After Philando Castile was shot to death last week by a police officer in Minnesota, his girlfriend said he had told the officer he had a gun and a license to carry it legally and had been reaching for the proof in his wallet.
The shooting led many to wonder whether the National Rifle Association would defend Castile’s Second Amendment rights.
When Mark Hughes was mistakenly identified as a suspect in the massacre of Dallas law enforcement officers — and inundated with death threats as a photo of him marching with an AR-15 rifle slung over his shoulder made the rounds on social media — a similar question arose: Would the gun rights group that lobbied for Texas’s open-carry law stand behind him?
The answer to both questions has been essentially no, at least for now. In its statement on the Minnesota death, the NRA said it found accounts “troubling,” as “the nation’s largest and oldest civil rights organization.” But it omitted Castile’s name.
It remained silent on the suspicion surrounding Hughes, whom Dallas police initially identified as a suspect in the shootings of officers.
“It’s an inequality. It’s an injustice,” said an attorney for Hughes, Michael Campbell Jr. “The NRA is a very powerful lobbyist group, and they have the means and the ability to affect society. We would expect for them to step up in this situation, for those who are legally carrying firearms.”
But the group is in a bind, said Josh Sugarmann, the executive director of the Violence Policy Center, who has written extensively on the history and politics of the NRA. He said the group’s dilemma about black gun ownership dates to a shift in marketing strategy in the 1970s and 1980s.
“Until it was recognized that there was a longtime decline in household gun ownership, the NRA essentially ignored communities of color — blacks and Latinos. When they made an appearance in NRA publications, it was in the context of a threat,” he said. “What’s happened is that since the 1970s and 1980s, when about half of all Americans had a gun, that’s dropped to about a third, and there’s an acknowledgment that they’re in crisis because the traditional gun-buying public — white males — is dying off. There aren’t enough replacement shooters to fill that void, and so now they’ve been forced to reach out to the communities they once demonized.”
Whether or not that strategy has worked, the rate of black gun ownership appears to be rising — from 15 percent in 2013 to 19 percent in 2014, according to Pew Research Center data.
The NRA did not return calls for comment this week.
In an attempt to engage with criticism of its response to the Minnesota shooting — in particular the characterization of the group by Chris Hayes, an MSNBC host, as an “organization of paranoid white grievance” — the NRA posted a video featuring a prominent black member, Colion Noir.
He said additional facts are required about the lethal encounter before assigning blame.
The NRA asked those who disagree with Hayes to speak out, but what the organization got was a heavy dose of skepticism from Twitter users, who said the NRA still has not explained its relative silence on Castile’s right to carry.
But leaders of national gun rights groups defended the NRA’s decision to remain silent after the Castile shooting, saying it is too early to tell what took place in the minutes before the fatal shots were fired.
Police have not said whether they recovered Castile’s permit, and state law in Minnesota forbids the release of the document. Castile’s sister said both of them had carry permits and showed hers to The Washington Post. She also showed The Post a letter from the Hennepin County Sheriff ’s Office, addressed to her brother, stating that his permit was enclosed.
Jeff Knox, whose father was a longtime NRA leader, runs a national gun rights group called the Firearms Coalition, in Buckeye, Ariz. He said his father had advocated for the rights of groups such as the Black Panthers to bear arms during the 1960s, a stance that was not popular across much of the country.
“The Black Panther Party or any other organization has the same right to encourage their members to seek training and licenses and exercise their rights to own and carry a gun as anyone else,” Knox said. “When you move into the neo-Nazis, the KKK, the New Black Panther Party, when it’s an organization advocating violence, it doesn’t change that right, but it changes the perspective.”
Richard Feldman, a former lobbyist for the NRA, said the organization has never advocated gun rights for black people or white people, arguing that all U.S. citizens have the same rights under the Second Amendment. Feldman, who now presides over the Independent Firearm Owners Association, a gun rights advocacy group in New Hampshire, said the NRA is in a “conundrum” after the shootings and probably decided it was best not to say anything in the climate of escalating racial divisiveness.
“The NRA has always made a huge point of noting that our gun laws in this country have been discriminatory against blacks and women and other minorities,” he said. “At this point, it’s probably better to be criticized for not saying anything than for saying something.”
The New Black Panther Party, a black nationalist group, has plans to carry firearms for self-defense during a black-unity demonstration in Cleveland that starts Thursday, ahead of next week’s Republican National Convention.
Babu Omowale, a founder of the party’s Dallas branch as well as of the Huey P. Newton Gun Club, said that blacks concerned for their safety have little recourse and that legal gun ownership is one option.
Michael Cargill, who is African American and owns the largest online gun store in central Texas, did not need outreach from the NRA — or the encouragement of black nationalist groups — to persuade him to buy a gun. He did so after his grandmother was raped at a bus stop more than 20 years ago. Owning a gun, he said, is a way for black people, powerless to control the actions of law enforcement, to assert a modicum of control.
“This is all about survival. This is all about going home,” he said. A key part of that safety is responding to law enforcement the right way.
“If you are carrying a firearm, I would recommend that you inform that officer that you are carrying a firearm and then ask that officer, ‘What would you like for me to do?’ ” he said.
Firearms are a litmus test for civil rights, said Philip Smith, founder and president of the National African American Gun Association. He estimates membership at nearly 30,000 and says it is growing.
His interest is not in doing battle with law enforcement but in protecting himself as he goes about his everyday business.
“If I’m not a bad person and I’m just going to church or going to Walmart or paying my mortgage at the bank, and if I want to carry my gun, that’s my right,” he said. “You may not like that. But as an American citizen, I have that right.”
So long as a black man carrying a gun draws more suspicion than does his white counterpart, Smith said, black Americans will remain a permanent underclass.
“What we are saying is that when law enforcement breaks the law, you have a right to defend yourself,” Omowale said in an interview from Baton Rouge, where he had helped organize a demonstration over the weekend that led to more than 160 arrests. “You don’t have to just let them kill you.”
Omowale said that he had traveled there to persuade black residents to purchase firearms and that there were groups in numerous states — from North Carolina to Missouri — encouraging residents to do the same.
He dismissed as foolhardy the proposition that renouncing guns would quell violence.
“America is never going to put down the guns. There are millions of guns already on the streets,” he said. “If they’re going to be owned, then we need to be owners as well. That’s with guns, that’s with land, that’s with education and politics. We need to be able to start doing things for ourselves.”
T. Rees Shapiro contributed to this report.