Civil Rights Is Now a Gun Safety Issue: Hate and Guns in Trump’s America

Civil Rights Is Now a Gun Safety Issue: Hate and Guns in Trump’s America
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Last week, an armed White man, whose racism had been legitimized and emboldened by Donald Trump’s rhetoric since the beginning of his Presidential campaign, entered a bar in Olathe, Kansas, and shot two Garmin engineers from India, shouting “Go back to your country.” Adam Purinton killed Srinivas Kuchibhotla and wounded Alok Madasani, as well as a third man, Ian Grillot, who had tried to intervene.

Even under the Obama administration, when the President of the United States actively worked to heal racial divisions and preached peace and unity, we experienced hate-inspired gun violence, such as the Charleston mass shooting, where a white supremacist killed nine people in a church with the intention of sparking a race war, and the Orlando Pulse shooting, where a gunman targeted a haven for the LGBTQ community, the Pulse nightclub, and left 49 people dead and 53 injured, the worst mass shooting in U.S. history. Under the Trump administration, we are poised for a terrifying surge of hate-based gun violence, of which Olathe is just the beginning.

Donald Trump achieved electoral victory by exploiting racial tensions and insecurities, giving his supporters permission to indulge in and normalize their worst biases and darkest prejudices. In the weeks since taking office, Trump’s actions have only intensified the climate of hate, gratifying his predominantly white supporters and further dividing them from America’s mainstream. Advised by his senior strategist Steve Bannon, a promoter of white supremacy, he’s moved to build a wall across the United States’ southern border to keep out Mexicans; ordered a Muslim Ban to choke the flow of lawful immigrants and refugees from Muslim-majority countries; and is now terrorizing immigrant communities with raids to identify and deport undocumented residents.

Donald Trump is also beholden to the National Rifle Association, which gave $30 million to his electoral win and is now gleefully anticipating how it will be rewarded for its investment. Payback for the gun lobby will certainly mean an aggressive push to dismantle gun laws in order to boost gun ownership, flood American homes and communities with even more firearms, and further enrich the arms industry.

Putting Trump’s hate-filled America together with more guns is an unfolding disaster for minority communities who will bear the brunt of this new wave of armed aggression driven by cynical political calculation. What this means for gun violence prevention (GVP) advocates is that they can no longer pretend that civil rights and racial justice are not issues of gun safety. It’s more important than ever for the GVP community to set aside its tunnel vision trained on strict gun policy reform, and join the battle against discrimination and hate, if its ultimate purpose truly is to save lives threatened by firearms.

Trump Presidency will facilitate even more gun sales

Americans make up less than five percent of the world’s population, but own 40 to 50 percent of its stockpile of guns. From 2007 to 2013, firearms manufacturers more than doubled their production from 4.5 to 10.8 million firearms a year in response to demand in the United States, and in 2016, President Obama’s last year in office, the U.S. government processed 20 percent more background checks than the year before, which is considered a reliable predictor of gun sales. The Trump administration has already shown it will be an unabashed cheerleader for the gun lobby: When Donald Trump announced Neil Gorsuch as his pick to fill the empty Supreme Court seat, he did so with NRA CEO Vice President Wayne La Pierre at his side, an ominous signal of Presidential support for expanding 2nd Amendment rights.

The National Rifle Association (NRA) presents itself as a grassroots organization of gun owners. In reality, its priority has been to advance the interests of the firearms manufacturers, whose representatives sit on the NRA board, and with which the NRA has deep and lucrative ties. The NRA, which drives the rhetoric of the larger gun lobby, has long primed potential gun consumers with methods identical to those in Trump’s campaign playbook. Those methods are based on divisiveness and racial prejudice: fear of even the mildest commonsense gun control leading to gun confiscation by the nation’s first Black President Barack Obama; fear of rising crime perpetrated by persons of color; fear of terrorism perpetrated by immigrants. Indeed, in Donald Trump, the NRA could not have dreamed up a more perfect soul mate, and with a compliant Republican Congress already staunchly committed to gun rights, it is on the verge of pushing an extreme legislative agenda that it has every expectation of achieving.

At the federal level, the NRA’s top legislative priority will be to mandate treating state-issued concealed carry permits like driver’s licenses. States would be forced to honor every other state’s permits, despite the fact that strongly pro-gun-rights states with minimal permitting requirements make a mockery of the carefully constructed gun safety frameworks in other states designed to keep guns out of unqualified or dangerous hands. Other federal gun-rights measures on the gun lobby’s wish list include legalizing silencers (of which the President’s own son Donald, Jr. is a vocal proponent), and abolishing school “gun-free zones.”

And if the coming assault on national gun policy weren’t enough, the NRA and its allies are already busy executing their years-long strategy of capitalizing on Republican dominance in state houses across the country. Gun rights advocates at the state level have already rolled out initiatives designed to force the acceptance of gun carry into as many public places as possible, including bars, sports facilities, parks and schools; to expand Stand Your Ground laws to make it easier for gun owners to reach for their guns by diminishing their accountability; and to even do away with concealed carry permits altogether, on the argument that even the most minimal licensing requirement such as basic training violates Second Amendment rights.

The gun lobby anticipates brisk sales if they achieve this great dismantling of any and all barriers to gun ownership at every level of government.

The likelihood of armed, hate-based bullying and violence is growing

In the run-up to the 2016 general election, when the prospect of a Hillary Clinton presidency ushering in stronger gun laws drove many Americans to stock up on firearms, hate groups were also booming. The number of active anti-government groups tracked by the Southern Poverty Law Center grew from 149 in 2008 to 998 in 2015. Ku Klux Klan groups grew from 72 in 2014 to 190 in 2015, catalyzed by the removal of the Confederate flag from the South Carolina Capitol in the wake of the Charleston mass shooting.

After Donald Trump entered the race to become U.S. president in 2015, his rhetoric criminalizing entire immigrant communities, demonizing non-Christian communities, and denigrating women, the handicapped and any other group perceived as “weak,” was like dumping barrels of gasoline on an already roaring bonfire. He fast became the obvious candidate for the far right, with the KKK running a full, front-page story in its official newspaper embracing him and his promise to “Make America Great Again,” because "America was founded as a White Christian Republic. And as a White Christian Republic it became great."

In the aftermath of Donald Trump’s electoral win, incidents of hate surged. The Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) report, Ten Days After, documented hundreds of cases of intimidation and attacks on people based on their race, religion, gender and sexual orientation. An SPLC survey of 10,000 K-12 educators in that period revealed that the rising climate of fear touched even the nation’s youngest: Eight in 10 teachers reported heightened anxiety among immigrant, Muslim, Black, LGBTQ and other marginalized students, and more than 25 percent of teachers described specific incidents of bigotry of harassment directly traceable to election rhetoric. Personal accounts of bigotry, harassment, and intimidation became commonplace on social media channels, the most egregious sometimes breaking through to the mainstream news media, highlighted by journalists like York Daily News columnist Shaun King, whose inbox exploded with reports and tips, many of which he shared through his Twitter feed.

Studies show that the mere sight of weapons like guns makes people more aggressive and prone to overreaction. Giving people more access to firearms while inflaming their sense of anxiety and fear against others they see as alien to themselves (as President Trump’s rhetoric and policy actions are designed to do) is a deadly combination. With a significant overlap between gun rights proponents and racist, bigoted Trump supporters, the likelihood of armed, hate-based bullying and intimidation is ballooning.

An opportunity for gun violence prevention

There is a sense of dread in the gun violence prevention community as it waits for Washington to turn its attention to gun policy. With the White House and Congress in Republican hands, GVP advocates are bracing themselves for a bruising fight once the NRA and its allies begin to actively push gun bills through the legislative process. Should Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell move to scrap the filibuster, which effectively stops a bill unless it has 60 Senate votes (and was the tool used by the handful of Tea Party senators to grind lawmaking to a halt in the Obama years), then there will be little the minority Democrats could do to stop a tidal wave of transformative Republican legislation from moving forward and becoming law, including every item on the gun lobby’s wish list. With such grim prospects, it’s understandable that the GVP community is focused on the gun policy battles ahead, but gun policy must not be the only battlefield they are prepared to fight on.

Since the Newtown mass shooting that killed 20 first graders and six educators in 2012, “90 percent (or some other high percentage) of Americans support stronger background checks,” has been the mantra on every GVP advocate’s lips. Yet, even in the aftermath of Newtown, this supposedly overwhelming public support could not move the Senate to take even the small step of passing a stronger background checks bill. This is because lawmakers did not feel the weight of that supposed 90 percent support, which people were taking at face value.

The national conversation on gun policy, from lawmakers to advocacy groups to the grassroots on both sides, has largely been a White conversation anchored around the Second Amendment and gun rights, ideal for engaging and stoking the passions of largely White pro-gun adherents. It leaves out, however, the 40 percent of Americans who were not enfranchised at the founding of the country: The Black community commonly sees firearms as a tool of oppression as borne out through the eras of slavery, Reconstruction, Jim Crow and even today. With many Latinos having experienced gun violence in their native countries, Latinos in America, who with Blacks experience a disproportionate share of American gun violence, also tend to associate firearms with injustice and persecution. Other more recent immigrant communities (Asians and everyone else) have little cultural or historical context for understanding and engaging on the gun issue as filtered through the Second Amendment lens.

While this 40 percent is part of the 90 percent of Americans who “support stronger background checks,” they have been largely sitting out the fight for stronger gun laws. And now this 40 percent is under attack and their very lives are on the line as many of their most enthusiastic attackers fit the same profile as those who are most likely to be armed. As the Olathe, Kansas shooting demonstrates, it doesn’t take very much for a person filled with hate to pick up his weapons – as the NRA has conditioned him to do – and take out his anger and frustration on strangers who drew his attention only because of the color of their skin – as Donald Trump has taught him to do.

In past years, the GVP community understandably stayed out of immigration issues as they had little to do with gun safety. Less understandable was its silence after the shooting of Michael Brown by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, and its silence after each subsequent high-profile police shooting of an unarmed Black man. While law enforcement has indeed been a valuable ally in efforts to improve public gun policy, there is no reason good enough to excuse individual officers of the law for abusing their power and taking innocent lives, and GVP advocates should not have shied away from joining the #BlackLivesMatter call for accountability and giving survivors public support and sympathy for what were, after all, just more deaths caused by firearms.

The Trump administration has introduced the likelihood of targeted gun violence to immigrant communities, and increased the likelihood of more gun violence in all communities. By singling out people based on their religion and skin color, it has legitimized hateful targeting throughout society, including by the armed populace. By embracing the Blue Lives Matter movement, accusing critics of law enforcement of being anti-police and brushing off police brutality, Donald Trump has signaled that gratuitous violence by law enforcement against Black and Brown communities is unimportant, and therefore all violence against Black and Brown communities is unimportant. In short, immigration, racial justice and civil rights are now clearly weaponized issues, more so than they’ve ever been. The gun violence prevention movement must stop insisting that strict gun policy is its only bailiwick and do its part to push back against the Trump administration’s assault on tolerance and civil liberties in order to save lives from gun violence.

GVP advocates must speak out against Trump’s hateful rhetoric and the climate of hate that a growing number of people will take as permission to use their weapons to intimidate and commit violence against non-White, non-Christian people and other minority groups. When President Trump talks about the Mexican Wall or issues new orders banning Muslims, GVP advocates must join the cry for #NoWallsNoBan. It must decry the influence in the White House of Steve Bannon, the mastermind behind Trump’s race-based policies, and hold U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who has a long record of racism, accountable for any misuse of power that harms marginalized communities. And when police shootings take more innocent Black lives, GVP advocates must not hesitate to join efforts opposing law enforcement’s knee-jerk response to circle the wagons and absolve itself from responsibility.

By advocating not only for gun safety but civil rights and racial justice, the GVP community will find the voice it needs to engage immigrants and let them know that smarter gun laws would help make their communities safer, and it will finally show the Black and Brown communities that GVP truly is about saving lives and not just about controlling firearms. The Trump Presidency is an opportunity to build these bridges and finally achieve the broad, diverse coalition gun safety advocates need when the balance of power in Washington finally changes and the chance arrives for true gun policy reform. When that time comes, GVP will be able to again pull out the mantra that “90 percent of Americans support background checks,” and it will finally be close to the truth.

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