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    An Often Unspoken Reality Underlying America’s Aversion to Gun Control

    By Andrea Shorter–

    As the national March for Our Lives is just days and hours away from this Sunday, March 24, our nation already owes the young people from Parkland, Florida and beyond a tremendous thank you for not backing down and for fiercely leading the way towards sensible gun control measures. The recent #NationalWalkoutDay was inspired, with thousands of elementary to high schoolers staging well-coordinated protests across the country by walking out of what should be the sanctity of their classrooms to take it the streets, to the airwaves and to football fields to form marching band precision coordinated messages like #ENOUGH that were large enough to see from hovering news helicopters, and everywhere outside of their classrooms to amplify their ever growing chorus of voices and common cause: #NeverAgain.

    Through the news, Twitter, Facebook and Instagram, we have heard the impassioned speeches and seen the creative handmade signs. My favorite has to be “Guns Have More Rights than My Vagina,” which I saw displayed close to State Senator Scott Wiener’s tweeted photo of his fifth-grade nephew back east leading the walk out from his elementary school. Elsewhere there was a photo of a third grader’s prepared “press packet” penciled into a tattered spiral notebook among the collage of throngs of traffic stopping student protests.

    As we watched or read the news of that day, debates regarding the politics of gun control and gun violence were on central display beyond the corridors of power, spilt over into what has become a national town square: Facebook. Well, it’s the town square now for many of us over 40 years of age. There’s nothing like posting one’s opinion or opus about where you stand on these vital issues that attracts divergence and dissent.

    It’s been interesting to hear from old high school friends whom I’ve neither heard from nor seen hide or hair since my graduation day decades ago. One such acquaintance popped up to declare that “gun reform won’t make a difference in deaths. It is well documented that in areas where people are armed, there is less gun violence than in areas where there are gun free zones.” Had he stopped here, we might have been able to engage in some civil debate. However, he went on: “Didn’t you see Tombstone? When sheriff Behan decidedly took away people’s right to carry guns in the streets of Tombstone? That’s when the ‘cowboys’ took over. Bad people with guns get stopped by good people with guns far more than is recognized.”

    Tombstone? Okay. Tombstone the movie might be based on a “true story” of more folklore than fact, but it is ultimately fiction. I replied that it was good to hear from him and that I also thought Tombstone was a good movie, but preferred to stand with these children, their families, and communities who have lost thousands of friends and children in schools in the past decade to semi-automatic weapons of war. The good townspeople’s depravation of Smith & Wesson and Winchester shoot, reload, shoot, reload buckshot rifles in a western movie might have something of a point about vulnerability to black hat cowboys. muskets, bayonets, rifles, and pistols. But these are not the weapons at issue for mass shootings and slaughter of children in school here in the 21st century. Semi-automatic weapons of war have no place in civil society.

    Along with him, I grew up in a rural, lower desert old western town way out in Riverside County. It was commonplace for households to have some sort of firearm on hand for sport, for scaring away loathsome critters like snakes and coyotes, and for protection against unwelcome intruders. Many kids had BB guns, and with not much else to do outside of tending to horses or small livestock as 4H members, target shooting at bottles was one way to while away idle hours. A firearm or two in the house was especially the case then, and I suspect remains so for dwellers staked out on acres of land in unincorporated areas where the nearest neighbors were one to two miles up a dusty road.

    Quite a few of my high school peers went on to serve in the armed forces, as did a parent, grandparent, uncle, aunt, older brother or sister. The old March Air Force base was a major employer and lifeline for the broader community, foremost to our numerous active military families and veterans of the Vietnam, Korean, and World Wars.

    I grew up among a lot of pickup truck-driving NRA members, or wannabe members. Many proclaimed to have been Born Again Christians, and later loved the late Charlton “Moses” Heston as their association’s celebrity spokesperson in the late 90s. NRA, “Military,” and “Jesus Saves Fish” were the choice bumper stickers on Ford and Chevy truck bumpers.

    Our community of barely 6,500 residents was obviously small and fairly diverse. The majority were white, then Latinos and then black folks, pretty much in that order. It was a mixture of families who had been there for at least three to four generations, and there was an emergence of newcomers looking for better, quieter, safer lives after having fled Los Angeles urban and suburban environs.

    Riverside County was the fastest developing and growing county in the late 80s–90s. Along with attractive job opportunities, affordable housing, and cleaner air, the fears of attracting “L.A. gang members” moving into the area was also of prominent and speculative concern. Of course, the term “gang members” or “bangers” was pointedly understood code for Mexican and Black youth and their families—subjects splashed across television screens via Cops and other new urban centered reality fare broadcasting increasingly militarized municipal police forces at work on the “war on drugs” (crack cocaine).

    Many of these old settler families were likely the first in line to stock up at the gun emporiums and Walmarts soon after the election of Barack Obama as President, convinced that he would take away their guns and usher in the race wars and uprisings predicted since the slaves were freed.

    As proud and humbled as I am at seeing and supporting the young people that are now organizing and working to lead us to sensible, lifesaving gun control, one of the definitive realities about the American politics of guns, gun violence, and gun control still remains largely unspoken: race.

    A once-popular voice on the exploration of epidemic mass shootings, including the relationship between the projected anti-gun control message as extension of the inextricable relationship between race and guns in America that I also notice has been quite absent, is documentary filmmaker Michael Moore. He is a controversial, true lefty liberal who is steeped in labor politics and yet is a longtime NRA member. Moore’s Bowling for Columbine remains one of the most fascinating and revealing critiques of how and why guns are such a definitive part of American culture.

    On the matter of race, Moore addresses the inextricable relationship between the founding of the KKK and the NRA to keep guns out of the hands of freed slaves. The fear of armed black uprisings and vengeance against the tyranny of a white majority served as basis for organizing, legislating for severe restrictions, consequences, and ordained terror. A memorable feature of the documentary is a 3-minute fast-forward animated brief history of the U.S. starting with the pilgrims landing, slaughter of indigenous people, witch hunts, civil rights movement, and white flight to the suburbs.

    Civil rights history further reminds us that the proximity of African Americans and other racial minorities to firearms in official capacities towards integrating our armed forces and police forces was not met without resistance. While the NRA and their affiliates tout their faithful adherence to upholding and preserving the Second Amendment without any yield to reflect the realities of modern day weapons of war technologies in civilian hands, it is hard to deny the historical fear of racial uprising and intrusion.

    There is also an unspoken logic for maintaining the status quo for largely white gun-owning constituencies, gun manufacturers, and peddlers. The right of an individual and majority citizenry to bear arms to form a militia in the event of hostile foreign enemies, or as insurance against its own overreaching federal or state government in modern times, seems anachronistic and cover for staying armed against declared internal threats born of ingrained, unresolved, and implicit racial injustice.

    In addition to, and as an intrinsic implication of, the powerful NRA lobby, this long-time, deeply rooted variable is a critical barrier that has so far disallowed for the replication or adoption of sensible gun control policies referenced from other countries. Few, if any, countries exist that were formed without similar racial or ethnic strife, and a history of oppression. Still—no matter the constitutional, governance, and other structural differences—proposals to adopt gun policies from European, Scandinavian, and Asian countries that are historically and remain largely culturally and racially homogeneous are circumvented and road-blocked by the challenges and remnants of American racial injustice and severe race-based policies.

    So, perhaps this isn’t the time to have an unabashedly, northern liberal voice such as Michael Moore’s at the forefront of today’s gun control movement.

    Possibly one of the reasons the youth-led #NeverAgain movement has gained the traction it has is because it is being powered by diverse youth from a Southern state. As new generation southerners appearing to reject old notions of gun culture as synonymous with deep south culture, maybe just maybe they can either directly or indirectly, intentionally or not, help to further break through a paralyzing existential societal ill that prevents both sensible gun control measures and transcending underpinning racial fears that hold us back from moving forward as a truly civil society.

    Actually, I think they are already doing just that and more.

    See y’all on March 24.

    Andrea Shorter is President of the historic San Francisco Commission on the Status of Women. She is a longtime advocate for criminal and juvenile justice reform, voter rights, and marriage equality. A Co-founder of the Bayard Rustin LGBT Coalition, she was a 2009 David Bohnett LGBT Leadership Fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government.