The gun lobby has long preached armed insurrectionism as a panacea for those facing oppression.
When Micah Xavier Johnson opened fire on Dallas law enforcement officers during a Black Lives Matter protest on Thursday night, killing five and injuring seven others, he was fighting what he perceived as government oppression with a method that has long been advocated by the National Rifle Association and gun lobby: force of arms. Johnson was armed to the teeth, with an SKS semiautomatic assault rifle, a handgun and body armor. The result was utter chaos and a gruesome mass shooting tragedy.
The NRA has long disseminated propaganda telling African-Americans that gun control is “racist” and that they must prepare for war with their own government in order to truly be free. For example, current NRA board member (and past president) David Keene has claimed that “the initial wave of [gun control] was instituted after the Civil War to deny blacks the ability to defend themselves.” In 2013, NRA favorite Glenn Beck was the featured speaker at their annual meeting, where he told those in attendance that “universal access to firearms is indistinguishable from Emancipation.” He continued:
The Founders also warned about a time when the government would take the guns. They called that a ‘monopoly of violence.’ Because they knew that happens to governments and governments turn against their people because the people go to sleep. And if a government had a monopoly of violence, tyranny then would go undefeated. No one would be able to stop it. And if you think, ‘Oh, gee, there he goes again with his crazy ideas,’ ask the Japanese-Americans about the internment camps of World War II, done by the beloved progressive President FDR through executive order. If you don’t believe that the government can do terrible things to its citizens, please explain to me the Lakota Indians ... What do you suppose the African-American in 1850 could have done with a gun?
Or, perhaps, the African-American in 2016 responding to videos showing law enforcement officers unnecessarily taking the lives of black men during routine stops.
The NRA has further stoked animosity against law enforcement with incendiary rhetoric like their infamous “jack-booted thugs” letter, where Wayne LaPierre described law enforcement as wearing “Nazi bucket helmets and black storm trooper uniforms” and acting to “harass, intimidate, and even murder law-abiding citizens.”
In Dallas, the NRA’s prescription for oppressed minorities was fully realized. According to Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings, at least 20 people showed up to the rally on July 7 openly carrying rifles and wearing “protective gear,” making a not so-subtle threat of violence against a government which they believe has overstepped its bounds in terms of policing. Micah Xavier Johnson then made good on that threat, destroying at least six families in the process.
Is this the vision of an America anyone wants to live in? I pray the answer to that question is no. I don’t think anyone would deny that those rallying in Dallas had legitimate grievances with our government. We have all seen the video of Philando Castile and Alton Sterling being shot and killed by police. I was deeply disturbed and affected by it, like millions of Americans. But wouldn’t it be preferable to use the peaceful methods laid out in our Constitution to achieve the reforms desired in our policing system (i.e., legislation, access to courts, ballot box, etc.), as opposed to declaring war on one another and watching this country descend into anarchy?
I understand frustration with the pace of change—democracy in this country is a painstaking, grueling, complicated business. As a gun violence prevention advocate, I also understand that lives are being lost while we wait for change. It’s painful, it gnaws at you, makes you want to scream. But watching the mayhem in Dallas, I couldn’t help but think of these words from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr:
The courageous efforts of our own insurrectionist brothers, such as Denmark Vesey and Nat Turner, should be eternal reminders to us that violent rebellion is doomed from the start. Anyone leading a violent rebellion must be willing to make an honest assessment regarding the possible casualties to a minority population confronting a well-armed wealthy majority with a fanatical right wing that would delight in exterminating thousands of black men, women, and children.
Let’s keep in mind that there is nothing principled about the NRA’s call for black Americans to arm themselves. For them, it is entirely about profit motive. They understand that fear sells guns, and they have intimate financial ties to the gun industry. Their priority is to push product. So you will likely continue to see insurrectionist appeals and transparent efforts to market firearms to urban youth like the NRA’s “Noir” show.
Meanwhile, like any good, soulless profiteer, the NRA will continue to simultaneously market firearms to the “tyrannical” government it repeatedly demonizes, including police forces. In doing so, it will frequently engage in rhetoric that is virulently racist, describing blacks as “thugs,” “gangbangers,” and “violent criminals.” How much this has contributed to racial bias in policing over the years is debatable, but the effect is certainly harmful to civility in our society in general.
It was therefore of no surprise to anyone when the NRA failed to respond immediately to the police killings of Philando Castile and Alton Sterling. Both men were carrying guns when they were killed (Castile was shot in the act of reaching for his concealed handgun permit). Only after concerted outcry from the public and media did the NRA manage a terse statement declaring that “the reports from Minnesota [referencing Castile] are troubling and must be thoroughly investigated … It is important for the NRA not to comment while the investigation is ongoing.” Neither Castile nor Sterling were mentioned by name.
In truth, the NRA—and the gun industry that serves as its cash cow—were the only winners in Dallas. They profited off every armed party at the rally that night—the killer, the armed police officers who were targets, and the open carriers who defied all the NRA’s empty rhetoric about “good guys with a gun” and ran for their lives rather than engaging the shooter.
Multimillionaire suits like LaPierre, NRA-ILA director Chris Cox, and the gun industry executives who sit on the NRA board of directors will no doubt seize on the violence we are currently seeing to further divide and antagonize Law enforcement and the Black Lives Matter movement. But the two sides now stand in a historic moment when they have every reason to come together, put down their arms, and resolve their differences in a peaceful, constitutional manner. The gun lobby has been allowed to escalate the arms race between law enforcement and civilians for four decades, with disastrous results. Isn’t it time to change course after Dallas?
The Way of the Gun will only ensure more bloodshed, more destroyed families and, ultimately, the anarchy our Founders so feared.