Exceptions or the Rule? On the Topic of African American Gun Carrying

A growing point of debate among pundits and scholars alike is the intersection of race and pro-gun sentiment, particularly the embrace of guns among African Americans. While white men dominate pro-gun America at the bottom (in terms of gun owners and carriers) and at the top (as leaders of the gun lobby), high-profile examples of armed Black groups, such as the Deacons for Defense, the Black Panthers and the more recent Huey Newton Gun Club, raise questions about the overlap between “white America” with “armed America.”

In my research on gun carriers in Michigan, I found that African Americans are licensed at per-capita rates that are on par with white gun carriers. Parity in terms of rates, however, does not mean that guns are attractive for the same reasons for whites versus African Americans: while white gun carriers tended to see themselves as supplementing a police force they saw as generally benign if inefficient, African American gun carriers tended to discuss police in the context of racial profiling and unwanted harassment. Jason, an African American Detroiter whom I profile in my book, even used his openly carried gun as a way to stand up to police.  Furthermore, African Americans were more likely to have more direct exposure to crime than whites – and thus the pragmatism of guns may well override the politics.

This helps to explain, at least in part, why African Americans in Michigan – a place where the overpolicing/underpolicing paradox is particularly acute – are turning to concealed carry licenses, even as African Americans tend to be far less supportive of loosening gun control laws as compared to whites.  Nicholas Johnson in his tome, Negroes and the Gun, references a similar paradox – noting that even as aggregate data suggest apprehension toward gun rights agenda, many African American communities, at the neighborhood level, may embrace guns for the purposes of protection at rates on par with whites.

I was initially surprised by my own findings – and the findings of scholars like Johnson for a couple of reasons. First, gun ownership is tied to felony status – felons can’t possess guns or obtain a license to carry concealed – and African Americans, thanks to decades of “tough on crime” politics and investigatory policing, are disproportionately represented among felons. Second, there is a long legal and cultural legacy of keeping guns out of the hands of African Americans (e.g., the discretionary licensing laws that predated today’s “Shall-issue” system were famously used in the Jim Crow era to ensure that Blacks would not be able to carry firearms concealed) – and as we see with the persistence of racial profiling in a “post-racial America”, old habits die hard.

Finally, there is good reason to believe that just as race relations, policing and crime are subject to distinct regional dynamics, so too might the racial politics of guns be distinct as well. For example, a recent story on the racial politics of concealed carry in Texas shows that African Americans are licensed at almost half the rate at which their population would suggest – they make up 7% of concealed handgun licensees but 12% of the state’s population.

At the same time, Texas is also home to the Huey Newton Gun Club – a group of African Americans who formed as an armed group in support of Mike Brown. So, I decided to check out the Texas data in more detail; as Harel Shapira has noted elsewhere, African Americans are denied CHLs in Texas at disproportionate rates – from 2001 to 2014, African Americans are denied at 2.8 times the rate of whites. Another noteworthy piece of data: with the exception of a dip in 2013, the proportion of African American applications and issued licenses seem to be on a slightly upward trajectory over the same time period. CHL Statistics for African Americans, 2001 - 2014

Right now, it is clear that some states – Michigan is certainly one of them – harbor vibrant African American gun cultures. Perhaps other states – such as Texas? – do not, although the statistics from Texas, given their trajectories over time, certainly do not settle the debate. No doubt, this calls for a distinctly sociological intervention in the American gun debate: an analysis of American gun culture not as a monolithic whole but as a set of gun cultures organized not just around the lines of race but also region, political ideology and policing.