The Rev. Kenn Blanchard, a former federal police officer, has spent 20 years challenging gun control orthodoxy through speeches, Internet campaigns, and his “Black Man with a Gun” book franchise.
But the man who’s seen by some as the godfather of a nascent African-American gun rights movement says he’s often actually a black man without a gun.
Concerned about getting falsely profiled and even killed by police as a threatening black man by carrying a legal gun openly, Mr. Blanchard says he refuses to carry weapons in plain sight, even at a time when many white gun owners are carrying openly, in places where that’s their legal right, but which might spark police attention.
“Open carry, I won’t do it,” he tells the Monitor. “I don’t want to give a police officer that second of time to say, ‘Is he a bad guy?’ I don’t want that to be on me.”
His statements (which he says are aimed at both black and white police officers) come amid national debate over high-profile police shootings in Arizona, Missouri and Ohio, after which thousands of Americans have taken to the streets to protest decisions by white police officers to resort to deadly force against unarmed black men, and the refusal by grand juries to hold officers criminally accountable. At the same time, a majority of Americans for the first time favor expanded gun rights over stronger ownership restrictions.
For the black community, the questions of gun ownership and carry are complex, to say the least, and span harsh crime realities in the inner cities to little-discussed aspects of the civil rights movement. Blanchard himself told Al-Jazeera last year that “[i]t’s the hardest thing in the world to decide I want to be a gun owner in a black community … nobody supports you.”
But as Blanchard posits in his work, gun control efforts historically have had race at their roots, with ownership and carry rules intended primarily to disarm blacks during Jim Crow.
In the recent “Negroes and the Gun,” Nicholas Johnson, a Fordham Law School professor, chronicles the black community’s long gun-owning tradition and its role in the freedom struggle, notably how that tradition historically has drawn strict distinctions between guns for self-defense and political violence. Johnson’s book also notes that several recent Supreme Court gun rights cases were led by black plaintiffs.
The debate has contemporary implications.
Black communities suffer the most from gun violence, given high murder rates among young black men – a reason why there’s historically been skepticism about gun ownership in the black community. But those attitudes are changing quickly, according to a new Pew survey released this week. For the first time, a majority of African-Americans believe guns can be an effective crime deterrent when weighed against the dangers of owning guns.
But while YouTube videos of police approaching then backing off white men carrying legal guns openly on the street have become popular among gun rights proponents, such videos provide a contemporary contrast to how black people with legal guns are sometimes approached and dealt with differently than white people with legal guns.
This summer, for example, John Crawford III, a black man, was killed by two police officers after someone reported him for carrying what turned out to be a toy rifle at a Walmart. The shooting occurred in Ohio, where residents are allowed to legally carry guns openly in public, including in stores.
A few weeks ago, a 12-year-old black boy named Tamir Rice was killed in Cleveland while carrying a pellet gun. Video shows an officer shooting the boy within two seconds of arriving at the scene.
Brandman University law professor David Long, who is black, says such incidents underscore concerns about racial profiling among police, and how that affects gun rights for different races.
In the YouTube videos, “you see young white guys walking down the street with weapons, and the police approach them without guns drawn, have a chat, and that’s it,” Long told the Monitor recently. “You try that as a young black man, you’ll be dead.”
To be sure, the shootings, protests and frank realities like the unequal profiling that concerns Blanchard, have begun to move the needle on justice system reforms, including the introduction of a Congressional grand jury reform bill this week to allow more scrutiny of police who kill, and introduction of police body cameras that have helped reduce use-of-force incidents by police.
As a former police firearms instructor and US Marine, Blanchard says his concerns as a black man about wearing guns openly even though some whites are comfortable doing so cuts to the nexus of guns and race in America.
“It’s the same thing since the Civil War, it hasn’t changed – we have a holdover from the sins of our fathers,” he says.