Illustration by Kai Henthorn-Iwane
Historically, gun control in the United States has protected white citizens, and endangered black citizens. From emancipation, when racist laws were written to preserve the social hierarchy, until the 1960s, when the NRA promoted laws that were designed to inhibit the Black Panthers from owning guns, America’s gun control debate has echoed race relations.
Now, as gun control has again garnered media attention in the wake of the recent Florida school shooting, and as shootings have become abundantly common in the United States, the response to a shooting that is committed by a white person as compared to a person of color is wildly different. Over time the people in power — white people — have built a system of oppression surrounding the responses to gun violence.
In the era of colonies, laws were passed to prohibit black people from possessing arms, and in the 1860s, states passed “black codes” to disarm former slaves.
In the 1960s, leaders of the Civil Rights Movement, including Martin Luther King Jr and Malcolm X, expressed the black community’s need for self-defense. When thirty Black Panthers marched on the state capitol armed with rifles in 1967, California governor Ronald Reagan, endorsed by the NRA, signed the Mulford Act prohibiting carrying a loaded firearm in California.
Several studies, including “Representation and Reality in the Portrayal of Blacks” have shown that the news depicts black Americans as perpetrators and whites as the victims of crime. Compared to legitimate crime statistics, white Americans have been shown to be underrepresented as perpetrators and overemphasized as victims of crime in the news.
A study looking at the coverage of Hurricane Katrina is one example of the media systematically disfavoring African Americans. This study showed that, when reporting on Hurricane Katrina, many major news sources, including The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal and USA Today, used the word “looting” in the caption eighty percent of the time black victims were shown on screen, which implied that the black evacuees were criminals.
People of color are demonized, and even put in the spotlight to represent their own race, however, when there’s a white criminal, they don’t represent their whole race. They’re considered an individual with their own actions or dismissed as suffering from mental illness, very different from how society and the media portray black criminals. Media controls our biases, and since media continues to portray African Americans this way it’s important that we reconsider our biases, especially after a shooting. This way, we can discuss problems with the gun debate that arise from treating white people and people of color differently.