Monday, October 21, 2019

A Most Vicious Cycle: Mass Shootings, Gun Rights, and Police Killings of Blacks (Guest Blog by Prof. SpearIt)


Mass killings continue unabated in the U.S. Since Columbine and Sandy Hook, there have been what seems like countless gun attacks that leave multiple innocent lives lost. Despite the fact that the children lost at Sandy Hook would by now be teenagers, the many killings since then make those tragic events seem like ancient history.

Starting with what seemed to be random killing sprees, efforts have become more ideologically intentional, with Muslim, Jewish, LGBTQ, Black Christian, and most recently, Latino and immigrant communities being the focus of attacks. Although these shootings clearly harm members of these discrete groups, not so visible is how these shootings harm black communities. Indeed, hardly matters which group is the target of a mass shooting, since Blacks, in the end, will also pay a price, particularly when it comes to policing and being on the receiving end of harsh treatment by police.

One point to consider, as history shows, is that mass shootings are invariably followed by legislation that liberalizes gun laws. One study showed that a “single mass shooting leads to an approximately 15% increase in the number of firearm bills introduced within a state the year after the mass shooting…(this) holds for both Republican-controlled and Democrat-controlled legislatures.” Some researchers found that more than “20,000 pieces of gun-related legislation were produced after mass shootings in the last quarter century.” While some states have moved to restrict gun rights, the general thrust of mass shootings has not been to inspire conservative attitudes toward gun rights, but rather, to arm more citizens, allow more carrying of guns, and allow for greater self-defense with guns.

Simultaneous to this gun-rights expansion is the refusal of politicians to regulate guns in a meaningful way. Because of this lack of political will, there is military-grade weaponry on the streets and in the hands of citizens, the mentally ill, and criminals alike. The situation lays an opportune foundation for mass casualties at the hands of a single individual. A simple look at recent killings show that a common denominator was the use of assault rifles.

Under such conditions, the country has become a very dangerous place. It is a new wild, wild, west, where such weaponry, in turn, helps to justify the militarization of police. Although the push to make police more militant began in the 1970s post-Vietnam era, in the following decades, it has been embraced by law enforcement officials. Today, police departments own choppers, tanks, and military trucks, armed with high caliber weapons, flash grenades, helmets, and military armor. Such armament is reasonable and necessary for police to do their jobs in the perilous world that their elected officials have created.

This vicious cycle of mass shootings and police armament directly bears on the killing of Blacks. This is true at least to the extent that mass shootings have stunned, numbed, and dumbed the public to killing in general. In the wake of these mass slaughters, including of children, the police killing of a single black “suspect” holds far less shock value.

The mass loss of life thus makes black lives matter even less. In turn, the case of Colin Kaepernick shows that simply protesting against police brutality can lead to all sorts enragements, the likes of which effectively ended his football career. Even though police stop, arrest, and kill Blacks at higher rates than any other ethnic group, the controversy surrounding his protest has consumed the American public more than the brutal police killing of Blacks.

Even if Blacks are not killed, their communities bear the brunt of heavy police armament. The high-caliber artillery of police translates into real physical pain for these communities. Their residents are the ones likely to be beaten, bruised, tased, stunned, have bones broken, and have sight and hearing lost due to injuries. Some of the damage occurs when simple arrest warrants are executed with Rambo-style tactics, replete with an arsenal of weapons and technology.

In turn, black communities are empirically the least able to arm themselves because of felony disenfranchisement laws. The disproportional representation of Blacks in the criminal justice system yields a disproportionate number of Blacks who cannot legally possess a gun. Hence black communities, more than any other ethnic group, are far outgunned by the police and others who can lawfully possess a gun.

These developments are consequences of an ongoing arms race between police and civilians. This race is stimulated is time another shooting occurs involving guns that are more suited for war than simple self-defense. Thus, as long as lawmakers remain inert when it comes to the killings, the damage will continue, and with it, collateral damage to black communities.

Mass shootings ensure that Blacks will ultimately be at the receiving end of the weapons and technology wielded by police who arm themselves with mass shooters in mind. It is the ultimate bait-and-switch whereby police arms are justified by the weapons used in mass killings, yet Blacks, who are the least-armed, are the ones who are menaced by this armament more than anyone else.

-- by SpearIt, Professor of Law, Texas Southern University Thurgood Marshall School of Law

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