Should black gun owners be afraid to exercise their Second Amendment rights?
One thing I've always enjoyed about the Second Amendment community is the sense of family. Whether you're at a shooting range getting in some target practice, at a gun show to find your next treasure, or in the field for a hunt, there is always a sense of camaraderie among gun owners that I really enjoy.
The great thing about families is that they tend to stick together. We may have our internal squabbles, but when one part of the family is threatened by an outsider, everyone else comes to their aid.
It is my firm belief, after several high profile and some not-so-high-profile examples in recent years, that a part of our Second Amendment family is in need of aid.
The Second Amendment family member who needs aid is the law-abiding black gun owner.
In choosing to write about this subject, I recognize I am entering dangerous waters.
Issues of race and police-involved shootings have permeated the national conversation for many years now. And, like everything from Chick-Fil-A to COVID-19, people seem to divide up quickly into two camps when it comes to this subject.
Persons on one side of this conversation are often unwilling to tolerate any mention of the fact that some of these incidents involve people who are involved in irresponsible (or sometimes criminal) behavior, or who chose to do things that could be reasonably seen as threatening in the moments before being shot.
Persons on the other side of this conversation are often unwilling to consider that the use of deadly force may not always have been necessary even when a crime was being committed, and won't contemplate even the possibility that race can be a factor in any of these instances.
Both groups may not like what I have to say.
But in the months since the nation watched the life of George Floyd vanish on that Minneapolis pavement, and as our nation continues to take stock of where we are on the race issue, I feel compelled to try to learn more from the members of our family (black gun owners and concealed handgun license [CHL]-holders) who are forced to consider how the tone of their skin might affect their ability to peacefully exercise their constitutional right to bear arms for defense and security.
"Stop Hassling People!"
Many gun owners will remember the name Philando Castile. On July 6, 2016, Mr. Castile was shot to death by a Minneapolis police officer. Castile had been pulled over because a brake light was burned out. He bled to death in front of his girlfriend Diamond Reynolds and their 4 year-old child.
In the dashcam video, after being asked for his license and registration, Castile - a concealed handgun license-holder - notified Officer Yanez that he had a firearm, to which Yanez replied, "Don't reach for it then." Castile said "I'm, I, I was reaching for..." Yanez said "Don't pull it out." Castile replied "I'm not pulling it out," and Reynolds said "He's not!" Yanez repeated "Don't pull it out!" and then shot at Castile at close range seven times, hitting him five times.
Few gun owners, even here in Ohio, are likely to recall the names Randall "Brian" Scott Jr., Joseph Davis Jr., and Henry Green. These three young black men were also exercising their right to carry a concealed firearm when they were shot.
For the sake of brevity I won't go through the details of each man's encounter with the police here, but at the very least we can correctly summarize by saying that mistakes were made by these three Ohio license-holders, and their activities were likely to draw the attention of police no matter the amount of melanin in their skin.
The question is, were officers' subsequent actions in any way affected by the fact that these three men are black? Were the officers more nervous or "on edge?" More likely to think they were in danger? Less willing to make certain the CHL-holders' actions were in fact threatening? In Davis' case at least, the officer who fired the shot is also black. Is it also possible for a black officer to behave differently based on the ethnicity of his suspect?
In the case of Castile we might need to examine why he was stopped in the first place. Consider this, from Greg Ellifritz, full-time firearms and defensive tactics training officer writing to fellow law-enforcement officers on the Castile incident after Yanez was acquitted:
Look at this shooting. The reason for contact (only one functioning brake light) is valid legally, but what do people think about cops pulling people over for minor infractions like that? They don’t like it. Following the logic, they will like it even less when someone gets shot as a result of a "bullshit" stop.
I know what the cop was doing, he was likely hunting for criminals and people who have warrants. I see it pretty regularly. Cops pull over crappy cars for equipment violations, hunting for an arrest. Poor people who can’t afford to fix busted tail lights often can’t afford to pay their tickets, their child support, or their court fees. Their driver’s licenses are frequently suspended and they regularly have warrants.
So, aggressive cop looking to arrest "bad guys" pulls over a beater car and runs everyone inside for warrants. About 25% of the time he gets lucky and gets an arrest or a bunch of tickets. Every once in awhile, bad shit happens, innocent people die and the cop ends up in the national media spotlight. Is it worth it to take the chance of such a negative outcome to enforce a relatively inconsequential traffic violation?
The problem is that a large portion of society thinks that your hard work and "aggressive and proactive" policing style looks an awful lot like "screwing with poor people" instead of hunting criminals.
STOP HASSLING PEOPLE! The fact that some dude has a suspended license or hasn’t paid a speeding ticket is not negatively affecting the real safety of the community you patrol. I know you want to do good things and make lots of arrests, but every stop you make has the potential to go REALLY bad. Don’t stop people for bogus violations. Don’t hunt minor scofflaws. The public doesn’t respect you for doing so and occasionally you will get thrown under the bus when you screw something up, or your stop ends up in a shooting that you didn’t intend.
If you are tempted to read Ellifritz's own testimony as a law enforcement officer and still think this isn't a common problem, I encourage you to start asking black friends or acquaintances about their own experiences. I have, and every single person I've asked has told me this type of thing has happened to them.
Here is what a member of my wife's family shared:
I lived in Memphis in the mid 90's and drove an old run-down Caprice Classic for a while. I got pulled over on a weekly basis because I and/or my car "fit the description" of someone who had just committed a crime. Everything in my car would get searched and dumped into the street and I would be left to clean it up and hope I made it to wherever I was going on time. It's worth noting that most thugs and gangsters in Memphis at that time drove big cars like that. Even though I was a nerd, with no drugs or warrants, working at IBM, who happened to be driving a big car, it didn't matter.
Before you excuse this as a twenty-five year-old Southern problem, consider that I was given very similar and much more recent account from a friend who lives right here in good ol' Northwest Ohio.
If this was your weekly (or even monthly or quarterly or yearly!) experience as you went about minding your own business and breaking no laws, how frustrated and concerned would you be about being stopped so frequently?
One of the "good guys," or a potential threat?
The hassling doesn't just come at the hands of law enforcement - at least not initially.
At 8:47 a.m. on August 13, 2020, while sitting in his car, eating his breakfast and talking on this phone, Darren Cooper, a black CHL-holder who had arrived early for a continuing education event, found himself surrounded by Ravenna, OH police officers. Reports say at least two of the officers had their guns unholstered. One officer had his AR-15 at the ready. The reason? A woman in a dentist office across the street called 911 and reported a man sitting in his car waving a "pistol" around, acting "erratically."
Police searched his car and found nothing. Cooper did not have his firearm with him that day. In the wake of incidents like Castile's and others mentioned above, one is forced to wonder how different the situation might have turned out if he had.
Summit County officials say they have no plans to charge the woman for making a false report because they don't want to discourage tips. On the other hand, they expressed no concerns whatsoever about how incidents like this discourage black people from exercising their Second Amendment rights.
When instructing students in my concealed carry classes about what to do if they are detained for a law enforcement purpose (traffic stop, witness to an accident, etc.), I explain that in my experience officers are typically quite friendly to me when I fulfill my legal obligation to promptly identify myself as a CHL-holder during such an encounter. I even go so far as to say that I feel like it's gotten me some grace a time or two when I was given a warning for speeding instead of a ticket.
But in the wake of these accounts, and as I have begun to ask more questions of my black friends about their experiences with law enforcement, I've had to do some soul-searching.
What would it be like if, instead of being seen by most officers as one of the "good guys" when they learned I was carrying, I was instead immediately seen as a threat? What would it be like if my family literally feared for my life if I was carrying (or even if I was unarmed) and got pulled over on a run to the pharmacy or grocery because I "fit the description?" Would this change my decision to exercise my Second Amendment right to bear arms?
I recently had the opportunity to speak to Cooper about his false report incident, and ask him some of these questions.
He told me that, for him, the choice to get his license and carry concealed started with hearing then-President George W. Bush observe that EVERY man has a right to protect his home and to protect his family.
"I don't think I'll ever forget that," Cooper told me.
Since then, he has been exercising his Second Amendment rights, and recently just renewed his CHL. He shared that, prior to that bright August morning in Ravenna, he has not had to interact with police during his time as a CHL-holder.
So some, like Mr. Cooper, weigh the pros and cons and decide to exercise their right to carry. Others decide cons outweigh the pros.
Here is what another black friend (my former CHL class student, a successful small business owner and family man) had to say when I asked him about his thought process on deciding whether or not exercise his right to carry:
It is a pretty weighty question that has so many components that come into play. I truly believe that 80% of law enforcement are the good guys. It is so unfortunate that our society has to go through so much anguish because of the 20%. The problem with 20% being a problem is, this is an industry where you can’t have that huge of a failure percentage. Imagine if 20% of commercial pilots failed to land their planes. No one would fly. We have to find a way to make things better. Now to your question.
I took the CCW class mainly because I grew up in California and it was such a lengthy process to obtain a firearm. So honestly it was more of, "I am going to do this because it is an opportunity that I never had."
After the class I decided not to get my license, because I knew that if the situation ever arose that I had to pull my weapon, proving my case would be far more difficult than I would want to put my family through. Which brings me to my specific reasons. If I did buy a weapon, there is no way I could ever carry it.
First, because if my shirt ever revealed my weapon, I am not convinced that some backwoods cowboy would not take that as a reason to draw his weapon on me. Now I am put in the position of either dying, or having to shoot to kill, thereby putting my family in a tough position of proving my innocence.
Second, if I was pulled over, I do not think I would be treated favorably for having my CCW, and even if I didn’t have my gun on me, which I could never carry because of reason one, my vehicle would fully searched 8 out of 10 times that I was pulled over. Knowing that I am going to get pulled over more than other individuals even for petty offenses (I have shared some of my personal experiences with you), it will not make my life easier having a registered CCW. In the world we live in, there is no advantage to me carrying a weapon on me.
Someday, I may have a weapon of some sort in my home, but the cons of carrying far outweigh exercising a Constitutional right that I would always pray I never had to invoke.
What Can We Do About It?
It is my hope that white gun owners read that testimony and react with righteous anger. Part of our Second Amendment family - our black brothers and sisters - desperately want to exercise their Second Amendment rights. But many have weighed the odds, measured the potential cost, and determined that the likelihood of troubles because they are carrying far outweigh the likelihood of troubles that could come while not carrying.
If that angers you, I hope your next question is, "but what can we - the gun rights community as a whole - do about it?"
I don't claim to have all the answers. This is a complicated issue. But it should go without saying that our fellow law-abiding black Americans have every bit as much right to bear arms as any other citizen, just as Cooper remembers President Bush observing. If their rights are being infringed, or if they are being treated differently or caused to be in fear of exercising their Second Amendment rights, gun rights advocates must come to their aid.
Here are some suggestions I hope we can all get on board with:
- Ask your black friends/co-workers/associates/range members about their own thoughts and experiences on this topic. Have they experienced this type of harassment? Have they made choices not to exercise their rights in response to these concerns? The more stories you hear (and you WILL hear them if you start asking, trust me), the more you're going to understand the injustice of this situation and want to join efforts to make things right.
- Support efforts to weed out the segment of police officers who have a tendency to abuse their power - Ellifritz's "aggressive" cop who is known for "hassling" people. Make sure the candidates you vote for do as well. Don't let your support for the "thin blue line" blind you to this very real problem with a small segment of the law enforcement community.
- When you hear of a law-abiding black gun owner being treated unjustly, start or join efforts to draw attention to it. Express your concerns to the police department leadership and to your elected officials. Engage in a social media campaign. Write letters to the editor. Organize a public demonstration.
- Share articles like this on social media platforms so others can read them. We live in a time when people are willing to look at this topic with new eyes. The more people look at each perspective and speak out when someone is being mistreated, the more the situation will improve.
Law-abiding gun owners, part of our family needs our help. Let's do this!
Chad D. Baus served as Buckeye Firearms Association Secretary from 2013-2019. He is co-founder of BFA-PAC, and served as its Vice Chairman for 15 years. He is the editor of BuckeyeFirearms.org, which received the Outdoor Writers of Ohio 2013 Supporting Member Award for Best Website, and is also an NRA-certified firearms instructor.