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Racial and Ethnic Divide Over Gun Rights

Written by George E. Curry on 20 January 2011.

gun rightsColumbine High School. The Washington, D.C. sniper. Northern Illinois University. Virginia Tech. Red Lake Indian Reservation. Chicago school children. And now, Tucson, Arizona. In dramatic ways, shooting deaths have horrified, mesmerized, and confounded Americans. Yet, an increasing number of people say it is more important to protect the rights of citizens to own guns than to limit those authorized to carry lethal weapons.

In a September survey, the Pew Research Center found that 50 percent of Americans favor protecting the right to own guns over the adoption of stricter gun control laws. There were important racial and ethnic distinctions. Non-Hispanic Whites favor gun rights by a margin of 54 percent to 42 percent.

However, people of color hold opposite views. Among African-Americans, two-thirds - 66 percent - favor control of guns, compared to 20 percent who favor giving preference to the right to own guns. Among Hispanics, the gap was even larger, with 75 percent favoring tougher gun control laws and only 21 percent giving the edge to gun owners.

Considering the national tragedies that the nation has witnessed, often via around-the-clock coverage on cable television, I am somewhat surprised by the shift in public opinion toward the rights of gun owners. What is not surprising is that people of color are not part of that trend.

Looking back on how Black communities have changed for the worse, two factors stand out more than any others: the widespread use and sale of illicit drugs and the accompanying gun violence. Even how we settle disputes among ourselves has radically changed. When I was growing up in the 1950s and 1960s, if I got in a fist fight with a guy, at worst, we might have a rematch the next day. Over the years, however, things have changed. Instead of settling disputes by duking it out, it is far more likely that one of the parties will try to settle the feud with a gun.

Today, elderly people are not exempt from armed robbery and churches don't stand a prayer of a chance of being off-limits to scoundrels. The negative impact of guns has impacted other aspects of our communities, such as making adults less willing to exercise their authority over wayward young people for fear of being assaulted or killed.

Led by the National Rifle Association (NRA), the gun lobby has been very successful depicting gun ownership as not only a right but a necessity. It argues that in addition to being able to have a weapon to protect one's home, citizens need to be able to carry concealed weapons on us as if we were still in the wild, wild west. That attitude has been fueled by hot rhetoric that somehow, the federal government is the enemy of the people.

According to Gallup, the polling firm, "Almost half of Americans say they perceive the federal government to be an 'immediate threat to the rights and freedoms of ordinary citizens.'" That figure has risen from 30 percent in 2003 to 46 percent in 2010.

Forty-eight states have laws that permit citizens to carry concealed firearms in public, usually after obtaining a permit from local or state law enforcement authorities. Last year, Arizona Governor Jan Brewer signed into law a bill that allows most adults to carry concealed firearms without a permit except in such sensitive areas as schools and airports. Only two other states - Alaska and Vermont - have similar laws.

Jared Lee Loughner, who went on a January 8th shooting rampage in Tucson, legally purchased his semi-automatic pistol. And, he was acting lawfully when he concealed his weapon at a public rally held by U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-AZ). Loughner crossed the line, however, when he pulled his weapon and killed six people and wounded 13 others, including Giffords.

Guns advocates cite the Second Amendment as upholding their right to own guns. It reads: "A well regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed."

An article in the University of California-Davis Law Review [Winter 1997] by Carl T. Bogus titled, "The Hidden History of the Second Amendment" provides an interesting perspective. "The Second Amendment was not enacted to provide a check on government tyranny; rather, it was written to assure the Southern states that Congress would not undermine the slave system by using its newly acquired constitutional authority over the militia to disarm the state militia and thereby destroy the South's principal instrument of slave control," he wrote.

Of course, that perspective is rarely expressed by historians. Bogus thinks he knows why: "The Second Amendmnet's history has been hidden because neither James Madison, who was the principal author of the Second Amendment, nor those he was attempting to outmaneuver politically, laid their motives on the table."

According to Bogus, the trend of states relaxing their gun laws is not only dangerous, as we have seen in Arizona, but based on a flawed reading of the Second Amendment.

George E. Curry, former editor-in-chief of Emerge magazine and the NNPA News Service, is a keynote speaker, moderator, and media coach. He can be reached through his Web site, www.georgecurry.com. You can also follow him at www.twitter.com/currygeorge. *

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