The racist charge

    Recently, Conservatives have been making broad accusations that the Occupy Wall Street movement is “anti-Semitic,” despite no real evidence to indicate this is true.  Understandably, many of the Occupy protesters—including Jewish ones—are outraged.  To them, I can only say, “I know how you feel.”

    I’ve worked in the gun violence prevention field now for 11 years.  In September of last year, I published a blog at Waging Nonviolence that debunked an argument that has become fashionable in right wing circles—namely, that gun control is “racist.”  Not long ago, you would have had to search the darkest recesses of the pro-gun movement to find anyone making this claim. But following the Supreme Court’s split ruling in McDonald v. Chicago—in which the Citizens United wing of the Court agreed with an African-American plaintiff that Chicago’s handgun ban was unconstitutional—it became all the rage.

    While some moderate political commentators have flirted with the smear, the folks who are really pushing it are those you’d expect:  the Washington Times, the National Review, self-employed pro-gun bloggers, etc.  Which is why I was quite disturbed when I saw UCLA Law Professor Adam Winkler embrace the “gun control is racist” charge in his brand new book Gunfight.

    I know Winkler.  I’ve heard him speak in person and on the radio.  I’ve read his articles.  And he always struck me as a very intelligent, reasonable, and politically moderate guy.  But that’s the point—Winkler’s central thesis in Gunfight, in a nutshell, is “The gun rights movement is extreme, the gun control movement is extreme, and I’m right here in the middle to show you how we should deal with this issue.”

    The problem with that argument, as the New York Times Book Review pointed out, is it’s not really accurate:

    [Winkler] suggests the debate over guns today is dominated by “strident groups:  one set on getting rid of the guns; the other determined to stop guns from being restricted in even modest ways” and that both sides are vociferous and loathe to compromise.  Mr. Winkler supplies a lot of examples of pro-gun extremism.

    He quotes Ron Paul saying that…a “lack of respect for the Second Amendment” contributed “a whole lot to the disaster of 9/11.”

    He also quotes Wayne LaPierre, executive vice president of the National Rifle Association, asserting that the “U.N. wants to impose on the U.S.” nothing less than “total gun prohibition,” a sentiment held by many militia-group members as well.

    But Mr. Winkler implies that gun control advocacy is similarly defined by extremists—by people who would like to “eliminate all privately owned firearms—or, at least, make the United States more like England, where handguns are illegal and all other guns are rare.”  And in doing so Mr. Winkler ignores or plays down the many reasonable, centrist arguments made, for instance, by Senator Charles E. Schumer, Democrat of New York, and Mayors Against Illegal Guns, a group led by Michael R. Bloomberg of New York.

    Personally, I’m still waiting to find out which gun control organizations in the United States are advocating that we “eliminate all privately owned firearms.”  I’ve been working in this movement now for over a decade and I have yet to meet them.  In fact, I don’t know of any “dominant,” modern gun control organization that has ever argued for any such thing.  And Winkler, of course, is well aware that the Supreme Court’s 2008 D.C. v. Heller decision took bans of anything but “dangerous and unusual” firearms completely off the table (in the minds of the Citizens United Five, this would likely include fully automatic machine guns and possibly certain semiautomatic assault rifles, but nothing else).  Gun bans are no longer a policy option even for select localities.

    But that reality didn’t stop Winkler from throwing gun violence prevention advocates under the bus to sell books.  And unfortunately, “extreme” isn’t the only label we were hit with.  Because the gun rights movement is racist (Winkler notes that “one of the few places you can easily find virulent racist literature is at a gun show”), then the gun control movement has to be, too.

    On this point his argument becomes even shakier.  Winkler can cite no example of the contemporary gun control movement being racist.  He even acknowledges that an overwhelming majority of African-Americans today support strong, strict gun laws.  So his argument basically comes down to the fact that our Founders prohibited slaves from owning firearms and white supremacist groups like the Ku Klux Klan have disarmed blacks at times while brutalizing and killing them.  And that somehow adds up to gun control having “racist roots.”  At the same time, Winkler curiously acknowledges that “many other laws” have been used to oppress African-Americans throughout our history.  No kidding.

    Despite the whole thing being pretty nuanced and flimsy, the gun rights movement got a hold of Winkler’s “racist” argument and ran with it.  All of a sudden, they had their moderate to hold up as proof that their ugly accusations (or should I say projections) were true.

    Again, Adam Winkler is a smart guy.  He must’ve known that pro-gun extremists were going to jump all over this.  They might call him a “gun grabber” and heckle him in person (you see, there’s a lot of stuff Winkler says in Gunfight that gun rights activists flat-out don’t like), but the “gun control is racist” thing?  Oh yeah, that’s like throwing chum into shark-infested waters.

    As someone who’s worked extensively with gun violence survivors—people who don’t want other Americans to have to endure the personal tragedies they’ve experienced because of weak gun laws—I was a bit sickened by the whole thing.  Who in their right mind would infer that these people are motivated by racism?  So I showed up at a recent panel discussion that Winkler was participating in and asked him to clarify his argument.  You can watch the full exchange in the above video or read this transcript.

    While holding to his point that “historically gun laws have often been used to oppress racial minorities,” Winkler made it clear to me that he does not “think that it means gun control today, all gun control laws today, are racist.”  He added, “I’m in favor of a variety of different kinds of restrictions,” and specifically cited “shoring up [gun buyer] background checks” and prohibiting gun sales to those on the FBI’s Terrorist Watch List as gun control proposals that are not racist.  Winkler also reiterated that gun control laws are far from alone in having a history of being used in a discriminatory manner, saying, “I think in most areas of law we should continue to be skeptical of legislation where there is a history of race and racism, but gun laws are no different in that sense.”

    It is therefore confusing that Winkler would assert, “I do think that gun laws historically have been tied to race and racism and we should take that seriously when we’re thinking about a gun control law today.”  Why?  If African-Americans have moved beyond the past and strongly support contemporary gun control proposals (which even Winkler acknowledges are not motivated by race), why should it be an issue?  Winkler gave the current example of the race issue playing into voter suppression bills in state legislatures across the country, but—of course—the legislatures passing these anti-democratic bills are the same ones that take their marching orders on gun bills from the National Rifle Association, not gun violence prevention advocates.

    The real gold nugget in my exchange with Winkler was easy to miss.  Talking about the Founding Fathers barring slaves from owning guns, Winkler said, “I think that helps inform their idea that the Second Amendment was not a Libertarian license for anyone to have a gun anytime they want, but that they balanced gun rights with what they thought was appropriate for public welfare.”

    That’s certainly an insight the pro-gunners will not be parroting.

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