How Racism controlled a gun policy debate in Springfield, MA
I went to a hearing on new gun legislation in Massachusetts recently to support my partner who was there to speak on behalf of a domestic violence organizations. The hearing was on August 2nd in Springfield, the hometown of gun manufacturer Smith and Wesson. We arrived around eight o’clock and walked over to the doors of the auditorium at American International College. The first of four coach buses carrying Smith and Wesson employees was already there. We entered the facility just before nine with a swarm of Smith and Wesson employees in white t-shirts provided by the company. The overwhelming number of Smith and Wesson employees seemed largely arrogant, racist, and mostly uninformed. There was no proposed legislation to restrict to stop gun production, which made the Smith and Wesson presence rather absurd. All of the bills could be passed with little effect on the company.
The hearing was a very uncomfortable environment. The group of employees were over 97% white, according to my count. They were all crazed right-wingers. Those who testified in opposition to any new legislation seemed to pull arguments straight from the right-wing gun paranoia handbook. They blamed people of color for painting “law abiding citizens” as dangerous. They claimed to be the group that felt the most hurt by tragedies of gun violence, even though they are the most removed from it. They touted “evidence” and spoke to legislators with a good-old-boy attitude, appealing to white racism among the legislators and the audience. It was what I had expected.
The hearing did have its positive moments, however. Many people of color that live in the city of Springfield (not the suburban or rural areas surrounding it) spoke to the daily lived violence and lives that they and their communities experience. Families told stories of lost loved ones shot on their way to pick up a present for their child’s birthday. They spoke of lives taken and claimed by poverty, inequality, injustice, and racism. They told the stories of numerous people of color – their lived daily experience, worrying about getting shot while walking home from school, the struggles of growing up in poverty with little opportunity to improve themselves. Black and brown youth spoke about the defunding of advancement and after-school programs for youth and how such programs are often the first things to be defunded during a crisis. They spoke the truth to power, and power did little more than stare off into the distance.
Most of the people in the room were white people from the suburbs, not from urban Springfield, and most seemed to know very little about the realities of gun violence. There were some clergy groups who spoke. They were tired of consoling mothers of children whose lives were taken by guns. The stories of the lives of people who live in Springfield were heart-wrenching, yet every white person in the room, and beyond that every person who opposed any new legislation seemed uninterested and unconcerned.
My partner got up to speak on behalf of a an organization that serves the victims of domestic violence.. She raised several key points during her testimony. The presence of a gun in the home raises the threat of homicide in already abusive relationships by 500 percent. More than half of mass shootings involved domestic violence (57%).[i] Countless sources identify a strong linkage between gun violence and domestic violence. The point that made the most impact is that people who commit violent acts with guns often appear to be “law abiding citizens” in public up until the day they commit the act. Domestic violence is a silent epidemic. Many women keep their struggle quiet because of the threat of physical harm on them or their children. It is a huge serious problem and it is almost exclusively committed by men against women. My partner’s comments on the issue received audible responses from the audience, including one who rather loudly stated, “That’s not true.” There were abusers in the audience so it should be no surprise that my partners comments were met with these reactions. There could have been an abuser in the audience that uses his gun to threaten his family.
Many white people, especially as the hearing proceeded, seemed to have an intent desire to state the existence of some common ground between the white suburbanite gun owners and the people of color who live in communities most effected by gun violence. They did this on a basis of criminality, that both parties do not want criminal behavior that leads to gun violence and death. There is a clearly evident cognitive dissonance, however, and obvious separation between each other’s understanding. White people seemed to reduce the crisis to a series of individual choices. They often cited how gun deaths went up since the last round of new laws were passed in Massachusetts, yet failed to acknowledge where that is rooted. People of color know that gun violence is rooted in systemic poverty, a direct result of oppression in their communities. Even at this basic level there is no basis for common ground. White people have no idea what the problems in these communities are. They couldn’t possibly understand the level of oppression people of color face. They could possibly have a basis on which to empathize under certain conditions, but these white people only cared for their guns and their “families” (despite the fact that several of them are likely to be abusers).
Many people were concerned about losing their guns more than anything else. They talked about using guns for protection, but that is just a bunch of nonsense every time you hear it from suburban and rural (mostly white) communities. They wanted to keep their guns to “protect their families” like there were armies of people secretly plotting to steal the modest riches of every “law-abiding” family in Massachusetts. This is patently absurd and a product of historical white racism similar to arguments against the abolition of slavery, among others.
Slave owners were openly fearful that slaves would revolt if freed. Slave owners feared that former slaves would take up arms, murder their former masters, and take all of their wealth. One could argue that such action was justified on the part of forced migrants from Africa. They were the victims and survivors of genocide, racism, slavery, and an immeasurable level of violence. Certainly one could argue that a slave revolution in the United States was certainly justified.
Many white people have a similar fear today, that they need guns to protect them from an imminent threat of gang violence coming to their home. They “need their guns” to “protect their family” from “intruders” – a code word for people of color – and hence stand in opposition to any bill that would limit their access to guns. The guns serve a role as a barrier between white and black, a matter through which systems of oppression can be sustained. The politics surrounding guns and gun laws continue racist notions on the roots of gang violence in poor communities and propagating a system of violence that maintains poverty in these communities with the predictable result being continued gang presence and violence. Guns are used to depoliticize communities of color, to strip them of radical potentials, and demonize them for a problem that is sustained by outside forces.
Let me be clear. I am not categorically opposed to gun possession. I am not someone who believes in non-violence as a political doctrine. People must be willing to confront the role of guns in our modern racist patriarchic capitalist society, however, and understand that there will always be ways to get arms should they be needed to defend a revolution. Many on the ultra-left who oppose gun restrictions cite this need as a rational argument against gun control, ignoring the historical oppression carried out through a tool that offers instant death at the squeeze of a trigger.
Smith and Wesson benefits from the racism that fuels the right-wing side of the gun control crisis. Gun sales have exploded since Obama was elected. Manufacturers like Smith and Wesson have all seen raised profits as a direct result. Crazed right-wingers capitalized on white fears of a black president to drive gun sales through the roof and catalyze a white base into political action against Obama. These right-wingers claimed Obama was going to enact further gun controls, which have never even crossed his desk. They used white fear of race reprisals to fuel a movement to buy guns because Obama was going to send an “army of Community Organizers” to come steal their guns as a part of his “socialist” plan for the country. These intelligent right-wing leaders exploit white racism for their benefit on a regular basis, with the direct intent to repress black and brown power movements through utilizing the image of Obama. They galvanize crazed right-wingers into a pro-gun propaganda mob that blames people of color for all gun violence, specifically poor people of color, and offers that more policing and more guns in these communities is the solution. More policing and more guns leads to more deaths of black and brown youth, directly limiting the strength of black and brown movements for political power and social justice. .
A history of racism, slavery, poverty, nationalism, patriarchy, and violence pulls the trigger of every gun on the streets in communities of color. These systems create a context under which this behavior is not just allowed, but cultivated as a method of political control. Drugs and gang behavior serves a specific political purpose to the empowered elites – it stunts the growth of political movements that arise out of poor communities of color. The myth of the “American Dream” manifests in these communities as some youth of color get involved in the drug trade to improve their lives in the face of such massive limitations placed on them by systems of poverty and oppression. The system uses these black and brown lives to perpetuate a militarization of police forces and a continued “War on Drugs”. The “American Dream” becomes an unending nightmare for communities in poverty, constantly living under the threat of violence from drug activity and the police.
Whiteness and white culture is defined by a history of oppression against people of color. White privilege is the direct result of the oppression of people of color. The absurd fear that many gun-owning whites carry because of right-wing propaganda about “defending your family” is the direct result of the destruction of entire cultures and families of people of color in the name of profit. Common Ground is an absurd notion born out of the rotting pit of white racist liberalism that seeks to dissuade white guilt with the notion that there is some underlying commonality between the lives of black and brown people and those of privileged whites. The search for a “common ground” is a search to soothe white guilt over centuries of oppression and racism.
There no common ground. There is only systemic racism and oppression that effects the lives of people of color on a daily basis. White people claim to be “law abiding”, blaming gun violence on communities of color, when they are perpetrating massive amounts of violence in the home. There is only white communities that side with the system over a desire to preserve their privilege. Gun violence is inextricably tied to systemic violence and you can’t pretend to solve the prior without understanding and confronting the later.
Other resources for links between gun violence and domestic violence: