How do you walk that fine line of being black and carrying a gun? with law enforcement? and the public at large? Can it be done?
Note: This season of American Diagnosis was originally published under the title In Sickness & In Health.
Maj Toure: All gun control is racist. It’s a power grab.
Jennifer Carlson: African Americans… get very different treatment vis-à-vis the police.
Justin McFarlin: Not in a sense, it is… a double standard.
Maj Toure: If you see me with my gun, it’s too late.
Celine Gounder: Welcome back to In Sickness and in Health, a podcast about health and social justice. I’m Dr. Celine Gounder. This season we’re looking at gun violence in America. You probably heard about the TIME Magazine cover on guns in America. It got a lot of attention when it came out in October. The cover is in black and white, filled with people from all over the political spectrum on guns in America. Today, we’ll talk to two African Americans featured on that cover to get their takes on guns. If you look to the far top left of the magazine cover, you’ll see the face of an African American man with a beard wearing a ball cap. He’s holding his chin in thought. This is Justin McFarlin.
Justin McFarlin: Sure. My name is Justin McFarlin. I’m a U. S. Army veteran and a management consultant. … I am a fairly, I guess, avid gun owner, and a Black man, which is a little bit uncommon to see, at the same time, but because of this, I’m very passionate about gun violence prevention and gun safety.
Celine Gounder: Justin is a member of the gun safety group Everytown USA. He’s a founding member of its Veterans Advisory Council.
Justin McFarlin: That led to a little picture of me in TIME magazine. … They did have a special issue that I was a part of, where I just talked a little bit about why the issue is important to me and why I’m a part of it.
Celine Gounder: What motivated you to get involved with them?
Justin McFarlin: The Black Lives Matter movement. … I think after every mass shooting, there’s a big conversation, especially about assault rifles or AR-15s, but there’s not a lot of conversations about the shootings that occur everyday in places like Chicago or Detroit or New York or other cities… If Black lives do matter, if that’s what we’re saying, then I think we have to look at all the places where we’re dying at disproportional rates.
Celine Gounder: Justin is a father. He trains his son on gun safety with a BB gun. But he was shocked when he starting looking into statistics about gun violence and African Americans.
Justin McFarlin The statistics are just staggering. … Firearms are the number one cause of death for Black children and teens. It would never have crossed my mind. I would have thought of maybe childhood diabetes or car accidents or anything else… Firearms are the second leading cause of deaths for American children, but the first leading causes deaths for Black children who are 15 times more likely than White children to die by gun homicides. … Black men, in particular, are 16 times more likely to die than White men.
Maj Toure: If African American males are more likely to die by a homicide, then they should definitely be armed to defend their life, which is their human right…
Celine Gounder: This is Maj Toure. If you look back at that TIME magazine cover, he’s standing center right. He’s wearing a black t-shirt that says “Black Guns Matter.”
Maj Toure: I’m the founder of Black Guns Matter. We’re a firearms safety, conflict resolution, de-escalation, and education organization. We do work primarily in urban America, informing people about their human right to self-defense via the Second Amendment and just how to be well-rounded, good, strong, independent-thinking citizens.
Celine Gounder: Maj founded Black Guns Matter as a response to police shootings of people of color.
Maj Toure: Yes. …everybody around voting time especially nationally, everybody’s saying “Oh, you know, we’ve got to do voter registration.” … So many homicides were happening at that time. At the time it was a lot of law enforcement killing unarmed American citizens. I was, “Damn. We need to have a license to carry drive. Ha, ha, ha. It’s a joke. But it’s not a joke. And then, so we did it.”
Celine Gounder: Black Guns Matter runs workshops to encourage people to know their Second Amendment rights. Maj hopes that if more African Americans know the law, they’ll be able to defend themselves and avoid escalating a conflict with a police officer. Maj and Justin are on opposite sides of the TIME magazine cover. They don’t necessarily have opposing views on everything… but they do have their differences. Both men support legal gun ownership… and both agree that gun regulation has a very uneven history in the United States and that guns were an important part of the Civil Rights Movement. Here’s Justin again:
Justin McFarlin: We have to exercise our rights, and I think that we have to exercise all of our rights. …our forefathers are historical figures who had to own guns for their safety. …They put themselves through that so that we can have the right and utilize the right to vote, the right for a free speech, and the right to own a gun. And I do believe that more people within the African American community should exercise that right.
Celine Gounder: But Justin supports gun safety legislation. He’s a proponent of universal background checks, for example. Maj… not so much.
Maj Toure: All gun control is a racist. Quote me. That’s the pull quote. All gun control is racist. … That’s the reason for the rights. … There were times when Klansmen was coming, and they would arm the Black men in the middle of Jim Crow. Showing up with shotguns to protect their communities.
Celine Gounder: This is the stuff we’ve been talking about over the last several episodes. Efforts by Whites to limit access to guns for slaves, freedmen, and all the way up to the Black Panthers and today.
Maj Toure: So hell yeah, it’s racist. Hell yeah. All of it. People of color in America, for absolute certain, should be the very last people asking for more gun control.
Celine Gounder: The news over the last several years has been full of events that harken back to the White Supremacist terrorism of the Civil Rights Era. The mass shooting in a Charleston, South Carolina church by White Supremacist Dylann Roof…
President Barack Obama: This is not the first time that black churches as been attacked. And we know that hatred across races and faiths pose a particular threat to our democracy and our ideals.
Celine Gounder: Large marches by White nationalists in Charlottesville and Portland…
Charlottesville protestors: You will not replace us! You will not replace us! You will not replace us!
Celine Gounder: And the failure of President Donald Trump to denounce White Supremacist violence
President Donald Trump: But you also had people who were very fine people on both sides!
Celine Gounder: It all contributes to a sense of insecurity. So more African Americans are deciding they need to own a gun for their protection.
Philip Smith: I’d be lying to you if I said the political arena has not affected our membership.
Celine Gounder: This is Philip Smith, the president of the National African American Gun Association, talking to the PBS News Hour in March of last year.
Philip Smith: People look at what’s going on politically, and they see some the comments that are made by certain folks in high places, and it makes them a little unnerving [sic]. And that’s definitely been a part of our growth.
Celine Gounder: Since President Trump took office in 2017, the number of National African American Gun Association chapters has grown from 14 to more than 50. Take note that the National African American Gun Association is not connected with the NRA. Maj has been a long-time member of the NRA and says he feels welcome.
Maj Toure: I’m a rock star at the NRA conventions. … I’m an anomaly. You know what I’m saying? I’m a rock star to them because I can go in places that they can’t or they scared to go to be quite honest. It’s been all love from the inside the gun community.
Celine Gounder: That said, since I first spoke with him last spring, Maj announced that he wouldn’t be renewing his NRA membership. He thinks gun rights advocacy needs to be decentralized… down to the state and local level. And he’s been frustrated by the NRA’s silence on Black and urban community issues. Maj isn’t the only one saying the NRA is out of touch with African Americans. The organization’s close ties to law enforcement—something that long predates Donald Trump—has also left other African Americans feeling unwelcome… or at least not represented by the group. This tension was especially evident when Minnesota police officer Jeronimo Yanez shot and killed Philando Castile in 2016.
Jeronimo Yanez: The reason I pulled you over. Your brake lights are out. So you only have one active brake light.
Celine Gounder: Justin McFarlin, again.
Justin McFarlin: One of the shootings that touched the home the most for me was Philando Castile, who was carrying legally, and discussed that with the police officer prior to his shooting and his death.
Philando Castile: Sir, I have to tell you, I do have a firearm on me.
Jeronimo Yanez: OK. OK. Don’t reach for it then,.
Philando Castile: I’m not.
Jeronimo Yanez: Don’t pull it out.
Philando Castile: I’m not pulling it out.
Jeronimo Yanez: Don’t pull it out.
Justin McFarlin: And… after that shooting, it really made me think because, I think a lot of times, I’ll look at a situation, and I’ll say, “Oh, well, in that situation I could have done X, I could have done Y differently, and it would have ended differently.” But that was one of the few ones, and the first one for me, where I couldn’t find anything different that I would do. That scared me. … There’s really nothing that I could do to have saved myself. … I think even when you look at the response to the Philando Castile shooting, if that had been someone not of color, the NRA would have been stomping their feet and causing a massive uproar. … but that wasn’t the case. That wasn’t the case because Philando Castile was a Black man.
Celine Gounder: So Justin made a decision.
Justin McFarlin: So actually I haven’t carried since then… It’s a tough, tough situation to be put in, where you don’t know if you’re going to get shot by a bad guy or a good guy by having a firearm. So I just took myself out of it, and decided if the situation ever arises where I would need a firearm to defend myself, then I think I’d be out of luck, but the risk is just too high these days as a Black man.
Celine Gounder: In 2017, Jeronimo Yanez was acquitted of all charges related to the killing of Philando Castile. But he was let go from the police force. I asked Maj for his take on the Castile case.
Celine Gounder: What could Philando Castile have done to prevent being shot the way he was? Was there anything he could have done?
Maj Toure: Please don’t edit this part out. If you edit this part out, it will make me look really silly, and it will make me look like I’m saying that Mr. Castile deserved to die, because he did not. That officer, Mr. Yanez, his bitch ass should be locked under the jail. That’s number one. Number two Mr. Yanez was fired. They don’t even fire most of them. So if he got fired, but didn’t get convicted, clearly he did something improper for him to be fired. With this being the case, the one thing, if I could have jumped into Mr. Castile’s body, pause for a second. … I would have jumped into his body and gave him the knowledge that Minnesota is not a duty to notify state. He had no lawful obligation to tell that officer that he was licensed to carry. … That is the most clear-cut example of knowing what the laws and your responsibilities or non-responsibilities are in your locality. So in my, I got to say belief, because unfortunately he’s dead now, in my belief, if he would have known that, he wouldn’t have said that, and that officer wouldn’t have been the coward bitch ass that he was. And he would still be alive for his family and loved ones.
Celine Gounder: Speaking for myself, I’m not sure what would have saved Philando Castile’s life: not declaring to Yanez that he was licensed to carry? or just not carrying a gun? And this gets to a big issue for people of color who want to exercise their Second Amendment rights: how to interact with the police and public while armed. Maj is an evangelist for concealed carry, but he says being Black in America informs how he carries a gun. Especially when it comes to open carry versus concealed carry.
Maj Toure: I deal with people that are biased. They’re bias in a certain way. They’ll see me with a firearm and depending on how I’m dressed that day, they might think, “Oh, this guy, he might be here to rob the grocery store.” They’re biased on the misinformation. For me, I’m very rarely seen with a firearm because that’s my position on the chessboard. I know how the media likes to make the Black dude with the gun look scary.
Jennifer Carlson: There’s a difference in terms of how gun carriers think about the police along the lines of race.
Celine Gounder: This is Jennifer Carlson. She’s a sociologist at the University of Arizona who studies guns. She says she saw this dynamic when it came to dealing with police.
Jennifer Carlson: … you still see this very different racialized relationship to police. …White open carriers… They would say things like, “I want to be the next test case to change the law” and that sort of thing. Really it was seen as like, “I’m going to go into this police interaction, there’s going to be tension, but I’m going to walk away from it alive. I may end up changing law too.”
Celine Gounder: Whereas African Americans who openly carried or thought about openly carrying, or said, “No, I’m not going to openly carry,” were much more cognizant of like, “This is a life or death interaction that I’m actually entering into. I don’t want to make one wrong move, and it won’t be that I’m a test case, it’ll be that I’m going to get killed.” … As a violence de-escalation educator, Maj is frustrated by the double standard applied to police versus the public when it comes to who has the right to use lethal force when they believe their life is in imminent danger.
Maj Toure: Law enforcement officers are not being held to that same standard. The fuck you mean you feared for your life? … You were just scared of Black people? Then you got implicit bias that you need to work on. Maybe you should only police White neighborhoods. Maybe that’ll help, you bitch. Maybe that’ll help, because your biased bigoted-ass is scared of Black people. Now you’re so scared that you’re killing them, you’re killing American citizens. It’s not that the definition isn’t clear. It’s not being applied the same way to law enforcement.
Celine Gounder: Even the military has stricter rules of engagement.
Maj Toure: I’ve got hommies that got the rules of engagement that been to Afghanistan and Iraq and all those different places. You cannot fire on that enemy until X, Y, and Z. They’re in a war zone that have better rules of engagement for enemy combatants.
Celine Gounder: Justin McFarlin, who’s a veteran, agrees.
Justin McFarlin: For example, the Tamir Rice video that came out after his shooting. When we talk about rules of engagement and escalation and de-escalation from the military, you’re given warnings, you do certain things before you actually pull the trigger. Whereas in that situation, the police officers rolled right up and almost immediately started firing.
Celine Gounder: One of the things that I often hear in terms of why police may be quick to shoot in a situation, the reason is they felt like they were threatened, they felt like their lives were at risk. They were scared, basically. How different is that, really, from when you’re on the front lines in Iraq or Afghanistan, where every local person could potentially be a threat?
Justin McFarlin: Yes, that’s correct. … We’ve seen a lot of incidents where there was not a lot of time to make a decision about what the amount of risk is. These incidents, for some reason, the person on the other side, the victim, when they’re African-American or someone with brown skin, they seem to always tend to catch the bullet. … High profile shooters who are White tend to get caught, unless they are shooting themselves, whereas innocent Black men are dying on a near daily basis.
Celine Gounder: Justin thinks there need to be stricter punishments for police who use illegal deadly force. Otherwise, we’re going to keep seeing more people of color killed by police.
Justin McFarlin: Well, I think the punishment needs to match the crime. Just like any other crime, a police officer that commits a crime is still a criminal, just like anyone else who commits a crime.
Celine Gounder: Over the last several episodes we’ve looked at African Americans’ complex history with the Second Amendment. Over the history of the United States, the definition of who gets to enjoy the rights spelled out in the Constitution has slowly expanded. But the framers’ original focus on White, landowning men as the beneficiaries of those rights continues to hinder equal access to the Second Amendment for women and people of color. And unequal access to gun rights clearly makes some of us less safe. But let’s say you do have a gun, regardless of who you are: White, Black, man or woman. Now that you’re armed, does it make you safer? Are you better able to protect yourself and your family? In our next episode we’ll talk about guns in self-defense.
Celine Gounder: Today’s episode of “In Sickness and in Health” was produced by Zach Dyer and me. Our theme music is by Allan Vest. Additional music by The Blue Dot Sessions. You can learn more about this podcast and how to engage with us on social media at insicknessandinhealthpodcast.com. That’s insicknessandinhealthpodcast.com. If you like what you hear, please leave us a review on Apple Podcasts. It helps more people find out about the show! I’m Dr. Celine Gounder. This is “In Sickness and in Health.”