Guns and freedom

August 1

George Zimmerman was acquitted in the 2012 high-profile killing of unarmed black teenager Trayvon Martin in Sanford, Fla. (AP Photo/Orlando Sentinel, Joe Burbank, Pool)

Suppose Trayvon Martin had pulled out a gun and shot George Zimmerman? Or perhaps, stabbed and killed him, since at 17 years old he was too young to legally possess a concealed firearm. Martin, after all, was being followed by Zimmerman that February night in 2012; not the other way around. So, who was standing what ground? Why was it assumed that the slightly built Martin was threatening to the bigger Zimmerman? To state the obvious, Martin is dead, so we do not have his side of the story.

I will not elaborate on the Martin killing here, but his death is a handy starting point for any discussion about gun rights. Bluntly speaking, the manner in which stand your ground was used and defended in this case seems fueled by prejudice. Of course, I may be guilty of that, too. For, in my son’s teenaged years, both his mother and I warned him of the dangers of “driving while black,” and sometimes even “walking while black.” So yes, indeed, you need to know that I have my own biases.

I have been disturbed at the incoherence and political hysteria in the gun debate – and not to mention the plain stupidity. Last year, for example, radio commentator Rush Limbaugh said, “[I]f John Lewis had had a gun, would he have been beat upside the head on the [Selma] bridge?” Come on: If Lewis had pulled a gun on that bridge, the policemen who were beating him would have killed him, and Limbaugh would now be calling him a terrorist.

The gun debate has become distorted, removed from the everyday realities of living. And let me say quickly here there are liberal stupidities over guns, too. The city’s absurd attempts to ban guns in Washington, D.C., symbolizes this. There are really two linked issues in today’s gun control argument that the southern freedom movement, and for which hopefully my book, can help provide a clearer fix: self-defense and the possession and use of guns.

Unfortunately, the debate over guns has been driven by fear and race in a manner that both obscures and removes the very old tradition of black people standing their ground. Indeed, if we exclude the more complex Native American resistance to settlers seizing their land, it can easily be argued that “Stand Your Ground” has its deepest roots in the African American community. There is a great deal of history contained in that last sentence. But briefly, even setting aside earlier slave revolts, the Reconstruction period following the Civil War saw the emergence of armed black Union Leagues, and at the height of the civil rights struggle during the 1960s especially, black people stood their ground against terrorists attacking homes and community.

Even Martin Luther King Jr., whose Montgomery, Ala., parsonage one observer described as “an arsenal” during the 1955-56 bus boycott in that city recognized the legitimacy of armed self-defense. As he wrote in 1967, “The right to defend one’s home and one’s person when attacked has been guaranteed through the ages by common law.” Guns remain an important part of black life, and those in black hands are not solely, or even possessed by, “gangbangers.” This is largely ignored.

Thought and opinion are most heavily influenced by what is left out of the discussion than by any bias that creeps in. Nowhere is this truer than with blacks and self-defense, and the result has been fundamentally dishonest debate and discussion about guns in America. Black people and their use of guns for self-defense within the nonviolent civil rights movement of the 1950s and ’60s is an almost totally ignored fact that needs to be brought forward, not only for deeper understanding of the civil rights movement, but also for its implications for today. And that is what I have tried to do with my blog posts this week.

Much of the gun debate has been driven by a fear that comes close to threatening civil rights and liberties: that government is inherently tyrannical and a danger to freedom unless protected by citizens who are armed. Embedded in this argument is the thought that the United States is under attack from alien forces that government either refuses or cannot protect citizens from; that government is no longer “of the people.” Gun Owners of America’s executive director, Larry Pratt, for example, was quoted in a recent Rolling Stone magazine profile as saying that he was “kind of glad” if politicians feared that members of his organization might use violence against them.

I find it difficult to understand were this comes from. I have been a working reporter most of my life, and in the course of doing that work, I’ve been in and out of tyrannies. Most of them install themselves with exactly that kind of attitude. The United States does not come close to being a tyranny. President Obama is hardly a dictator. And there is no indication that government wants or is attempting to seize guns in the hands of private citizens, although there are individuals inside government who probably would like to do so.

Lest I be accused of being a proponent of “left wing” views, let me also refute some of the liberal hysteria: There are roughly 300 million guns in private hands and about 32,000 gun deaths. Most of those are suicides, which suggests a mental health problem more than a gun problem. About 35 percent of that 32,000 are homicides – mostly, it must be acknowledged, black people killing other black people, most of them young black people.

What does that reflect? A gun problem? No. Rather, a problem of leadership, a massive and disturbing failure of black leadership. I put that out here in this blog provocatively as the great lesson of the southern freedom movement: More than protest and challenge to white supremacy, what really defined the movement was neither nonviolence nor self-defense, but rather the challenges black people made to each other within the black community.

[Charles E. Cobb Jr. is the author of "This Nonviolent Stuff’ll Get You Killed: How Guns Made the Civil Rights Movement Possible," Available from Basic Books, a member of the Perseus Book Group.]

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