Of all the flawed assumptions packed into that little, seemingly innocuous passage, “ordinary self-defense” is the most alarming. The lived experience of Black people in the United States has demonstrated countless times that we are neither seen as “law-abiding citizens” nor worthy of having “ordinary self-defense needs” protected by the Second Amendment. The court’s only African American justice (for now) ought to know that.
The case involved two men seeking permits to carry concealed weapons in New York for personal protection. They were able to obtain limited authorization to carry weapons — for target practice and hunting not near populated areas, and one of the men had permission to carry a gun to and from work — but their general concealed-carry applications were rejected. The state said they did not meet the state law’s “proper cause” requirement, meaning they hadn’t demonstrated a compelling need to pack heat in public spaces.
According to the Thomas majority opinion, one of the men “asked a licensing officer to remove the restrictions, citing a string of recent robberies in his neighborhood.” Sound familiar?
“Hey, we’ve had some break-ins in my neighborhood, and there’s a real suspicious guy,” George Zimmerman said in a call to Sanford, Fla., police on Feb. 26, 2012. “This guy looks like he’s up to no good or he’s on drugs or something.” The neighborhood watch volunteer was talking about Trayvon Martin. Zimmerman accosted and then shot and killed the unarmed Black teenager as he walked back to the apartment he was staying in with his father after getting Skittles and an iced tea from a nearby store.
Claims of self-defense can have deadly consequences for Black folks. Michael Dunn claimed self-defense in 2012 after he murdered unarmed 17-year-old Jordan Davis because the music in the car he was in was too loud. Theodore Wafer claimed he feared for his life in 2013 after he murdered Renisha McBride, who knocked on his door after being involved in a car accident. Those are just two of countless examples.
Since late last year, Jonathan M. Metzl has been warning about the potentially tragic implications of the New York gun case just decided by the Supreme Court. He is the author of “Dying of Whiteness: How the Politics of Racial Resentment is Killing America’s Heartland,” whose chapters on the racial history of gun regulation and the fear of crime are essential reading. In them, he outlines how implicit bias codes people of color as criminals and White people as patriots.
“White America associates blackness with threat already, but the risk is exponentially greater when guns are involved,” Metzl told me via text message on Friday, “which raises the risk for Black Americans of having everyday interactions misinterpreted as violent acts.”
What really concerns me is how the right to bear arms is not equally applied. Remember the case of John Crawford III? In 2014, the Black man was shopping in a Walmart in Ohio when he picked up a pellet gun from the shelf while talking on the phone. Someone called the cops, who shot and killed Crawford. Ohio was an open-carry state at the time. This month, it became a permitless carry state.
And all this talk of a good guy with a gun goes out the window if the guy is Black. “Many Black police officers lost their lives due to taking police action while they were in civilian clothing,” New York Mayor Eric Adams told me during a Friday appearance on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe.”
Interestingly, some public defenders laud the Supreme Court’s ruling. Attorneys for the Bronx Defenders argued in The Post that striking down the New York gun law is “an important step to ending mass incarceration” because their clients “bear the brunt of New York’s gun laws.”
I’m all for keeping people out of jail who shouldn’t be there. And I’m certainly all for the equal application of our laws, even the Second Amendment. But the trade-off — more guns legally on the street and concealed — hardly makes me feel safer. In fact, they only compound very real fears of the increased likelihood of deadly confrontations over nonsense because of someone else’s subjective feelings of threat. And if that perceived threat is Black or brown, heaven help them, especially if they are the ones exercising “ordinary self-defense.”