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Opinion: Mass shootings show what is poisoning American democracy

Peniel JosephPeniel Joseph
At a policy level, Congress and the President should pass common-sense gun control laws, complete with stringent background checks, and an assault weapon ban that would reduce the likelihood of mass shootings and gun violence. Educationally, our public schools and institutions of higher education should be leading a national, data-driven conversation about gun violence as a national public health crisis. It is a crisis, like the Covid-19 pandemic, that affects all of us differently.
Right-wing narratives suggesting that Americans’ second amendment birthright — along with White patriarchal power structures — are under assault spread not only among hate groups online but in Congress. “Every time that there’s an incident like this,” observed Wyoming Republican Sen. Cynthia Lummis, “the people who don’t want to protect the Second Amendment use it as an excuse to further erode Second Amendment rights.”
Lummis’s words accurately reflect a prevalent Republican approach that seems to view public safety for Americans as a direct assault on the right to bear arms. The Supreme Court is scheduled this week to discuss adding a case to the next term’s docket that could expand the scope of the Second Amendment if the court declares New York state’s stringent concealed carry law a violation of an individual’s right to possess a firearm.
Groups like Boogaloo and the Proud Boys have also fed off the rise of an alt-right ecosystem that also provides fulsome support for like-minded GOP elected officials, most powerfully, former President Donald Trump — who remains the heart and soul of the modern-day Republican Party, a group in part defined by its near-total obstruction of gun reform.
America’s broken political system prevents even basic, common-sense gun control legislation from ever seeing the light of day. This strengthens the argument for efforts to reform the Senate filibuster, a mechanism that has long been successfully weaponized to grind the wheels of democratic processes in Congress to a permanent halt.
Race plays a central role in America’s twisted history of gun control. When Black folk, from Malcolm X to the Black Panthers, tried to apply their Second Amendment right to bear arms in the service of defending Black lives against racial terror they were violently repudiated. California passed gun control legislation in 1967 in order to stop armed Black Panthers from keeping watch on local police who they alleged were brutalizing Black residents in Oakland and surrounding neighborhoods.
The Republican Party, beginning with Richard Nixon’s 1968 “law and order” campaign and continuing through Sen. Ron Johnson’s comments about Black Lives Matter in relation to the January 6 insurrection, has successfully vilified large parts of the Black community as criminal. At times this was done with an assist from Democrats, including then-Sen. Joe Biden’s coauthorship of the 1994 Crime Bill, who co-signed treating many Black Americans as gun-toting “thugs.” Yet they have remained largely silent as mostly White mass shooters, regardless of whether their violence is racially motivated or not, have continued to kill Americans.
The alleged shooter in Boulder is a Muslim man whose family came from Syria, while the alleged shooter in Atlanta is a White man who attended an evangelical Christian church in Georgia. But regardless of a shooter’s race or motive, when a mass killing perpetrated by easy access to guns occurs, race most definitely is at play — in the response, or lack thereof, to the overall problem of these recurring atrocities. These killings continue, yet our overwhelmingly White political leaders continue to fail to pass meaningful gun control legislation in response, underscoring how White supremacy operates with bluntness and nuance. Can we imagine the national response to these shootings if Black people were the primary culprits?
In this sense, America’s crisis of mass shootings — ongoing before the Covid-19 pandemic and continuing amid its ravages — is not only bound up in the operations of our political institutions but also more emotionally connected to how some White Americans understand their relationship to our national identity. There is an increasingly toxic relationship among White masculinity, gun violence, racism and democracy that we fail to address at the national level at our own collective peril.
What has to happen after the Colorado killingsWhat has to happen after the Colorado killings
This relationship is complex. Since Reconstruction, White men have been encouraged, indeed at times sanctioned by law enforcement, to engage in extrajudicial violence on behalf of their own sense of identity under perceived threat by Black Americans, women, Asian Americans, Latinx Americans, immigrants, Jews, the LGBTQ community, Muslims and a raft of “others.”
Organized racial terrorist groups, beginning in the late 19th century, reached new peaks of national respectability in the early 20th century as the reformulated Klan (rebirthed in Stone Mountain, Georgia) marched 30,000 strong at the US Capitol on August 8, 1925.
White supremacist violence infects our criminal justice system as much as it does our political institutions. Dylann Roof, the young White racist who murdered nine Black church parishioners in Charleston, South Carolina, in 2015, was treated with respect, even kindness, by law enforcement, who stopped by a fast-food restaurant to get him something to eat after he committed mass murder. Georgia law enforcement displayed similar compassion in characterizing the young man who murdered 8 people at three Atlanta spas, six of whom were women of Asian descent, as having been “fed up” at the end of his rope, which led to a “bad day” that ended in mass murder.
How are the Atlanta spa shootings NOT a hate crime?How are the Atlanta spa shootings NOT a hate crime?
Perhaps what is most striking in the case of the apprehension of violent White mass shooters is that law enforcement routinely manages to arrest them unharmed. This stands out in stark contrast to oftentimes innocent Black suspects who end up dead at the hands of the police.
This is not to suggest that police should deploy unnecessary or illegal violence against White shooters. What it does illustrate are the deadly consequences of continued disparate treatment toward Black suspects by law enforcement. It also suggests that too many White male law enforcement officers are able to tap into empathy for their racial and gender counterparts in ways that they are incapable of when the suspect is Black.
The deadly assault on the US Capitol cast a spotlight on how predominantly White law enforcement understood, responded to and at times sympathized with White rioters who brandished Confederate flags and anti-Semitic propaganda in the Capitol building rotunda.
Beyond the question of who pulled the trigger and why, the horrific shootings in Atlanta and Colorado are connected by a long historical through-line of racism, White supremacist violence and fear. Confronting this crisis will require transforming political institutions so that they can more effectively create policy. We will see a sign of true equity in criminal justice when we can see Black and White shooting suspects safely apprehended at identical rates.
But limiting the easy access to guns and ending racist police violence will not eradicate White rage. That day will only come when the nation collectively re-imagines the contours of American identity so thoroughly that no citizen will ever again consider gun violence committed by White males a unique national birthright.
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