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Is it safe for a black man to be the ‘good guy with a gun’?

Why We Wrote This

Whom do Americans think of when they think of heroes? That’s one of the questions raised by recent tragedies in which black men tried to stop active shooters and police killed the good Samaritan rather than the criminal. 

Jay Reeves/AP
April Pipkins holds a photograph of her son, Emantic ‘E.J.’ Bradford Jr., in Birmingham, Ala., on Nov. 27, 2018. Bradford was shot to death by a police officer in a shopping mall on Thanksgiving night, and Pipkins said she believes her son would still be alive had he been white.

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At a time when guns rights activists have suggested that “good guys with guns” are a solution for stopping mass shooters, some black gun owners are wondering if “helping while black” is too dangerous, pointing to recent tragedies where African-American military veterans and security guards were killed rather than the shooters they were trying to stop. Law enforcement officers push back on the idea that racial bias played a role in the killings. “Make no mistake, this is not a race issue. We have over a million concealed carry license permits in Texas alone, and here we have two shootings where people happen to be black,” says Sheriff A.J. "Andy" Louderback of Jackson County in Texas. But for more than one black gun owner, the shootings reinforce the struggle for police – and Americans more broadly – to address biases that become heightened when guns are drawn. “There are 16 million concealed carry permit holders around the nation ... and the training has not caught up from the law enforcement side or the civilian side,” says Maj Toure, founder of Black Guns Matter. “Meanwhile, the television has told you that the white dude with the AR-15 is supposed to have it. When you see a black guy with a gun, the ‘good guy with a gun’ goes out the window. There is conditioning involved, and we have to break that stigma.”

On Thanksgiving night, a shooter opened fire at the Riverchase Galleria mall in Hoover, Ala. Police killed one man.

But as has become increasingly clear, Emantic “E.J.” Bradford Jr. was one of the good guys.

The military veteran and legal gun carrier from Hueytown, Ala., was likely killed while trying to protect his fellow citizens, according to eyewitness reports. And for that, his family says, he died ignominiously. Police arrested the alleged shooter Thursday.

The Thanksgiving tragedy in Hoover, Ala., highlights an American problem: The deaths of black men, legally armed and who have committed no crime, at the hands of police. At a time when the president and guns rights activists have suggested that “good guys with guns” are a solution for stopping mass shooters, some black gun owners are wondering if “helping while black” is too dangerous.

“Black heroes don’t get the same deference that white heroes do,” says Chad King, an African-American IT worker and co-founder of the Black Bottom Gun Club in Detroit. “In fact, I wish that wide latitude of deference was extended to African-American heroes and victims in the same way that it is extended to white American perpetrators of mass shootings [who have been taken alive]. That is a gap that is irreconcilable to me. It can’t work like that.”

When the helpers get killed

The killing of Mr. Bradford is not a stand-alone example. Three days before his death, a young man named Jemel Roberson was buried in Illinois. An aspiring police officer and legal gun-carrier, Mr. Roberson singlehandedly apprehended a mass shooter at Manny’s Blue Room bar in Robbins, where Roberson worked as a security guard. A Midlothian police officer responded, and shot and killed Roberson. In June, Navy veteran Jason Washington was shot and killed by Portland State University police in Oregon, after reportedly trying to stop a fight outside a bar. Witnesses say Washington was trying to de-escalate the situation, including confiscating his friend’s gun. He had a pistol permit. A grand jury declined to indict the two officers involved.

“We now live in a time where there are no longer clear rules of engagement on the street for law enforcement, and where people who try to help often wind up suffering the most – for trying to help,” says Charles Rose, a law professor at Stetson University, in DeLand, Fla. “It also points to a fundamental problem in society: that a black man carrying a weapon is a suspect and a white man carrying a weapon is not always a suspect. That doesn’t speak to law enforcement. That speaks to American society.”

Studies have found that Americans are more likely to see armed black men more as threats than armed white men. Active shooter situations leave police officers little time and space to sift through biases.

“Cops have to assume that when they roll up on a situation everybody is armed, and you have to assume that anyone with a weapon that is not identified as a police officer is a potential threat,” says Professor Rose. “And those decisions have to be made in a split second.”

In both cases, law enforcement faulted the men – Bradford for allegedly “brandishing” his weapon, Roberson for not responding to police orders quickly enough. Investigations will determine whether eyewitness accounts agree with those assessments.

“One of the real issues here is that law enforcement cannot change the way they address people that they see with weapons in a shooting confrontation area. We can’t change our training or else we are going to suffer from that,” says Sheriff A.J. “Andy” Louderback of Jackson County in Texas. “Make no mistake, this is not a race issue. We have over a million concealed carry license permits in Texas alone and here we have two shootings where people happen to be black. But the way to address it is that we have millions who carry and who make that choice and accept that risk, and may not be handling law enforcement intervention correctly.”

Sheriff Louderback believes that license-to-carry programs should better train people on how to interact with law enforcement and to minimize risk.

“You know that law enforcement is coming to every shooting. It is just a matter of minutes, seconds, for them to get there,” he says. “What you do after that time frame is critical, and that’s the message.”

Even as a majority of states have embraced laws that support expanded gun and self-defense rights, the US is also seeing shifts in African-American perceptions about gun ownership. While the majority of African-Americans support gun control, Pew found that the percentage of black Americans who support gun rights rose from 18 percent in 1993 to 34 percent in 2014.

It also comes amid a philosophical clash among those who see themselves as armed protectors, also highlighted by the shooting at Riverchase: Bradford was trained as a soldier in deescalation techniques, but a different use of force paradigm was in operation on Thanksgiving.

“As a side effect of the global war on terror, the military is very well-trained in how to deal with noncombatants in volatile situations without having to engage in deadly force,” says Rose, a former US Army judge advocate. “US law enforcement is routinely trained to start with deadly force. Those two mindsets don’t cross-pollinate very well, and I don’t know that it’s law enforcement’s fault.”

The shootings have shocked communities and stunned police departments.

The mayor of Hoover and other officials offered an apology to Bradford’s family Tuesday for the city initially publicizing a false narrative that Bradford was the shooter. “The mayor was shaking like a leaf,” Jefferson County Commissioner Sheila Tyson told AL.com. “The family was crying; the mayor was about to cry; I was crying.”

In Illinois, Midlothian Police Chief Daniel Delaney called Roberson “a brave man who was doing his best to end an active shooter situation.”

African-Americans and the Second Amendment

The victims “are the idealized armed citizens ... yet time after time our law enforcement and our legal structures do not support their Second Amendment right,” says Harvard University historian Caroline Light, author of “Stand Your Ground: A History of America’s Love Affair with Lethal Self-Defense.” These tragic police shootings are “evidence of the massive gaping holes in our understanding of self-defense in the nation. It is about who is really allowed to protect and defend themselves, ... [which] is exclusionary to its very core. No matter how law-abiding you are, a black man holding a gun is perceived as a criminal – not a good Samaritan or lawfully armed citizen.”

But even as departments assess the incidents – and state authorities investigate more deeply – the killings suggest an uncomfortable truth about the Second Amendment itself, historians say: That it was at least in part designed to give legal leeway to settlers to deal with Native Americans and to stamp out slave rebellions in the South. Echoes of that history still infiltrate the modern gun rights debate.

“The history of this country suggests that the Second Amendment [is] not intended for people like the gentleman in Alabama, which is why he got shot,” says Gerald Horne, author of “The Counter-Revolution of 1776.”

In researching her latest book, the University of Arizona gun culture expert Jennifer Carlson interviewed 79 US police chiefs. She found that active shooter scenarios especially are “scramb[ling] the racial politics of policing.” It leaves police chiefs “grasping for a narrative” that explains the “unpredictable vulnerability of active shooter situations.”

For one black gun owner, the shootings reinforce the broader struggle for police – and Americans more broadly – to address biases that become heightened when guns are drawn.

“There are 16 million concealed carry permit holders around the nation and less than two decades ago there were a minuscule amount, and the training has not caught up from the law enforcement side or the civilian side,” says Maj Toure, a Philadelphia hip-hop artist and founder of Black Guns Matter. “Meanwhile, the television has told you that the white dude with the AR-15 is supposed to have it. When you see a black guy with a gun, the ‘good guy with a gun’ goes out the window. There is conditioning involved, and we have to break that stigma.”

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