Why Gun Control Isn’t at the Heart of the Black Lives Matter Movement

Stricter gun laws could do more harm than good to poor, black communities, experts and activists say.
An armed member of a citizen militia walks beside protesters in Ferguson, Missouri, on the anniversary of Michael Brown's shooting. (Photo: Scott Olson/Getty Images)
Sep 23, 2015· 4 MIN READ
Rebecca McCray is a staff writer covering social justice. She is based in New York.

If black lives matter, shouldn’t the eponymous movement be fighting for victims of gun violence, no matter who wields the weapon? That question is at the heart of calls for Black Lives Matter activists to prioritize gun control in addition to police violence against black communities—a request that some in the movement say misses the point.

"If black lives really mattered, they'd be protesting all of the black-on-black crime," Milwaukee County Sheriff David Clarke, a frequent critic of the movement, told conservative commentator Sean Hannity in August.

It’s not just those on the right. Mourning the shooting death of Carey Gabay, her friend and an aide to New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, Boston Globe columnist Farah Stockman posed a less incendiary version of Clarke’s accusation to her readers. Gabay, who was black, was caught in the crossfire of what police suspect was a shootout between rival gangs in Brooklyn, New York. Why, Stockman asks, should black lives matter more “when they are taken by a white police officer” than by a “gangbanger with bad aim”?

“I applaud the Black Lives Matter movement for calling attention to the festering problem of police shootings,” wrote Stockman. “But I don’t understand why gun control is not on their agenda.”

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Founded by three California women in the wake of George Zimmerman’s acquittal in the summer of 2013, Black Lives Matter is neither a monolith nor a nonprofit with a finely tuned mission statement, but a decentralized movement with pockets and chapters organizing across the country and the globe; its broad aim is to fight against anti-black racism. That complicates efforts to coalesce behind calls for specific policies. (The early Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street movements faced similar difficulties—and criticism). If any one cause has been universally embraced by and most commonly associated with Black Lives Matter, it’s the battle to end police violence against black communities: The movement became most prominent following the deaths of Eric Garner in New York and Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, at the hands of police officers.

In her column, Stockman called out four of the most prominent activists in the movement, who have organized under the name Campaign Zero and called for 10 policy outcomes, none of which concerns gun control. Samuel Sinyangwe, one of the four activists and the data guru behind the Mapping Police Violence project, told TakePart that he and his co-organizers are very much open to a conversation about gun control, as long as it takes into account the possibility that stricter gun restrictions could be disproportionately enforced in black communities, as many other criminal laws have been.

“Campaign Zero is a campaign focused on a particular issue: ending police violence in America,” said Sinyangwe. “We don’t ask folks who are fighting for the right to an abortion to also focus on fair wages for women.”

“I would encourage folks who have more insight into the potential racial impact of gun control legislation to present that research to the movement so we can have a more nuanced debate,” Sinyangwe continued.

Million Hoodies Movement for Justice, a national racial justice network, is one of the groups engaging in that debate with members of the gun control advocacy community. At a recent roundtable in Washington, D.C., representatives from the group met with leaders from organizations such as the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence, which advocates for “sensible gun laws” and universal background checks for gun buyers. So far, according to Million Hoodies policy director Pete Haviland-Eduah, the conversation has been productive.

“I think it’s totally unfair to ignore the racial implications of gun laws,” said Haviland-Eduah. “The general sense I’m getting is that [people in the gun control movement] are understanding that these conversations need to have a racial context.”

Without that, Haviland-Eduah and Sinyangwe fear, black communities will unfairly bear the brunt of stricter gun laws. The idea wasn’t created in a vacuum: Going back well over a century, vagrancy and anti-loitering laws were selectively enforced against blacks, and more recently, police practices such as stop-and-frisk, in which an officer stops and pats down a pedestrian suspected of possessing contraband such as a firearm, have been shown to be highly racialized. Though ostensibly aimed at getting guns off the streets, guns were found in only 0.1 percent of 532,000 stop-and-frisk stops made in New York City in 2012, according to the New York Civil Liberties Union. Ninety percent of those stopped were black or Latino, even though whites were more likely to be found packing heat, according to research by Jeffrey Fagan at Columbia University Law School.

That pattern would likely play itself out if some of the stricter proposed gun control legislation succeeds, according to Alex Gourevitch, a professor of political science at Brown University.

“Many of the already existing instances of racial profiling and over-policing that contribute to mass incarceration come from gun control measures,” Gourevitch told TakePart. “If we really care about the condition of people living in poor black communities, the issue isn’t just the destruction of physical lives but how low the quality of life is. The best thing would be to reduce the number of things we call crimes and instead look to things like social and economic policy.”

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There is evidence that prosecutors are more likely to prosecute black defendants than they are white defendants in other contexts: One study from the Vera Institute of Justice revealed that prosecutors in Milwaukee declined to prosecute 27 percent of black defendants in drug paraphernalia cases, compared with 41 percent of white defendants.

Haviland-Eduah’s and Sinyangwe’s ideas are having an influence on the gun control movement. The Coalition to Stop Gun Violence is trying to get more data on the racial implications of federal gun possession laws, a quest that was borne of conversations with members of the Black Lives Matter community.

“The dialogue we’ve started is critical and has been incredibly useful,” the coalition’s communications director, Ladd Everitt, told TakePart. “I don’t think we’re going to reach a point where their agenda is our agenda, but we are finding areas of common concern and working on those.”

If that data can be identified and collected, Everitt believes the coalition and the broader anti–gun violence community would gladly campaign around racial disparities in gun laws.

Haviland-Eduah would welcome such a change.

“Guns affect all communities in this country, and I think it’s important to make that distinction when people point their finger at the Black Lives Matter movement and say, ‘Guns should be a part of this,’ ” Haviland-Eduah said. “It almost feels like they’re saying guns are only a black or brown problem.”