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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.