S. E. Williams
There are many in America who believe if the nation truly wants gun control, all it has to do is encourage Black men to begin openly carrying weapons. There is certainly a lot of evidence to support this hypothesis—just look at California history and ask members of the original Black Panther Party.
Previous to 1967, California allowed its citizens to carry loaded firearms in public—that was until members of the Black Panther Party armed themselves and began patrolling their neighborhoods in the City of Oakland. Almost immediately, California passed the 1967 Mulford Act that repealed the state’s open carry law.
Certainly, not everything can be attributed to racism; however, in this instance, loaded weapons in the hands of Black men stoked fear in the hearts of a nation. As a result, at that time, even Republicans supported increased gun control.
The gun control rhetoric escalated and garnered national attention when members of the Black Panther Party armed themselves and marched on the state capitol in protest of the Mulford Act—they received no support from gun lobbyists or second amendment enthusiasts.
Then California Governor Ronald Reagan signed the legislation into law. At the time Reagan stated he could see, "No reason why on the streets today a citizen should be carrying loaded weapons."
Fast forward fifty years and although some things have changed, much has remained the same particularly as it relates to racism and the fear of Black men with guns. As a matter of fact, in far too many instances, a Black man or child with a gun in an open carry state might just as well hang a “shoot me” sign around his neck.
In the last couple of years, the nation has witnessed example after example where this has proven true. Any reporters would love to ask African Americans who find themselves in these dangerous situations, why? Why, as an African American, they risked their lives to carry a weapon in an open carry state. Sadly, however, none of them survived to tell their tale.
In August 2014, 22-year-old John Crawford was shopping in a Walmart Store in Beavercreek, Ohio. He picked up an un-packaged BB/pellet air rifle in the sporting goods section and continued shopping. Another shopper saw him with the gun, called 911 and reported someone had a gun. Within minutes, Crawford was shot dead inside the store by police. As a Black man, he lost his life for merely carrying a BB gun even though Ohio is an open carry state.
A few months later, in November, 2014, 12-year-old Tamir Rice was playing with a BB gun in a park across the street from his home in Cleveland, Ohio. An observer called 911 and reported someone in the park was brandishing what might be a toy gun. The police shot the child to death within seconds of their arrival on the scene. It was only a toy gun but young Tamir was never given an opportunity to explain. Tamir was a Black child playing with a toy gun in Ohio, an open carry state.
On July 6, Baton Rouge Police received a report of a man with a weapon. They arrived on the scene, confronted 37-year-old Alton Sterling, and within minutes Sterling was shot and killed. Although details of the encounter remain murky, what is known is that Sterling had legally purchased his gun and the police removed it from his pant pocket after they shot him multiple times in the front and back as he laid on the ground. They killed him on the spot. Sterling, a Black man was shot to death for carrying a legal weapon in an open carry state.
Two days later on July 8, in Falcon Heights, Minnesota, Philando Castile, his fiancé and young daughter were pulled over by the police. It is still unclear as to whether they were stopped due to a faulty tail light as initially reported or if Castile matched the description of a robbery suspect who happened to be a Black man with a wide nose . . . Whatever the reason for the stop, Castile immediately advised the officer he was carrying a weapon, that he had a permit and that he was going to reach for his license as instructed to by the officer. As Castile, a Black man, reached for his wallet, he was shot to death by the officer in an open carry state.
As the nation responded in protest to the questionable killings of Sterling and Castile just as it had in the wake of the deaths of Crawford, Rice and untold numbers of other Black and Brown men, a lone gunman launched a sniper attack on police officers during a peaceful protest in Dallas, Texas. As Dallas police scrambled to gain control of the situation they immediately distributed a bulletin seeking a person of interest— Mark Hughes.
Hughes participated in the Dallas protest and openly carried his weapon during the demonstration. As a result, Hughes a Black man, became the prime suspect, at least initially, and had his image broadcast across America—for a moment he became the most hated and wanted man in the nation.
Hughes claimed he brought a weapon to the protest to simply exercise his Second Amendment right to bear arms. Hughes had absolutely no connection to the sniper who killed five police officers and injured seven others. Yet, many still question why he would carry his weapon to the protest—but, why wouldn’t he? It was, after all his right as a Texan in Texas, an open carry state to do so.
So this article ends where it began. Black men who carry weapons in America are obviously perceived as a clear and present danger.
In 2012, California strengthened its laws against carrying firearms in public. Prior to 2012, it was legal for anyone, except convicted felons, to carry an unloaded weapon in public, provided that the weapon was not concealed. However, since January 1, 2012, California Penal Code 26350 made it illegal to openly carry any firearm in public, even if the gun is unloaded.
Although the open carry issued in California was decided in the 1960s, the constitutionality of California’s concealed carry restrictions were challenged in Peruta v. San Diego County where the petitioners claimed that there is a Second Amendment right to carry firearms outside of one's home—the district court disagreed.
In February 2014, a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit reversed the district court ruling. The panel concluded that the Second Amendment must include the right to bear arms for self-defense outside the home.
On June 9, 2016, the Ninth Circuit, ruled 7 to 4 that the Second Amendment right to keep and bear arms does not apply to any law governing the concealed carry of any protected firearm in public. A different ruling could have reignited the issue of open carry in the state as well.
The ruling of the full Ninth Circuit put the concealed carry issue to bed in California along with the open carry restrictions and hopefully saved some Black lives in the process.
Around the nation, open carry laws offer one more example of how Black men in America are perceived as different and more dangerous when they seek to exercise the exact same rights sanctioned by law and taken for granted by others.