and race, so I was very interested in Matty’s article. I have been struck by how the open-carry movement and enthusiasm for more gun “liberty” has been dominated by young to middle-aged white men to the exclusion of others, including African-Americans. You can draw your own conclusions about that, but I’ve never heard any of these men refer to the Black Panthers as antecedents. The strength of the article’s argument is in a claim that new laws, like laws for the War on Drugs, will likely be enforced more vigorously where just about all laws are: poor communities of color.

    With regard to the article’s salient point about Detroit, If you live in a safe and prosperous neighborhood, you’re really not in a position to judge those who live in other areas where the police don’t always answer calls or arrive hours afterwards. If one wants more gun control, one must also want greater police accountability to those communities first. What Matty wrote in FJ caused me to rethink my position on the issue, remembering that in this country, racism has always prevented fair and effective enforcement of the law.

    • Matthew Van Meter September 3, 2014 at 9:35 pm #

      Thanks, Peter. Always good to hear your thoughts!

      The Detroit point is interesting. My wife spent a lot of time defending–mostly poor, mostly black–people in the city accused of violating federal firearms laws. Typically, they forgot to remove their pistols from their handbags while entering the federal building, or they accidentally exited onto the Ambassador Bridge and crossed the Canadian border with an unlicensed firearm. A system that wants to lock those people up while young men are gunned down a half-mile away has its priorities all screwed up. But a forgetful granny with a gun is easier to catch than a gun-runner, just like it’s easier to bust a street corner full of kids selling pot than to catch their boss. And both are easier than arresting a kid on my block, whose mom is a lawyer. Arrest, charge, rinse, repeat.

      You’re right about the order of events: effective policing needs to come BEFORE–not after–attempts to further control possession of guns.

  10. Chester Kirchman August 20, 2014 at 10:10 pm #

    Reading this article and comments was very interesting. In this mind, it is actually the way to handle gun violence across the United States. The unjust system of justice, existing governmental control by way of laws highly influenced by money oriented politicians and lobbyists, will not improve by expanding it. With governmental and schooling systems promoting industry’s individualizing of responsibility and competition through laws and rules, getting the majority to actually work together, similar to this article and comments, becomes difficult. Thereby violence and guns used, seems to be a bigger problem in a larger part of the citizenry. When the citizens actually work together with appreciation for one another, violence appears to decline, as in the Heeding God’s Call presented. Nurturing care for each other’s beliefs might have a stronger value in reducing violence.

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