In the aftermath of a tragedy like the shooting in Las Vegas, it’s easy to see the debate over gun control slipping into a predefined culture battle between gun-toting rednecks and latte-sipping liberals.
One thing being missed in this rush to stereotype are the people who actually go to prison under America’s gun control laws. There are already lots of people in prison for violating gun laws.
And, more significantly, the average gun-law prisoner doesn’t fit the typical progressive image of the white, rural, conservative “gun nut.”
America’s gun laws are disproportionately enforced against minorities
As the Independent Institute explains:
Perhaps the most telling data concerns the racial makeup of who goes to prison for gun violations. According to the U.S. Sentencing Commission, for Fiscal Year 2011, 49.6 percent of those sentenced to federal incarceration with a primary offense of firearms violations were black, 20.6 percent were Hispanic, and only 27.5 percent were white.
Just as with its drug laws, America’s gun laws are enforced disproportionately against the poor, against minorities, and against those without easy access to attorneys.
The reality is that it is hard to oppose mass incarceration and racial injustice and also support more gun control laws. Such restrictions will likely mean more incarceration and even more racially biased enforcement and prosecution.
Many state gun laws are a legacy of Jim Crow
In fact, many American gun laws themselves have racist origins in Jim Crow. Following reconstruction, many southern states enacted so-called “Black Codes” that explicitly restricted gun possession and carrying by the freedmen.
For example, in 1879 the Tennessee Legislature prohibited the carrying of “a dirk, sword-cane, Spanish stiletto, belt or pocket pistol or revolver,” which came to the state supreme court in the 1871 Andrews v. State.
These states passed laws against either open or concealed carry during this era, or in bouts of anti-immigrant hysteria, and proceeded to selectively enforce those laws in a way that ignored whites and the wealthy.
Cutting against the stereotype of both left and right
That’s why, even though we think of the South as a bastion of American gun culture, it was Southern states who have until recently had the most restrictive laws against carrying a gun.
Texas, supposedly the home of the nation’s most gung-ho gun enthusiasts, only legalized open carry last year. Unlike many states, Texas still requires a permit for open carry, too.
Yes, this cuts against the stereotypes of both left and right. Before rushing to endorse new gun control laws, liberals should stop to observe who is actually harmed by America’s existing regime of restricting and prohibiting guns.
Similarly, too many conservatives also treat this as a culture-war issue of their own. They will sometimes recoil from the inclusion of urban minorities in the rights protected by the Second Amendment.
(Illustration of Harriet Tubman on the twenty dollar bill modified from an image in a Tweet by Brandon Morse.)