Commentary: Graham’s Gun Comments Belie the Point that the Gun Debate Is Not Race Neutral

By David M. Greenwald

Every time we have a mass shooting, we head back into the familiar ground of gun debate.  Truth be told, I’m probably more libertarian than many on the left when it comes to gun laws.  I get the need for greater regulation—waiting periods, licensing and other commonsense safety protocols, much like we have with motor vehicles.

I stop short on gun bans.

On the other hand I think groups like the NRA have moved into the extreme.  Opposing all gun laws really doesn’t make a lot of sense.  The NRA wasn’t always in that space.  A story in 2017 by NPR tracked the takeover of the NRA by the hardliners to an incident in 1971 when ATF agents killed an NRA member who was hiding a number of illegal weapons.

But I think the more interesting shift came about 1980, which coincided with the movement of Southern rural conservatives away from the Democratic party and the shift of the NRA toward the Republicans and Ronald Reagan starting in 1980.

A statement by South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham on Fox really betrays the connection between guns and race in a way that most gun supporters would be loathe to acknowledge.

Graham said: “I own an AR-15. If there’s a natural disaster in South Carolina where the cops can’t protect my neighborhood, my house will be the last one that the gang will come to because I can defend myself.”

When I first heard this statement I was like, “woah,” he really went there.

Let us unpack this statement a bit.

First of all, from a logical standpoint, if such a situation did occur, how would said gang know that he can defend himself so that they know not to come there?  It gets into all sorts of logical problems.

There is also the fact that the entire scenario is pretty far-fetched to begin with—that there would be such a natural disaster, a breakdown of civil authority, and such. 

But, leaving that aside, the bigger problem here is that the imagery of gangs is not race neutral.  As we know, gangs have a clear racial component.  Gang laws overwhelmingly target people of color.

So basically Graham is justifying his need for an AR-15 on the fear that, if there is a breakdown of civil society following a natural disaster, he will have to use the weapon to hold off people of color coming into his exclusive white neighborhood to raid them.

Reality is that gangs in general are territorial and they usually fight with rival gang members rather than targeting non-combatants.  Innocent people can get caught in the crossfire, but the data shows that most violence is Black on Black rather than Black on White, primarily because of residential segregation patterns and the accompanying conflict over turf.

Over the years, whites have often been highly concerned about gang violence—but for the most part are unaffected by it.

As CNN pointed out: “Graham’s fantasy of defending himself and his property from lawless gangs is a piece of the broader scare tactics that groups like the National Rifle Association have perfected over the years to keep Republican members of Congress from supporting measures with broad public support—like increased background checks.”

But what fuels the push for guns, in part, is fear of crime by people of color—generally Blacks.

It is reminiscent of Trump’s comments on crime back in the 2016 election.  In that campaign, he frequently invoked images of Chicago’s violent crime.

“In Chicago, they’ve had thousands of shootings—thousands—since January first. Thousands of shootings. And I’m saying, ‘Where is this? Is this a war-torn country? What are we doing?’ And we have to stop the violence,” he said at the time.

But, as Andrea Gillespie pointed out, his rhetoric on violent urban crime was not “directed at those living in neighborhoods plagued by devastating violence”—it was directed at white middle class voters.

Trump’s statements about the city are rooted in stereotypes,” Gillespie said. 

She pointed out that no one who actually understands the problem would talk the way that Trump does.

The same thing is true with Lindsey Graham.  Anyone who understands gang culture knows that no gang is going to be coming for Lindsey Graham and his family in the case of a natural disaster.  Instead, he is using specific imagery to appeal to the base instincts of key supporters and opponents of new gun laws.

At the heart of that opposition is not only opposition to government power but also fear of people of color.  

As Jonathan Metzl, psychiatrist and sociologist at Vanderbilt University, explains, white supremacy is the key to understanding America’s gun debate.

In his book, “Dying of Whiteness, Mezl makes the argument that the gun debate makes much more sense when understood in the context of whiteness and white privilege.

“It (is) was very much coded in racial terms,” Metzl explained in one interview.  “A number of people I talked to in my book basically said, I’m getting this gun because of Ferguson [the city where the killing of Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager, by a white police officer in 2015 sparked sustained public protests led by black residents]. These were people who lived 300 miles from Ferguson, in entirely white areas of rural America.”

He said when he tried to pin them down about the fact that they live in white areas in rural America, they responded,  “This could happen anywhere. I have to protect myself and my property.”

Sound familiar?  It should.

He later added, “When we talk about guns and people end up polarized, it’s not just because we disagree about gun politics, it’s because gun politics symbolizes a far greater series of tensions in this country. When we’re talking about guns, we’re also talking about race.”

And when Lindsey Graham talks about gangs coming to his home—in his mind and the minds of his supporters—those gangs aren’t made up of a bunch of white people .  He is talking about race and using guns to protect white people from black crime coming for them.  

—David M. Greenwald reporting


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About The Author

David Greenwald is the founder, editor, and executive director of the Davis Vanguard. He founded the Vanguard in 2006. David Greenwald moved to Davis in 1996 to attend Graduate School at UC Davis in Political Science. He lives in South Davis with his wife Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald and three children.

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16 Comments

  1. Ron Oertel

    As Jonathan Metzl, psychiatrist and sociologist at Vanderbilt University, explains, white supremacy is the key to understanding America’s gun debate.

    In his book, “Dying of Whiteness, Mezl makes the argument that the gun debate makes much more sense when understood in the context of whiteness and white privilege.

    Oh, yeah – makes a lot of “sense”.  🙂

    Reality is that gangs in general are territorial and they usually fight with rival gang members rather than target non-combatants.  Innocent people can get caught in the cross-fire, but the data shows is that most violence is Black on Black rather than Black on White, primarily because of residential segregation patterns and the accompanying conflict over turf.

    From what I understand, gangs are at the forefront of the gun control effort, and are lobbying Congress every day to enact stronger laws. 

    It’s only those darn privileged, supremacist white folks who oppose it. But since they’re “Dying of Whiteness” anyway, we probably won’t have to worry about those loons much longer. And then, everyone will be safe and live in harmony.

    1. Richard_McCann

      The “well regulated militia” in the Second Amendment was slave patrols in the South. Maintaining slavery was the primary motivation for the Second Amendment. That would appear to fit the definition of maintaining white supremacy.

      1. Ron Oertel

        I am not putting forth an opinion regarding the Second Amendment, but I understood that some claim that the police (not the militia) were put in place to maintain slavery.

        (Never mind that all modern societies have a police force/justice system -even “non-diverse” societies/countries.)

        Or, perhaps the militia was put in place to fight the British (“white-on-white” violence), not sure (but don’t really care all that much). (I wonder how the British generally viewed the colonists, at that time. Traitors? Tax evaders?)

        Seems to me that the folks who are the strongest advocates of the Second Amendment (generally) live the farthest-away from the type of turmoil we saw last summer, in cities across the nation.

        1. Carlos Garcia

          “(Never mind that all modern societies have a police force/justice system -even “non-diverse” societies/countries.)”

          You seem to be making the same mistake as a number of right wing critics of policing evolving out of slavery by arguing that police developed in most modern societies separate from policing in the American south.

          True.  But that ignores the institutional roots in America are in fact path dependant.

          New Yorker: “Why did American policing get so big, so fast? The answer, mainly, is slavery.”

          Short answer: institutions matter and the American policing institution is tainted.

        2. Ron Oertel

          Since I’m not going to read that article, perhaps you can explain further.

          Are you stating that law enforcement in this country did not detain white criminals, from even its earliest days?

          Since this country had slavery (even before it became a country), wouldn’t any and all institutions have arisen simultaneously with slavery?

          And regardless of its origin (in the U.S.), wouldn’t the fact that all modern countries have police and a justice system (including non-diverse countries) provide evidence that modern society (in general) has found it necessary?

          Are police these days rounding up slaves?  (That is, when they’re not out executing innocent people, according to some?)

          Also, have you ever taken a look at the violence that occurred during the early period of settlement in the Western U.S.?  (Which seems to have primarily involved “white” people.) With that violence occurring in the absence of anything other than “frontier justice”.

          I’m confused as to the argument. Are you advocating for the “honor system”? Or, that spending a given amount on social services will cause a mass outbreak of peace and harmony?

        3. Carlos Garcia

          NY also had slavery which was not abolished completely until 1827 – just 36 years prior to the Emancipation Proclamation.  Of course you would know that if you bothered to read the article.

        4. Eric Gelber

          Are police these days rounding up slaves? 

          No. But in protecting the institution of slavery, they were protecting private property. That remains their primary underlying function today—to protect private property interests, not to protect and serve the communities that are perceived as posing a threat to those interests—initially the working class and now, primarily, the poor and people of color.

  2. Alan Miller

     using guns to protect white people from black crime coming for them.

    Greatest comment ever on this topic from Michael Che on Saturday’s Night Live’s “Weekend Update” last weekend:

    “I don’t know what you’re talking about.  I just bought a gun last summer when all those white kids started talked about getting rid of the police.”

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=h8oTJN6PDrI

    (see 0:25 – 1:35)

    1. David Greenwald

      Yeah but who are the police protecting you from in your mind that you have to go buy a gun – there is a reason why we don’t do political discourse by SNL.

      1. Ron Oertel

        Yeah but who are the police protecting you from in your mind that you have to go buy a gun

        That might be a good question in regard to the attacks on Asians recently, though it’s not entirely from one group or another. But, the perpetrators may not proportionately represent their overall population size.

      2. Alan Miller

        Yeah but who are the police protecting you from in your mind that you have to go buy a gun –

        Meth addicts and progressives 😐

        there is a reason why we don’t do political discourse by SNL.

        There is a reason why we don’t do political discourse by DV.

         

  3. Bill Marshall

    Major drift on this thread… topic appears to be ‘gun control’ yet gets off to disputes over militia and police…

    The most famous ‘militia’ were the colonists who rose up to deny the British Empire control (taxation with no representation) over the colonies… read any account of the Revolutionary War and events leading up to… I still believe that was so vivid during the constitutional convention, that was why the 2nd Amendment was written the way it was… Lexington and Concord were fought between British Regulars, set to remove guns, ammunition, powder, etc. from the Colonists…

    Not going to touch the “militia” vs. “police” thing. Not on topic, much… as far as gun ownership is concerned…

    Guns don’t kill people, ammunition kills people.  Fact.  Except maybe for bludgeoning…

    Some countries (I recall Israel is one) does not limit gun ownership… but is very strict on ammunition.

    I like guns… don’t own one, but I love to shoot… rare… have fired pistols (handguns) rifles, shotguns, and once a 50 mm gun (all ‘target shooting, no humans as targets)… paper targets, skeet, plinking cans… was pretty good at it…

    My F-in-Law, two Bros-in-Law, and one of my sons own guns… all took NRA safety classes, and store their guns safely (trigger locks/storage, etc)… many friends owned guns which they used for hunting (yeah, that will offend some), and target shooting… no problems…

    If I were to defend my home from an intruder (whatever ethnicity), I’d use a shot-gun… might not kill them, but I would not have to worry much about my aim…

    This is framed as a “debate”… I don’t think it needs to be… should be ‘common sense’… you have to have attended a ‘safety course’ (NRA used to be quite good at that), no ‘automatic’, semi-automatic weapons, limit on clip size, limit on total ammunition possessed, waiting periods, background checks, etc.  If we could come to ‘common cause’ on that, no problem from my perspective… the ‘debate’ is ludicrous… seems to hinge on total “freedom” to do ANYTHING you want, and at the other extreme, total ban… Sandy Hook, Aurora, Columbine, etc. should preclude those with serious MH issues, from owning ammunition… particularly mail order/internet…

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