Black People Need Better Options than the Morgue or Mass Incarceration

July 26, 2022

The US Supreme Court’s decision in New York State Rifle & Pistol Association v. Bruen significantly restricts the rights of states to regulate the possession of firearms. It will inevitably lead to more Americans being killed, wounded, and traumatized from gun violence. Its impact will fall particularly hard on Black Americans who die from shootings at nearly three times the rate of white Americans. Indeed, gun violence is the leading cause of death for young Black men.

Because of the tremendous harm that gun violence inflicts on Black communities, it is surprising that some Black public defenders support the Court’s decision. They argue that there has been racial discrimination in the enforcement of the New York State’s gun possession law, and therefore it contributes to the mass incarceration of Black people. Mass incarceration is a serious problem, but the public defenders’ position is extremely misguided. Not only will the Court’s ruling lead to more Black death, it may lead to more Black incarceration also, making it a lose-lose position.

Generally, in the United States, the more people with access to guns, the more gun deaths. The Court’s decision could lead to more than a hundred thousand more people carrying guns in New York City alone. While there are many responsible gun owners who are safety minded, too many gun owners do not treat firearms with the care and respect a deadly weapon deserves. Many gun owners do not safely store their weapons away from children, and then children end up killing others or themselves. Some gun owners get angry driving in traffic, and shoot at other drivers. Some gun owners feel wronged because of silly things like too much mayonnaise on their sandwich, and then shoot food service workers. Some gun owners do reckless things like shoot at fleeing shoplifters in a shopping mall and end up hitting innocent bystanders. FBI data suggests that more than a fifth of firearm homicides stem from arguments. Also, access to a firearm in the home has been shown to increase the risk that there will be a homicide in the home. Black people are not exempt; more Black people with guns as a result of the Court’s decision will inevitably lead to more Black firearm deaths.

An increase in Black gun homicides is not the only likely bad result from this ruling. When Americans are afraid of violent crime, they tend to support the laws and policies that lead to the mass incarceration of Black people. The former public defender, James Foreman Jr., documented this dynamic among Black Americans in his book, Locking Up Our Own: Crime and Punishment in Black America. One estimate of the effect of a state allowing residents to carry concealed weapons in public is a 14 percent increase in violent crime. The scholars also estimate that a state would need to double its prison population to counteract this increase in violent crime. Thus, the Black public defenders may have supported a position that could lead not only to more Black people killed, injured, and traumatized from gun violence, but also to more Black people incarcerated.

A better option for Black America is strong gun safety laws and fair and good policing. Most countries in the world, including most countries in Africa, have fewer firearm homicides than the United States. Stronger gun laws are part of the reason other countries experience less gun violence. In many white communities in the United States and in many other countries, the police truly serve and protect the residents, and there are positive community-police relations. American policing needs to be reformed so that the police show more respect for Black lives and so that there are better relations between the police and Black communities. Camden, New Jersey can serve as an example. In recent years, Camden police have improved relations with the Black community and the city has seen a lower homicide rate. Camden may be far from perfect, but it shows us that it is possible for conditions to improve. Rather than the gun lawlessness promoted by the extremists on the Supreme Court, Black Americans must insist on gun safety laws and an end to mass incarceration.

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