Once upon a time, the National Rifle Association was a leading voice for gun control legislation. Owners and sellers of guns had to register, all receipts had to be available to the police, and the president of the NRA testified to Congress, “I do not believe in the general promiscuous toting of guns. I think it should be sharply restricted and only under licenses.” The argument made by gun control supporters like me, that the Second Amendment was never intended to allow citizens unrestricted access to guns, would have put us right in step with the NRA leadership.

When the NRA Supported Gun Control, Time Magazine

That was in the 1920s and 30s. Many states imposed restrictions on the carrying of weapons, but California was one that did not.

But then the Black Panther Party, concerned about police brutality, started patrolling Oakland with these arms they were legally entitled to carry, and several members of the California state legislature proposed a ban on the open carrying of loaded weapons. The Black Panthers protested the bill by showing up at the Capitol Building in Sacramento, where it so happened that Governor Ronald Reagan was on the lawn. The sight of a couple dozen black people protesting and carrying guns made restrictions on guns very compelling to white Republicans and Democrats alike, the bill passed, and he signed it.

Governor Reagan told reporters that afternoon that he saw “no reason why on the street today a citizen should be carrying loaded weapons.” He called guns a “ridiculous way to solve problems that have to be solved among people of good will.” In a later press conference, Reagan said he didn’t “know of any sportsman who leaves his home with a gun to go out into the field to hunt or for target shooting who carries that gun loaded.” The Mulford Act, he said, “would work no hardship on the honest citizen.”

(The Secret History of Guns, Atlantic Magazine)

Between incidents like this, the reaction to the assassination of John F. Kennedy, and conservative U. S. Americans’ anxiety about young radicals, the trend toward gun control only strengthened in the 1960s. There was just one problem with gun restrictions as a solution: white people couldn’t carry guns either. And unpleasant things happened, like an NRA member’s waving a gun in response to a raid by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms in 1971; the ATF shot him, and the NRA responded angrily, likening the ATF to the Gestapo. It was a conundrum.

I don’t know if it was unconscious or a carefully thought-out plan, but around then, the NRA began to change its tactics. It would put its resources into weakening gun laws and rest its argument on the “need” for honest individuals to protect themselves, while promoting the idea that “the honest citizen” was white and the feared predator was black.

By the 2000s, the pattern was set. The NRA’s line was that any kind of restriction was a step onto the “slippery slope” that would end in fascism and the destruction not only of the Second Amendment, but freedom. If police did not respect gun ownership, it would be the beginning of the end.

. . . if the owner was white. If the owner was black, he must be intending violence, and his summary execution by police for the mere possession of a gun would meet with no demur from the NRA. As case after case hit the news of black people who were merely suspected of holding weapons’ being killed by police or self-appointed defenders of public safety, the NRA’s true agenda became clear: not to protect gun owners from an overreaching state, but to protect white people from the black bogeyman they feared.

The Philando Castile case made it clear that even a license for a weapon would not protect a black person who wished to exercise the right the NRA called absolutely fundamental to freedom. In 2016, near St. Paul, Minnesota, Castile was pulled over by police and asked for his driver’s license and registration, at which point he sensibly informed them that he had a gun and a license for it, so that they would not think he was reaching for it in attack. This is surely the correct and cautious thing for a gun owner to do when interacting with the police–if, in the NRA’s view, one should have to explain at all. One of the officers immediately fired four bullets into Castile, killing him; his girlfriend and her four-year-old daughter were in the back seat. The NRA responded with a silence that, under pressure, it finally broke to say “The reports from Minnesota are troubling and must be thoroughly investigated,” declining to comment further or even use the victim’s name.

Black people might want to arm themselves in self-defense, especially with killers like Gregory Bush and Dylann Roof gunning for them, but they have to consider the very real possibility that if they are so much as glimpsed carrying a weapon, the police will be called and they will be shot.

But to back up a few years. In the meantime, each mass shooting–now in the hundreds per year–had been met by the NRA’s claim that “The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.” And those of us who doubted this wisdom had pointed out that among its many flaws was the question of how police, called to a scene of mayhem, would know that the “good guy with a gun” was a good guy. Wouldn’t they be facing two armed people, with no way of knowing which was the instigator of the crime and which was trying to stop it? Those of us who, furthermore, had been paying attention to the disparity between the NRA’s responses, and police forces’ responses, to black and white gun ownership, thought we knew what the cops would do: if one of the people with a gun were black, they would assume he was the villain, not the hero.

So this week, the killing of security guard Jemel Roberson, taken for a murderer when he tried to stop a crime in the course of his job, was not a surprise. It was the inevitable outcome of the plan that has been unfolding for decades:

(1) arm as many white people as wish to be armed by loosening gun restrictions;

(2) tolerate the summary execution by police (or citizens) of black people who possess a weapon (or a wallet, or a white cellphone, or a hairbrush . . . )

(3) and voila, the Black Panther problem is solved. We now have two categories of US Americans: the “honest citizens” who can–should–go about armed, and the ones for whom bearing arms is certain proof that they are criminals. The armed whites and the disarmed, terrified blacks.

It took a generation for the NRA to solve their conundrum, but they have done it.

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