January 31, 2013
LAWT Contributing Writer
President Obama is joined by African Americans this week who are voice their concern over the escalating rate of gun violence which is sweeping across the nation leaving school children, teachers and African Americans either dead or wounded.
More than 40 people died in the city of Chicago during the month of January – including 15-year old Hadiya Pendleton, a student at King College Preparatory High School who had recently performed with her school’s marching band at President Barack Obama’s 2nd inauguration. Pendleton was shot in the back on Jan. 29, while seeking shelter from rain with some friends in a park not far from her school.
Chicago and Sandy Hook, Conn. – where a gunman opened fire and killed 26 people at an elementary school in December – have been on the nation’s radar non-stop as gun violence across the country continues to claim the lives of children, women and men. They were also on Obama’s mind as he announced his plans to reduce gun violence during a White House briefing on Jan. 16.
The president announced 23 Executive Orders that would go into effect right away including: launching a national safe and responsible gun ownership campaign; providing law enforcement, first responders, and school officials with proper training for active shooter situations; providing incentives for schools to hire school resource officers; and developing model emergency response plans for schools, houses of worship and institutions of higher education.
Executive Orders are limited, discretionary powers allowed to the president. Although they carry the full force of law, they are not laws in themselves, since Congress is the body charged with creating federal law in the United States.
Currently, federally-licensed firearms dealers are required to run criminal background checks on gun buyers, but it is believed that close to 40 percent of all gun sales are made by private individuals who are exempted from that requirement. Many of those private sellers take advantage of gun shows – large, periodic and temporary exhibitions of various firearms, military paraphernalia, and collectibles – to sell their guns since they do not engage in the activity full time. The president has called on Congress to close this loophole.
President Obama has also called on Congress to reinstate a ban on military-type assault weapons that expired in 2004, and to ban the possession of armor-piercing bullets and automatic handgun magazine clips that can hold more than 10 rounds of ammunition.
The Public Safety and Recreational Firearms Use Protection Act, also known as the Federal Assault Weapons Ban, was part of the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994. That act, which stood for 10 years, banned the possession of certain semi-automatic firearms, termed assault weapons, by name such as the Colt AR-15, the AK-47, and Uzis. The act also defined an assault weapon has having a minimum set of features such as a folding or telescopic stock; a pistol grip; a flash suppressor, or a grenade launcher. Semiautomatic handguns with an ammunition magazine that attached outside of the pistol grip, such as the Tec-9 were also considered to be assault-type weapons (regular or non assault-type, semiautomatic handguns have magazines that attach in the pistol grip, such as a Glock).
The president made several other recommendations that would free up resources for local police to better track weapons involved in criminal activities and provide for increased access to mental health services. Adam Lanza, the man police say went on the Sandy Hook shooting spree, was rumored to have suffered from a mental illness although a psychiatric profile of the young man has not been made available yet.
Critics of Obama such as the National Rifle Association and others have used the recent Executive Orders and recommendations as a rallying cry that the federal government is slowly chipping away at Americans’ right to own firearms.
A sampling of African-American opinion shows both support for common sense gun policy and a cautionary nod to what has been called the racist roots of gun control.
“We have to find a way to reduce the availability of military-style assault weapons. These aren't legitimate hunting weapons. They pose a unique threat to our community and to law enforcement,” said Los Angeles City Councilman Herb Wesson who represents the 10th District. “The City Council went on record last week supporting Senator Dianne Feinstein's legislation which would reinstate the federal assault weapons ban that expired in 2004. I support that legislation, and I hope the Congress will too,” said the councilman.
Before she was elected to Congress Karen Bass (D-CA-37) worked and taught as a physician assistant for 10 years at the University of Southern California’s Keck School of Medicine program. During this time period she co-founded the Community Coalition for Substance Abuse Prevention and Treatment after witnessing first-hand what the violence of crack cocaine and gangs were doing to South Los Angeles. She commended Obama for his leadership “in compiling thoughtful recommendations” on ways to reduce the plague of gun violence and stated, “We live in a society where children, particularly those growing up in urban areas are exposed to mass gun violence on a daily basis and the time has long passed for us to take action. Commonsense reforms such as universal background checks and ensuring health insurance plans cover mental health benefits are proposals that all Americans – including NRA members can get behind.”
In her weekly column posted on Jan. 25, Marian Wright Edelman, founder of the Children’s Defense Fund, wrote, “The reason gun deaths are a huge epidemic in the United States is simple: It’s the guns and the permissive gun laws that protect them … Although the U.S. accounts for less than 5 percent of the global population, Americans own an estimated 35 to 50 percent of all civilian-owned guns in the world.”
“Our nation is saturated with guns and the National Rifle Association wants more and more,” she said.
That is certainly one view.
Harry Belafonte, well known entertainer and social justice activist, recently remarked to the Associated Press that the Black community was not as involved in the gun control debate as it should be. “The African-American community ... where is that community? Where is that voice? … What really concerns me is the ingredients of the discourse,” he said.
As part of that discourse, Prof. Akinyele Umoja says a look to the past is in order. “The recent debate concerning gun control is complex, particularly as it relates to African descendants in the United States. As with almost every other issue in the US, the race dimensions of gun control cannot be dismissed.”
As a youth and a community activist, Umoja spent many days and nights pounding the streets of Compton and South Los Angeles. Now as an associate professor and chair of the Department of African-American Studies at Georgia State University in Atlanta, he believes that the issue of gun control for the Black community has to be seen as an issue of self-determination, self-reliance and self-defense.
Much of the debate around gun control in the mainstream press has centered around the 2nd Amendment to the United States Constitution which states, “A well regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed.”
“Slave-holding society fought to prevent enslaved Africans access to weapons to resist and increase potential for insurrection,” said Umoja. “After emancipation, Blacks sought arms not only to hunt, but to protect themselves from white supremacist terror. Gun ownership was associated with citizenship and liberty and as a means to protect those principles,” he said. Umoja is also the author of the book, “We Will Shoot Back: Armed Resistance in the Mississippi Freedom Movement,” due to be released this April.
“Black people will never disarm in a political and social environment where Black life is still challenged and not valued,” he said. “The Black community must advocate for policies that take weapons out of the hands of unstable elements (e.g. checks for mental illness), but we must also be vigilant to make sure these policies are not utilized in a manner to weaken the capacity of our community to defend itself from white supremacists.”
The concern over white supremacist violence is a real one. Earlier in January, The Atlantic Magazine wrote about a West Point report on the “dramatic rise in the number of attacks and violent plots originating from individuals and groups who self-identify with the far-right of American politics.” The article went on to describe the far right as “Christian fundamentalists, Militia movement groups, Skinheads, neo-Nazis, and violent anti-abortionists” that had been cited in the military academy’s report entitled Challengers from the Sidelines: Understanding America's Violent Far-Right.
Back in 2009, Mark Potok, editor of the Southern Poverty Law Center’s quarterly investigative journal Intelligence Report, wrote that “[President] Barack Obama’s election has inflamed racist extremists who see it as another sign that their country is under siege by nonwhites … the idea of a black man in the White House, combined with the deepening economic crisis and continuing high levels of Latino immigration, has given white supremacists a real platform on which to recruit.”
Jeffrey Everett, a member of the Southern California Chapter of the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense, was quoted in the award-winning film “41st and Central: The Untold Story of the L.A. Black Panthers,” as saying that the group had a rule: “Don’t give up your piece’ (gun). Umoja said that one of the late Gil Scott-Heron’s famous lyrics was, “when other folks give up theirs, I’ll give up mine.”
In some quarters of the Black community in 2013, it appears that still seems to be the case.