Exploiting Racial Terror for Gun Control, and How that Hurts the Cause


It is beyond inappropriate to leverage the Charleston church massacre, an act of racial terror, to push for background checks on gun sales when that measure, as reported by major news agencies, did not prevent the crime, nor was it designed to capture those holding hateful beliefs.  And doing so weakens the gun violence prevention movement by keeping the attempts to limit gun violence at an initiative-based level rather than a broader issue-based level that both recognizes the complex nature of gun violence and encompasses all segments of our society.


Following the death of nine African-Americans at the Emanuel AME church in Charleston, SC (the alleged shooter holding white supremacist beliefs), some prominent gun violence prevention groups have leveraged the matter to push for a key organizational objective – expanding background checks on gun sales.  Yet, as reported by NBC news, law enforcement officials said that the sale of the gun to Dylann Roof, the alleged shooter, was entirely legal, despite a pending drug charge – the charge was a misdemeanor under South Carolina law and according to several current and former law enforcement officials, the pending charge did not disqualify Roof from buying a gun.  This story was also carried by Newsweek and similarly reported by CNN that countered earlier reports that the gun had been given as a gift.

Two issues are raised here.  First, it becomes difficult to see how this leveraging of the Charleston church massacre to support a key organizational objective does not represent an exploitation of racial terror since the measure did not prevent the purchase of the weapon.  Second, such activity is keeping the efforts to prevent gun violence at an initiative-based level rather than a broader issue-based level, and thus weakens the movement.

Gun violence is a highly complex issue, affecting different populations for different reasons and its prevention is not a ‘one size fits all’ matter.  To be clear, there is no disagreement here that keeping guns out of the hands of individuals who could do harm, such as felons, domestic abusers, and the dangerously mentally-ill,  is important – and this writer went to bat for that in Raleigh, NC recently, both in testimony before a House committee and in having an Op-Ed published in the Raleigh N&O.   Additionally, this writer supported a recommendation to a UN human rights committee to expand background checks covering all private firearm transfers (see paragraph 18.1, p. 4).  But dangerous individuals are defined in different ways, and background checks were not designed to screen out those holding hateful ideological views (as was the case in two recent high profile racial/ethnic-motivated mass shootings in places of worship, Charleston and the 2012 Sikh Temple shooting).

And the background check loophole does not begin to explain the more than three-fold greater incidence of gun violence victimization in American Blacks (over 40% of US gun violence victims are African-American) relative to their representation in our population (13%).  This disparity can be attributed to such factors as overt acts of racial hatred (as played out in Charleston), subconscious conditioning (implicit bias) that played out with the Trayvon Martin incident as well as in our criminal justice system, and adverse socio-economic conditions (born and maintained through discriminatory behavior) that create breeding grounds for violent crime.  To attempt to reduce this violence simply by limiting access to guns without also engaging in a more comprehensive effort to address the underlying causes of the violence is both superficial and immoral.   And to leverage an instance of racial terror to support an organizational objective that did not prevent the act, in this writer’s opinion, represents a dark day for the movement.

Separating Charleston from Other High Profile Mass Shootings

Events such as the serious injury of Jim Brady during the assassination attempt of president Reagan (which eventually resulted in the Brady Background Check), and in more recent times the attempted assassination of Congresswoman Giffords, Virginia Tech, Sandy Hook Elementary, Clackamas Town Center (Oregon) and the Aurora (CO) movie theatre all have two things in common.  First is that they were all high profile mass shooting events that received extensive media coverage and thus touched the national conscious regarding the need to do something about gun violence.  The second is that they all involved disturbed individuals as shooters and thus lent credence to the solution of keeping guns out of the hands of those who could do harm.

But Charleston was not about a convicted felon, domestic abuser, or someone with psychiatric illness in possession of a firearm.  What unfolded in that house of worship was the product of hatred, the act of an individual who had been poisoned to place a lower value on African-American life.

In a previous article I invoked the history of African-American lynchings, eugenics, and hundreds of hate groups across the nation to place Charleston into the context of the racial terror that has been inflicted on those citizens.  But for those who might think that this is just past history, the following should be considered.

*   That racial terror is not just about guns or past history becomes apparent with the recent convictions of those involved in the murder of James Craig Anderson, a 47-year-old black man who lived in Jackson, MS.   He was brutally beaten and deliberately run over by a group of white teens who preyed upon Blacks in ‘Jafrica’ (their nickname for Jackson), the attackers shouting ‘White Power’ during the beating and the driver of the pick-up truck later bragging to a friend “I just runned that nigger over”.  And it wasn’t just Mr. Anderson, these individuals were involved with a series of attacks that resulted in decades of imprisonment, and as cited by the judge during sentencing (below), recruited and encouraged others to join their hateful and shameful acts.   As recounted in a piece by the Southern Poverty Law Center, the judge (only the second black judge to be appointed to the federal bench in Mississippi history) gave a history lesson during the recent sentencing of the men (the two women who encouraged the driver to run over and kill Mr. Anderson were subsequently sentenced).  Excerpting (additional text in the reference):

Like the marauders of ages past, these young folk conspired, planned, and coordinated a plan of attack on certain neighborhoods in the city of Jackson for the sole purpose of harassing, terrorizing, physically assaulting and causing bodily injury to black folk. They punched and kicked them about their bodies — their heads, their faces. They prowled. They came ready to hurt. They used dangerous weapons; they targeted the weak; they recruited and encouraged others to join in the coordinated chaos; and they boasted about their shameful activity. This was a 2011 version of the nigger hunts.”

*   Not far from where this writer lives, residents of Cleveland, NC recently awoke to find pamphlets in their yards, purportedly from the “Loyal White Knights of the KKK” (the Klan having a long history of engaging in racial terrorism) asking residents to oppose Jeb Bush for president due to his views on immigration and thus the “accelerated browning of America”.   In interview with the Daily Beast, Robert Jones of that organization (based in NC) stated that the Klan is undergoing a national recruitment drive that just ‘coincidentally’ started around the time of the Charleston massacre.  Jones further stated that he supports Roof’s crime, but preferred that he “shot the correct people”, such as minority drug dealers rather than churchgoers.  “It’s a racial war against our people…The more the media pushes multiculturalism down our throat, the more you’re going to see killings like this.”  As reported elsewhere, a recorded message by the organization as part of its recruitment efforts stated that the Loyal White Knights “hail victory” to the accused shooter, Dylann Roof, “who decided to do what the Bible told him…An eye for an eye.  A tooth for a tooth.  They have spilled our blood too long.  It’s about time someone spilled theirs.”  And there is little doubt that there are many individuals holding such sentiments who are legally able to purchase firearms.

*  And is the rash of Black church burnings in Southern states in the wake the Charleston shooting just coincidence?   Time reported 8 such events in just 10 days with three already being ascribed to arson and others under investigation.  In writing on this matter, the Southern Poverty Law Center cites David A. Love from the Atlanta BlackStar: “From slavery and the days of Jim Crow through the civil rights movement and beyond, white supremacists have targeted the Black church because of its importance as a pillar of the Black community, the center for leadership and institution building, education, social and political development and organizing to fight oppression….Strike at the Black church, and you strike at the heart of Black American life”.

*   The Charleston shooting has led to calls to have the Confederate flag removed from the South Carolina State House.  The NY Times published an opinion piece about Bree Newsome’s climbing of the flag pole to remove that symbol of oppression.  The dialog was not about gun violence.  Rather, the last paragraph stated: “That it has taken so long for someone to challenge the flag so publicly and directly speaks to the fact it is closely associated with lynching and racial terror in the black Southern mind.”

*   Following Charleston, the plea from the US Human Rights Network (of which this writer holds membership) was not about gun violence, it was a plea for our president to develop a National Plan of Action for Racial Justice to erase the racial inequity born of institutionalized and structural racism in our country (as has this writer in both his report to a UN human rights committee (paragraph 18.2, p.4) and a recent article).  The disproportionate level of gun violence in our African-American population is but a symptom of persistent racism, what Charles M. Blow has called the rigidity of racism, and represents but the visible end of the spectrum where millions of African-American lives have been silently lost to discriminatory treatment.

*   Charleston was a hate crime and a recent DOJ study shows that such crimes are significantly underreported; rather than a few thousand each year, the figure is held to be a quarter of a million or higher.  The vast majority of those that have been reported (92% between 2007-2011) were violent in nature.  An analysis of hate crime in the US show blacks to be far away the most affected population.

Expanding background checks on gun sales, although important, is simply inadequate to address the complex nature of gun violence in America. Considering the myriad of terror tactics that have been employed on our African-American citizens, attempting to address one aspect of this terror through background checks is akin to trying to stop the hemorrhaging of a gaping wound with a bandaid.  The issue of gun violence requires a broader, integrated, issue-based approach that encompasses all of our citizenry.

The weakness of keeping the gun violence prevention movement at an initiative-based level is made clear through consideration of concealed carry permit holders.

Background Checks: Conversion Rate vs Prevention

The Violence Policy Center (VPC) has, since May 2007, been building a database (from news media reports and subsequent legal proceedings) of concealed carry permit holders who engaged in non-self defense shootings.  The use of media reports and legal proceedings is necessitated due to the gun lobby’s successful work in impeding research at both the federal and state level.  Before making the point of this section, it is first important that this database be understood.

It can not be used for quantitative analyses because, as recognized by VPC, the cited cases only represent examples – the data are not prospectively collected for analysis, i.e., the extraction of events from news reports may not be complete both within and across states (it currently cites only 36 states and the District of Columbia) and it does not account for the unknown number of unreported incidents.  Criticism of this database by gun rights advocates involve claims of double and triple counting of events.  But in communication with VPC, some events have been placed into more than one category (not double counted), e.g. an event may be both a mass shooting and a murder-suicide.  Additionally, as the criticisms are quantitative in nature, they become baseless as the database is not intended for quantitative analysis.  What this work does, beyond any shadow of a doubt, is that it establishes risk – the concealed carry population itself increases the risk of serious bodily injury and death to the general public.  And that’s indisputable.  And, as noted by this writer in a published Op-Ed, the claimed benefits of concealed carry have not been substantiated across studies, including whether the claimed benefit of self-defense outweighs the established risk to the public from this population.

To the point of this section is that the concealed carry population becomes a model to assess the effectiveness of background checks.   It should be a relatively safe assumption that a strong majority the shooters cited in this database underwent background checks as a requirement to obtain their permit.  An interactive map allows examination of permit requirements on a state by state basis and background checks are a frequent requirement.  Although hard numbers can not be affixed here (that would be a separate research project), it becomes apparent that the state of being ‘law abiding’ is a dynamic one (subject to change) rather than a static (stable) one.  And just as we don’t know the extent of the risk to the public from CCW permit holders, we also do not understand the extent of this conversion to ‘non-law abiding’, or even whether the protective effects of background checks outweigh the extent of this conversion.

Again, no one is arguing that keeping guns out of the hands of those who could do harm is not a good thing.  But it is also clear that background checks do not assure that future gun violence will be prevented, the extent of which we do not understand.  Consider, as but one example and understanding the incompleteness of this database, that it captured two mass shooting events by permit holders in Virginia (assuming these shooters held a Virginia permit, they would have passed a NICS background check).  The measure is not only an incomplete and inadequate one to address racial terror incidents like Charleston, but it provides only a partial fix to the issue in general.

The need to place gun violence prevention into a broader issue-based framework becomes apparent.

Understanding Congress’s Gun Violence Prevention Failure Through a Rights Framework

US obligations under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) were reviewed in early 2014.  The committee’s concluding observations stated that (see paragraph 10) “…the Committee remains concerned about the continuing high numbers of gun-related deaths and injuries and the disparate impact of gun violence on minorities, women and children.” (emphasis added).  This writer’s work involved review of US obligations under the “race treaty”, i.e., the International Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Racial Discrimination (ICERD), that occurred later that summer.  The CERD (Committee to Eliminate Racial Discrimination) also expressed its concern about the disparate effects of gun violence in minority populations, particularly African-Americans (see paragraph 16).  Both committees held that, on the subject of gun violence, our government was failing in one of its most fundamental duties – protecting the right to life.

For those involved in gun violence prevention, the populations cited by both the ICCPR and ICERD committees (women, children, racial/ethnic minorities) are all too familiar.  But also recognize that these populations are the very same creating division between conservative and progressive elements of our politics, e.g., the ‘War on Women’, voting rights, safety net programs to the benefit of children, etc.

Several instruments have been established to foster, on an international level, the development and protection of these very same populations, and our country finds itself in a strangely minority position in failing to either ratify or implement these instruments.   To date, 189 UN member states have ratified the Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) leaving the United States in the company of Palau as the only two member states that have signed but not ratified the Convention.  Regarding the Convention on the Rights of the Child, the US will soon be the sole UN member state to not ratify this Convention (a matter that our own president, as candidate, described as ’embarrassing’).  And, pertinent to the topic of this article, although the US Senate has ratified the International Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Racial Discrimination (ICERD) our government has failed to put forth a National Plan of Action to implement the Convention.

So, if our government is not prone to become part of an international effort to protect the rights and lives of women, children and racial/ethnic minorities,  the resistance to protect their lives from gun violence becomes all to clear, especially from the conservative wing of our politics that has admittedly exploited racial conflict for political gain (the Southern Strategy), or worked to restrict voting rights of minorities, or obstructs the healthcare and reproductive rights of women, or describes parents living in poverty as moochers and takers if they seek assistance for their children, and so much more.  The disparate effects of gun violence in these populations is but one part of this picture.

Concluding Remarks

The fight for rights in America is a storied one.  These are not easy fights.  They are prolonged fights that continue even after victory, and they are achieved at a cost.  Such was the case for our war of independence, abolition of slavery, women’s suffrage, civil rights, voting rights, and marriage equality to name but a few.  But these fights in the long run win because, as famously stated by Martin Luther King, Jr.: “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”  And our women, children, and minorities have already paid, and are continuing to pay, a dear cost for our government’s failure to address gun violence.  It’s time that the gun violence prevention movement join this storied fight for rights.

The gun violence prevention movement is currently operating within an amorphous political structure – there is no over-riding framework that encompasses this effort.  It’s been about a largely failed attempt to push a patchwork of individual initiatives through Congress.  However, when placed into a rights framework, the movement becomes far more than just trying to achieve specific initiatives – it becomes doing whatever it takes to protect the rights and lives of our women, children and minority populations.  And that’s different.  And it brings many other initiatives into reach, some thought be unobtainable, such as banning the carrying of concealed weapons (not a constitutionally-protected right) in public venues, a recommendation of this author’s report that was endorsed by the UN committee as well as a conclusion of the American Bar Association Task Force Report on Stand-Your-Ground laws – intimately linked to concealed carry – that held such laws reenforce racial bias.  And we need our president to use his bully pulpit to bring this fight to light – but, at least publicly, he remains silent on the failure to implement the ‘race treaty’, or join the international fight to protect the rights of both children (which he himself said was an embarrassment) and women.

I recently worked with the Moms Demand Action organization in Raleigh (along with States United to Prevent Gun Violence and its local affiliate North Carolinians Against Gun Violence) during the opposition of gun legislation that would have done away with the Sheriff’s pistol permit background check, and they are a great group.  They asked that their members/supporters bring their children to the legislative building.  But rather than just asking legislators to protect and expand background checks, why not additionally take up the cry for lawmakers to protect the rights of their children (as well as those of the parents).  The same could be done with our African-American citizens through various powerful advocacy groups. And, as reported by the Violence Policy Center, our Hispanic population also suffers disparately from gun violence.  All three (women, African- Americans, and Hispanics) represent powerful voting blocks that have the ability to change Congress.

The time to reframe this debate is long overdue.  It’s time to play hardball at the political level.  But it is certainly time to stop exploiting an instance of racial terror to achieve an organizational initiative that did not prevent the massacre and that does not screen out those holding hateful beliefs.