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Feb 27, 2018

Be Careful What You Wish For: Marginalized People Would Bear the Brunt of Stricter Gun Control

Empowering the state so that it can “make us safer” often results in oppressive law enforcement crackdowns on minorities.

It’s a dangerous proposition to write an opinion column in the wake of a school shooting, because, as is the case with any issue that causes emotions to run high, people who disagree will be outraged and hostile.  But in the spirit of rational discourse, I would like to make an attempt at reasonable argument.  By far the worst thing about school shootings is the harm done to victims and their families.  But the second-worst thing seems to be how the understandably high-running emotions cloud people’s judgment. 

By now we’re all familiar with the well-worn contours of the gun control debate: some argue that we need stricter gun control laws and enforcement to help prevent future horrific incidents; this is met with the response that we already have very strict laws, and criminals don’t care about the laws anyway.  Ken White has made a compelling case that such debates tend to be unproductive because both sides are fraught with cultural signaling and reposition ignorance of basic facts (ignorance which infuriates and frustrates one’s opponent) as a virtue.  Rather than rehash those arguments, I was put in mind of another aspect of this by an exchange on social media.  It was a meme contrasting the use of extreme physical force on Eric Garner for the offense of selling loose cigarettes with the restrained professionalism displayed in arresting Nikolas Cruz for the offense of mass murder.  When I describe the treatment of the former as “extreme,” that’s not hyperbole; he was killed.  So I think there’s definitely something instructive about the contrast.  But I suspect it’s not what the people sharing the meme think it is.

One intended takeaway from the meme seems to be that “in America we are less concerned about gun violence than we ought to be, as evidenced by the kid-gloves treatment of any number of school shooters.”  But what gives this its teeth is the fact that Nikolas Cruz, like Dylann Roof, is white, and Eric Garner was black.  Most of the examples in the national spotlight of police excess—Garner, Michael Brown, Laquan McDonald, Tamir Rice, Freddie Gray, Philando Castile, Alton Sterling—were cases which highlighted racial disparities in the treatment of criminal suspects.  Progressives claim that African-Americans are disproportionately victimized by harassment, excessive force, and mass incarceration.  I have no doubt that this is true.

But hold on.  If your response to a school shooting is “we need stricter laws and heavier enforcement and more surveillance,” who do you think is going to bear the brunt of that?  The very minorities who already have to deal with disproportionate levels of harassment and abuse.  If you think it’s true that this is a problem in general, why wouldn’t it continue to be a problem now?  The New York state legislature didn’t write that selling loose cigarettes shall be punished with summary execution.  It’s just that all laws are ultimately backed up by the threat of physical violence, and there’s some evidence that this comes to pass more frequently when the suspect is black.  So if you think that we need more laws and stricter enforcement – not just regarding guns but regarding anything—you need to realize that this means increased harassment of minorities and more opportunities for abusive treatment.

Returning to the meme’s contrasting photos, I don’t think the right takeaway is “they should have also used a chokehold on Cruz,” but rather “they shouldn’t have used a chokehold on Garner.”   It would be the wrong sort of social equality to increase abuse of whites rather than decrease the abuse of blacks.  To be sure, white kids will suffer as well.   But not as widely as minorities.  Blacks—and likely people of Arabic or South Asian descent—are certain to be the primary targets of increased rough treatment, privacy violations, and strict interpretations.  None of which is likely to prevent the next shooting—precisely because the more privileged you are, the more resources are at your disposal.  One commenter on social media said that we need to make sure to investigate teens who have access to weapons in the home or elsewhere.  It occurred to me that they all have access to weapons elsewhere.  But that’s the problem.

Another area where we need to be careful what we wish for is people’s tendency to look for executive solutions when legislative ones are unavailable.   I’ve seen dozens of calls for the President to do something.  The very people who have been complaining (rightly) for months about executive overreach now think the President should act to solve the problem.  Presidents aren’t supposed to have that kind of power—and when they act as if they do, it produces just exactly the sorts of bad results people (rightly) criticize.  Empowering the executive to unilaterally “make us all safer” is how we ended up with warrantless surveillance and indefinite detention and a 16-year war.

Like any decent human being, I am sad and horrified by school shootings, and I would love to figure out a way to reduce their incidence.  I am not sure I know how, but I am pretty sure the right answers don’t include giving the president more power or ramping up harassment and abuse of racial minorities just so politicians can be seen as having “done something.”