The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

White bikers, black thugs: Why Texas looked to relax gun laws after biker shootout

While the rest of America tried to make sense Monday of the weekend shootout at the Waco Twin Peaks -- and learned of a whole biker subculture featuring sometimes-violent turf wars -- the Texas legislature debated a bill that would expand the rights of licensed gun owners to openly carry weapons in public.

To be fair, this wasn't the first time the Texas state Senate took up the matter of expanded gun rights. At the start of the legislative session in January, leaders in the Republican-controlled body identified an open-carry law as a legislative priority -- a proposal that has been debated in one legislative committee or another ever since. And contrary to the state’s gun-loving, gun-slinging reputation, Texas is one of just six states that do not have a so-called  “open carry law” on the books.

[Waco Twin Peaks, criticized by police following shootout, ‘will not reopen’]

But even in Texas, debating the merits of a bill that relaxes gun laws one day after nine people were killed in a shootout between rival biker gangs and police at a Waco restaurant seems oddly timed. It's tailor-made for a "Daily Show" segment full of knowing jokes about America’s relationship with guns and the country’s singularly elevated gun death rate among wealthy nations.

What happened in the Texas state Senate on Monday was also, in many ways, just an example of the vastly different ways in which crimes committed by white individuals – even when those individuals are members of organized criminal organizations and happen on a spectacular scale – are routinely if not always viewed as the questionable, discrete acts of independent actors.\

Consider the headlines, cable news show line-ups and editorials that would have followed if the weekend shootout happened at a Waco hip-hop show or club.

Over in a corner of Twitter that most of white America doesn't visit (because apparently our social media networks are about as segregated as they are in real life), snark took over. Many tweeted ironically about the corrosive influence of biker culture on weekend warriors and the imperative need for white leaders to denounce the broader scourge of “white on white crime” in front of hashtags like, “#stuffthemedianeversays." Pictures of Sarah Palin and in leather biker gear popped up along below tweets about “radical white politicians, who “coddle,” and commune with, “thugs.” The subtext of all of it was clear: This is what the world’s paid and volunteer shouter corps say when the tragedies involve black people, not white.

All the while, a planned debate about the merits of the bill moved right along. Austin Police Department Police Chief Troy Gay testified that an open carry law would almost certainly complicate the chaotic situation at Twin Peaks. And at the other end of the spectrum, Bill Crocker -- an Austin lawyer, member of the National Rifle Association and a Texas concealed carry permit holder -- expressed real doubt that the shootout at Twin Peaks included a single licensed concealed carry permit holder. So, Crocker reasoned, the state Senate should have no reservations about a open carry law. Most of the rest of the testimony lined up on either side.

The tweets mentioned above, written by people tired of the litany of think pieces and cable TV shout sessions about black America’s allegedly dysfunctional culture and the supposed threat to civilization posed by sagging pants, spoke to something real. White Americans – whether members of biker gangs, declared criminal organizations or not– enjoy the constant luxury of being viewed as precisely what they are: individuals capable of all manner of accomplishment and bad behavior at any given moment in time.

Not everyone who wears leathers while riding motorcycles is part of a gang like those who had a shootout outside a Waco, Tex., restaurant. PostTV explains what some of those patches on motorcycle jackets mean. (Video: Jorge Ribas/The Washington Post)