The right to bear arms… if you’re white
In the weeks since the shooting of Philando Castile by a police officer in Minnesota, much attention has – rightfully – been focused on the treatment of black Americans by the police. Alongside Alton Sterling, who was killed by police in Louisiana the day before, and a long list of other slain black men, Castile’s death has come to symbolise what many perceive as brutal, racist policing in the US.
Less attention, however, has been paid to an important factor in the Castile case: the fact that he was armed. According to reports, upon being stopped by the police, Castile gracefully informed the officer that he was carrying a licensed weapon. Following this, Castile reached for his ID and was shot by the officer. The officer claims that he told Castile not to reach for his ID, and that Castile’s movement led him to think he was reaching for his weapon. Castile’s girlfriend – who was present in the car – claims otherwise.
The exact course of events is yet to be determined, and it may never be. But the killing of Castile does reveal how the right to bear arms – which is enshrined in the US Constitution – is often not a right enjoyed as freely by black Americans. Castile was exercising his right to own and carry a firearm – and yet he was killed by the state for exercising this right. He even informed the officer that he was carrying a weapon, something he was not legally required to do until asked under Minnesota state law.
Black gun ownership has long been a contentious issue in the US. Some of the earliest forms of gun-control legislation were designed to keep guns out of the hands of recently freed black Americans following the end of slavery. States in the defeated South enacted the so-called Black Codes, restricting, among other rights, the right to bear arms. Later, in the 1960s, the Black Panther Party sparked panic among lawmakers by staging armed patrols of black neighbourhoods, making use of their right openly to carry guns in California. Today, black Americans nominally have the same right as every other US citizen to own guns (although those rights vary state to state). But, as the shooting of Castile shows, their rights are not equally respected.
Castile is not the only notable case here. In 2014, 12-year-old Tamir Rice was shot dead by police in Cleveland, Ohio. Rice was carrying a toy gun in a play park when police opened fire and killed him, assuming he was both a fully grown man and carrying a real firearm. Much of the discussion of Rice’s killing focused on how the police could have responded differently, without killing the child. What was missed was that there was little reason the police should have responded in this way, even if they did assume Rice was an adult; Ohio is an ‘open carry’ state.
Ownership of legal firearms is now on the rise among black Americans. According to surveys, the percentage of black Americans who legally own guns rose from 15 per cent in 2013 to 19 per cent in 2014. Their right to own and carry guns on the same basis as every other US citizen must be defended. The shooting of black Americans purely for exercising their legal rights should concern us all.
Tom Bailey is a writer based in London.
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