If you are a black man in America, exercising your constitutional right to keep and bear arms can be fatal. You might think the National Rifle Association and its amen chorus would be outraged, but apparently they believe Second Amendment rights are for whites only.
In reaching that conclusion I am accepting, for the sake of argument, the account given by the Charlotte, N.C., police of how they came to fatally shoot Keith Lamont Scott on Tuesday. Scott’s killing has prompted two nights of violent protests that led Gov. Pat McCrory to declare a state of emergency. On Friday, police in Tulsa, Okla., shot and killed Terence Crutcher – an unarmed black man – and the two incidents gave tragic new impetus to the Black Lives Matter movement.
Scott’s relatives claim he was unarmed as well. But let’s assume that police are telling the truth and he had a handgun. What reason was there for officers to confront him?
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North Carolina, after all, is an open-carry state. A citizen has the right to walk around armed if he or she chooses to do so. The mere fact that someone has a firearm is no reason for police to take action.
This is crazy, in my humble opinion. I believe that we should try to save some of the 30,000-plus lives lost each year to gun violence by enacting sensible firearms restrictions – and that the more people who walk around packing heat like Wild West desperadoes, the more deaths we will inevitably have to mourn. In its wisdom, however, the state of North Carolina disagrees.
We should continue to lobby for tighter gun laws and hope that someday the voices of reason are heard. But at the same time, we should demand that current laws be enforced fairly even if we don’t like them. Scott’s death is the second recent police slaying to suggest that laws permitting people to carry handguns apparently do not apply to African Americans.
In July, police killed a black man named Philando Castile in Falcon Heights, Minn., after pulling him over for a traffic stop. When officers approached the car, Castile told them he was licensed to carry a handgun. I can only assume that Castile made this declaration so that the officers would not be surprised upon seeing the gun. But rather than assure them that he was a law-abiding citizen exercising his constitutional right, Castile’s announcement had the opposite effect.
The horror that ensued was live-streamed on Facebook by Castile’s girlfriend, Diamond Reynolds. Her cellphone video and calm, composed narration were chilling, especially to those of us who frequently commit the offense of driving while black. One of the officers shot Castile several times, and Reynolds watched as he slumped next to her, his life bleeding away.
Did Castile reach for the gun? Reynolds maintains he was merely reaching for his wallet to get his driver’s license, as the officer had ordered. But we have seen many times, including in the recent Crutcher case, that any perceived sudden movement by a black man under arrest, even if he is not known to have a weapon, can be seen by police as a deadly threat. Disclosure of the gun, meant to avert potential tragedy, seems to have invited it.
Afterward, it was confirmed that Castile did indeed have a legal permit to carry a gun. He was not guilty of any crime. He was just 32 – and, incredibly, had, in his brief life, been stopped a total of 52 times for nickel-and-dime traffic violations.
That qualifies as harassment. I know many black men who have been pulled over for some trumped-up excuse and felt threatened by police. This has happened to me.
In the Scott case, according to a Charlotte police department statement, officers said they went to a neighborhood looking for someone else and saw Scott “inside a vehicle in the apartment complex. The subject exited the vehicle armed with a handgun. Officers observed the subject get back into the vehicle at which time they began to approach the subject.”
If all they saw was a man with a gun who got out of a car and back in, what illegal activity did they observe? Why did they “approach the subject” instead of going about their business? Did they have any reason to suspect it was an illegal gun? Are all men carrying guns believed to be carrying guns illegally, or just black men?
Our gun laws should be changed. Until then, however, they must be enforced equally. Does the NRA disagree?
Eugene Robinson’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.