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Should Blacks Join the Gun-Rights Movement?

Francis Wilkinson writes editorials on politics and U.S. domestic policy for Bloomberg View. He was executive editor of the Week. He was previously a national affairs writer for Rolling Stone, a communications consultant and a political media strategist.
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An elegant Sunday New York Times op-ed article on black Americans and gun rights, by Charles C.W. Cooke of National Review, was a welcome departure from the low-grade hysteria typically promoted by the gun-rights movement. Cooke chose a compelling line, juxtaposing the history of black Americans' desperate need for firearms with their current alienation from the gun-rights movement. While smartly argued and blissfully free of  demagoguery, the article nonetheless suffered from another movement affliction: terminal romanticism.

Gun movement romance usually inclines toward neo-American Revolution fantasies about taking to the hills, an arsenal and stacks of canned goods hitched behind. There, pot-bellied patriots outfox government forces equipped with drones, tactical nukes and other modest advantages, and restore America to the godly and gunly. (The Dallas Cowboys cheerleaders are impressed for sure.)

Cooke, who is white, supplants the white Christian nationalist version of the fantasy with a black nationalist one. He wrote:

Although he was denied a concealed-carry permit, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. had what his adviser Glenn E. Smiley described as a veritable “arsenal” at home.

Why would King, the moral center around which a conflicted nation uneasily orbited, have an arsenal of guns? His home was firebombed. People -- lots of them -- wanted to murder him. Death threats followed him everywhere, local police were in cahoots with racist goons and the Federal Bureau of Investigation was less dedicated to protecting King than to destroying him. Even so, King wrote, he got rid of his own gun and enlisted unarmed security guards.

How many Americans today share King's predicament? None. Equal justice remains elusive and racism endures, but even President Barack Obama -- who does have an arsenal at his back -- may need guns less than the vulnerable King did. Indeed, citing King's example as a guide for the general citizenry is akin to suggesting that more Americans should donate their personal billions to charity because, after all, Bill Gates does.

The romance takes a more dangerous turn when Cooke focuses on a rebel whose history is less amenable to national holidays:

Malcolm X may have a deservedly mixed reputation, but the famous photograph of him standing at the window, rifle in hand, insisting on black liberation “by any means necessary,” is about as American as it gets. It should be celebrated just like the “Don’t tread on me” Gadsden flag. By not making that connection, the movement is losing touch with one of its greatest triumphs and forsaking a prime illustration of why its cause is so just and so crucial.

If you're looking for a model of public engagement, it's hard to do worse than "by any means necessary." The slogan obliterates compromise -- it doesn't repel violence so much as demand it. And in the late 1960s era of romantic leftist rebellion, Weatherman and others delivered memorably, irrevocably, bloodily, on the promise.

It's ecumenical of Cooke to want to bring leftists under the serpentine banner of the anti-social right, but it's unlikely to prove a comfortable home to many blacks. Many in the gun-rights movement lionized George Zimmerman for killing an unarmed black teen under dubious circumstances. What kind of culture celebrates that? (And good luck to the first similarly insecure black man with a hair-trigger psyche and atrocious judgment who guns down an unarmed white teen.)

Ultimately, Cooke's vision of welcoming blacks into the gun movement ends right where other visions of maximum gun rights end: before the trouble begins. The chief problem with the gun-rights movement is not that it makes distinctions based on race -- although it does. The biggest problem is that it doesn't make distinctions based on more meaningful criteria: mental soundness, personal responsibility, adequate training.

We still don't know what happened on that night in Ferguson, Missouri, when Michael Brown was shot dead by a police officer. What we do know is that Brown came into the incident unarmed. Under Missouri law, with no criminal record, Brown would have been eligible to carry a concealed handgun when he turned 21. Would that have produced a better outcome for Brown? For Ferguson? For black Americans? For anyone? Are senseless deaths less tragic when the gunslinger's casket is draped in a Gadsden flag?

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Francis Wilkinson at fwilkinson1@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Tobin Harshaw at tharshaw@bloomberg.net