What is happening in Oregon right now is about power. More accurately, it’s about who is allowed to display and exercise power. The American story is that: power and might carry the day and certain groups are allowed the privilege of demonstrating that power, others are not. This is precisely why the issue of gun control is so contested. Guns represent power over those who are otherwise equals, power to combat aggression and the ultimate deterrent to attack. The ability to control who can have such power is in and of itself, an exercise of power.
Armed and occupying a federal building, the so-called “militia” in Oregon do not strike fear and terror into the American psyche. While their actions are certainly denounced by many, one does not observe anything like a country petrified by these men with guns. Indeed, there doesn’t even seem to be the will to label them “terrorists.” This is, naturally, contrasted with the terror and panic unarmed black men seem to evoke, especially in armed policemen. That collective fear is routinely used to assuage the conscience of a nation wrestling with the morality of these murders of its citizens at the hands of the state. It is that same fear that has historically worked to disarm black people. In the earliest days of the nation, slaves and free blacks were strictly forbidden to bear arms. After serving in the Civil War, many blacks sought to keep their arms but this was greatly contested by the “black codes,” laws passed in that era to subjugate blacks to a neo-slavery status. Where the black codes failed, para-military groups like the Klan were especially aggressive in challenging the right of blacks to bear arms.
Understanding the state’s reluctance to protect black life or allow displays of power, the Black Panther Party in California chose to arm themselves for the purpose of protecting their communities, especially from police violence. The Panthers, much like gun rights advocates today, had their own “open carry” practice with firearms. The state of California reacted swiftly. The Mulford Act sought to ban the public carrying of loaded firearms. The Panthers protested the bill by marching, arms in hand, upon the state capitol. Ronald Reagan signed the bill with no protest from the NRA. In fact, years later Ronald Reagan would be the NRA’s first ever presidential endorsee. The move by the Panthers to march on the capitol has several parallels to the actions happening today in Oregon. Even so, the idea of disarming good, freedom loving white men does not occupy the national conscience. Their display of power is permissible.
After the Mulford Act was passed in 1967, the national fervor to disarm black America crescendoed with the Gun Control Act of 1968. This legislation, also supported by the NRA, was directly intended to disarm the urban poor and groups like the Panthers. Smaller, inexpensive guns were the target of control, in addition to mail order rifles which were often carried by the Panthers. In effect, criminals would now have the upper hand in the urban terrain while law abiding, low- and moderate-income black citizens would be disarmed. Robert Sherrill notes in his book The Saturday Night Special (a common way of referring to these inexpensive guns):
“The Gun Control Act of 1968 was passed not to control guns but to control blacks, and inasmuch as a majority of Congress did not want to do the former but were ashamed to show that their goal was the latter, the result was that they did neither. Indeed, this law, the first gun-control law passed by Congress in thirty years, was one of the grand jokes of our time.”
Blacks were again disarmed under the cover of “fighting crime.” As Sherrill noted, legislation was intended to control a certain group and refuse their exercise of power. The conversation today is no different. Urban crime is viewed as a solid pretext for more gun control legislation, as are mass shootings. However, guns as a means to display power are only allowed for certain Americans and they tend to not be of a darker hue. What is happening in Oregon does not shift the gun control debate. What the Panthers did, however, produced anti-gun legislation. Is it reasonable to think that black men today would be allowed to open carry, especially en masse? The very notion evokes terror.
Much of the debate on gun control is political theater. We’re not interested in controlling guns, only certain people and situations. We legitimately don’t want mass shootings, true. But we mostly shudder at the idea of armed black citizens and what that display of power would mean. In truth, it is much easier for politicians to talk about gun control than true solutions to urban crime. As Michelle Alexander points out in her book The New Jim Crow, the greatest corollary to violent crime is not race but joblessness. Frankly, employed people don’t shoot. Rather than talk about our inability to stop the hemorrhaging of American jobs overseas, it’s simply easier to point to a symptom and not the root. Gun control fires people up but admitting we’ve allowed corporations to rake us over and now we stand powerless to provide employment solutions doesn’t sell as well, regardless of political affiliation.
What if we were to realize our wildest dreams of gun control? I fear the worst, for black communities at least. Theoretically, “drugs” are illegal to possess. In practice, however, black communities are policed aggressively for drugs while others enjoy a de facto enforcement free zone. I suspect the same would always be true for illegal guns. In places like Chicago, thousands of illegal guns are confiscated annually. In a sense, this represents another pathway of criminalizing black life without pursuing solutions to resolve the underlying issues driving urban crime. Full disclosure: I’m as anti-gun as they come. In my perfect world, there are no guns. Truly. However, I cannot pretend not to see the radically flawed debate for what it is. I cannot, in good conscience, see what is happening in Oregon and not call attention to the fact that the gun control debate is not impacted by these men in the same way armed black people- even peaceful ones like the Panthers- swiftly invite an alteration of the rules.