Toilet paper and hand sanitizer are not the only products that have seen an explosion in sales amid the COVID-19 global pandemic. Guns have also been flying off the shelves and background checks are soaring accordingly. The FBI conducted approximately 3.7 million background checks in March—a record high. According to consulting firm Small Arms Analytics and Forecasting, that translates to about 2.6 million guns sold in just that month alone.
“People are worried with law enforcement stretched to the maximum, now responding to only selected calls,” National Rifle Association (NRA) spokesman Andrew Arulanandam told NBC News. “They realize that when bad things happen, it’s going to be up to them to be able to defend themselves and their families.”
For Black Americans, relying on the community instead of entrusting their health and safety to law enforcement is not new. There have been reports indicating slower 911 response times in low-income neighborhoods and there’s even a popular Public Enemy song, “911 Is a Joke,” which bemoans the lag time police use to address issues in our community and fears of being victimized by alleged protectors, on the topic. That, coupled with the fact that Black people are disproportionately at the receiving end of over-policing and police violence (including fatalities), has created an interesting relationship between Black people and guns.
Let’s be clear: Ensuring that African Americans were largely unarmed and the criminalization of people of color with weapons has been a strategic part of white supremacy and Black victimization.
After the Civil War, organizations such as the Ku Klux Klan advocated for Black people to be stripped of all firearms. They feared that the Black men who were on the front lines of the Civil War, men who now had the ability to defend themselves and families, would continue to own and utilize firearms, which was unconscionable for defenders of the Confederacy and slavery. Due to their advocacy, minor infractions (including possessing a firearm) could land Black men on a brutal chain gang or worse. Terrorizing Black families by jailing, brutalizing and lynching Black men, particularly those who choose to defend themselves, became common practice in the United States post slavery.
In the 1960s, the Black Panther Party (co-founder Dr. Huey P. Newton pictured above, which was concentrated in big cities with larger Black populations vs. rural South, exercised their second amendment rights by toting shotguns as they went about the business of protecting their neighborhoods. Today, the NRA is vehemently against gun control measures, but at that time, the organization was a vocal advocate of the 1967 Mulford Act, which prohibited citizens from openly carrying loaded weapons. The bill was a direct response to the Black Panther’s activity and support for it in that context was a clear statement against Black people lawfully arming themselves.
Frankly, there are some reasons for Black people to consider legal gun ownership. According to a 2017 Pew Research study, Republicans and Independents are more than twice as likely to own weapons than Democrats. A 2019 Gallup poll, found only 19% of Blacks owned a weapon vs. 35% of whites. While both studies only offer a glimpse at the population, the disparity is evident.
While advocacy for legal gun ownership in the Black community continues, recent history hasn’t proved kind to those who’ve done things the “right way”. Even when Black people have done everything necessary to legally possess and even use a firearm, the consequences can be severe. Philando Castile had a legal firearm on his person when he was shot and killed by a police officer as he notified the cop of his weapon. Marissa Alexander fired a warning shot after her ex-husband reportedly assaulted her in Florida. The bullet did not hit her ex. Alexander tried to use the Stand Your Ground Law to avoid jail time, but eventually spent three years in prison and two years on house arrest before her initial conviction was overturned.
Despite the extreme and sometimes fatal outcomes of Black people exercising their right to own and use firearms , some well-known Black voices like rapper Killer Mike have been advocating for Black people to take up arms in larger numbers. “We are a gun-owning family. We are a family where my sister farms. We are a family where we’ll fish, we’ll hunt,” the Atlanta artist said of his own family in an interview with the NRA. In Detroit, which is almost 80% Black, homeowners with legal guns have been able to avoid charges when fending off intruders with their weapons.
Black people’s relationship with guns and organizations like the NRA is an ever-evolving issue that is further complicated by COVID-19, which has introduced higher anxiety levels about personal safety. Still, the ability to protect our families and homes is essential. Legal gun ownership remains a right of all citizens. What would an America look like—the one the Confederates clearly feared—where more Black citizens exercised that right legally?
Demetria Irwin is a Detroit-born, New York-based writer and editor. Her work has appeared in theGrio.com, Ebony Magazine, the New York Amsterdam News, and many other outlets.