Blacks and Gun Ownership: Tighter Restrictions Can Save Lives

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  • There is no argument that over the course of history many of this nation’s gun-control laws were intended, at least in part, to keep them out of the hands of African Americans.

    During slavery, most certainly, enslaved people and freedmen were barred in the South from owning guns. After the Civil War, the Union army placed no such restrictions on black soldiers who had served in the war. Southern States, however, adopted what came to be known as the Black Codes, which regulated black people’s movement. One provision banned black people from owning firearms.

    It took additional federal civil rights legislation to affirm that black people also could own guns.

    It is the history of gun laws and the impact of Jim Crow laws that spur some African Americans to resist the idea of restricting gun ownership under regulations being considered by a bipartisan Congressional committee that is likely to recommend some restrictions linked to background checks and the types of weapons people can own.

    To be sure, even during the Civil Rights Movement, some of the leadership either carried guns or were protected by people who did.

    Even leaders committed to nonviolent resistance understood the value of guns for self-protection. “Martin Luther King Jr. applied for a permit to carry a concealed firearm in 1956, after his house was bombed,” according to “The Secret History of Guns,” a 2011 article in The Atlantic magazine.

    “His application was denied, but from then on, armed supporters guarded his home. One adviser, Glenn Smiley, described the King home as ‘an arsenal.’ William Worthy, a black reporter who covered the civil rights movement, almost sat on a loaded gun in a living room armchair during a visit to King’s parsonage,” the article said.

    But the reality of gun violence in the years since King was assassinated in 1968, much of which has hurt young African Americans in the urban centers of the country, has also driven many black Americans to question whether it makes sense to create a more formally licensed way to become a gun owner.

    According to the Brady Campaign to prevent gun violence:
    •    A gun in the home is 22 times more likely to be used in a completed or attempted suicide, criminal assault or homicide, or unintentional shooting death or injury than to be used in a self-defense shooting.
    •    An estimated 41 percent of gun-related homicides and 94 percent of gun-related suicides would not occur under the same circumstances had no guns been present.
    •    Higher household gun ownership correlates with higher rates of homicides, suicides, and unintentional shootings.

    Some of those who have been touched directly by violence, especially suicide, say losing someone close in a gun death takes the debate about gun ownership from the theoretical to the personal and it almost always changes one’s perspective.

    Regulation is necessary, they say, to buy precious time that might allow intervention or force someone to reconsider drastic action.

    “There really is very little room for error when you put the muzzle of a gun in your mouth,” said Beverly White-Seals, whose son Kylen Seals, shot himself to death in the driveway of his parents’ Maryland home.

    “Kylen bought that gun legally. He didn’t go on a corner someplace,” White-Seals said of her son who had a lengthy, documented history with mental illness, including bipolar disorder, which was diagnosed when her son was 14 or 15 years old.

    Before taking his life, White-Seals said, her son had “never tried to commit suicide that I’m aware of and he never threatened to harm others, but he clearly was mentally ill.”

    There were never guns in the family home and Kylen Seals was raised in an upper middle-class family, and exposed to numerous opportunities for success.

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