Ed. note: This is the latest installment of Righteous Indignation, our new column for conservative-minded lawyers.
In Houston last weekend, the National Rifle Association held its 2013 national convention. Although Houston is my once (and future) home, I did not attend the convention. I did, however, watch videos of several of the Leadership Forum speakers, including Texas Senator Ted Cruz, Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal, Texas Governor Rick Perry, former UN Ambassador John Bolton, Glenn Beck, and Sarah Palin. You can watch them online too if you (a) care to hear the NRA’s platform articulated by people with very nice hair, (b) wish to entertain your morbid liberal curiosity, or (c) want to see Glenn Beck get choked with emotion about freedom — again.
Also in the last few days, the website Neighborhood Scout released a list of “the most dangerous neighborhoods in America.”
The rankings relied on the violent crime rate per 1,000 residents, 2011 census tracts and population data from the U.S. Census Bureau, and violent crime statistics from the FBI, U.S. Department of Justice, and local law enforcement agencies. They defined “violent crimes” as murder, aggravated assault, armed robbery, and forcible rape. (You know, the legitimate kind of rape.)
Two of the neighborhoods in the top 15 on that list are areas where I have lived, worked, or studied. In one of those neighborhoods, the 2011 violent crime rate was 91.27 per 1,000 residents. A resident there has a one in 11 chance per year of becoming the victim of violent crime.
I was never the victim of violent crime in those parts of town, though I experienced several thefts and one burglary while living nearby. Even so, taking advantage of Texas’s option of a concealed carry permit and a manageably small-caliber handgun seemed like a sensible option to at least consider. Why should I be the only one who thinks a responsible, safety-conscious response to a high-crime urban neighborhood is to purchase and carry a firearm?
Surely, I’m not. (Surely too, carrying a gun is not the only responsible, safety-conscious response to living or working in a dangerous area.)
Why then is there not greater support for gun rights in urban communities where the need for self-protection is so great? Why are so many Second Amendment activists rural and suburban white people who use firearms primarily for recreation, and not urban-dwellers — often black or Latino — whose potential firearm ownership might actually save their lives?
Why is the NRA so white?
Culture undoubtedly counts for a lot. The “look and feel” of the gun rights movement often seems calibrated for a community of non-urban, white males. How often do members of the urban black community and the rural white community agree on anything?
Westboro Baptist Church, in less than two weeks, threatened to protest the memorial services of (1) country legend George Jones; (2) Chris Kelly, half of the hip-hop duo Kris Kross; and (3) Slayer guitarist Jeff Hanneman. The only thing country fans, hip-hop fans, and metal fans seem to largely agree upon is that Westboro Baptist Church members are douchebags befitting the most capacious and unhygienic of genitals. That’s a start, but consensus across culture might require just a little bit more.
Reliable NRA membership statistics are tough to come by. The organization reported to Politico in January 2013 that its members numbered 4.2 million, though some other sources have since disputed that number. Breakdowns of those overall numbers by race is speculation.
Let’s not pretend that we need to get persnickety about precise stats here, though. Whether for good or for ill, African-Americans tend not to join the NRA. A few high-profile black Americans do publicize their NRA membership: Whoopi Goldberg, James Earl Jones, Elie Mystal, Karl Malone, and — bless his A.D.I.D.A.S.-rapping heart — Killer Mike. (Okay. Probably not the third one. Just checking to see if anyone other than me is reading this.) Even Rick Ector, the black NRA-credentialed firearms trainer who runs the website Legally Armed in Detroit, wrote of his experience at the 2012 national NRA convention in St. Louis, “By my own personal accounting, I met twelve (12) black persons in attendance at the conference in St. Louis. I may have missed a few but not many.”
Are the residents of high-crime urban neighborhoods quibbling with Justice Scalia’s historical analysis in D.C. v. Heller? Is the problem on the other side that Justice Stevens in his Heller dissent was unable to convince Killer Mike? If not that, then why are so few urban-dwellers — including black and Latino ones — at the forefront of Second-Amendment advocacy?
Maybe if you’ve never had reason to be fearful of imminent violent crime, it’s hard to understand the appeal of guns for self-protection. I get that. What I have a harder time understanding is why someone who has lived in those circumstances would not find self-protection through lawful, responsible gun ownership really, really appealing.
To the best of my knowledge, the NRA has historically had no massive urban outreach program, no overt efforts to make the culture of its organization more palatable to a black, urban population. Hell, I am a white conservative person and Ted Nugent makes me pretty queasy. Allowing aesthetics to dictate so much of a complex debate, though, insults the intelligence and good faith of the debaters.
Notably, the NRA may be catching on, at least in small part. Black gun-rights activist Colion Noir spoke with Glenn Beck at the NRA convention over the weekend. The NRA’s website now features Noir’s video commentary addressing the charge that he is the organization’s token black guy. (He and Justice Thomas ought to have a solid sit-down discussing what it’s like to be a black man espousing conservative views. I’d pay for lunch just to have the chance to be a fly on that wall.) Colion Noir is a compelling, photogenic figure in the Second Amendment debate, and the NRA is wise to give him a platform. Still, “token” or not, black activists like Colion Noir and Rick Ector seem too rare.
I expect people to advocate for, if not always act in, their own perceived best interests. If someone’s self-interest conflicts with mine, I expect we’ll arrive at different views of how things ought to be. If we’re both politically active, I expect we’ll align ourselves with organizations and causes that serve our differing self-interests. I don’t puzzle over why my aging father is a member of AARP.
What perplexes me is when an individual or group advocates for stances that do not appear to be in their own self-interest. When that happens, I’m left wondering whether my information is bad or theirs is. Have I misapprehended what actually matters most to them, importing a distorted view of what their self-interest ought to look like? If so, I need — and want — to correct that misunderstanding on my part. I’m eager to listen more closely.
Or has crucial information been cut out of the conversation so that the other person or group’s true best interests are no longer apparent, even to them? If that’s the case, I want to reframe the debate so that each of us can clearly see what will actually benefit us. Then we can start arguing over whose interests trump whose, of course, but at least we can have a rational, meaningful argument.
The overwhelming racial singularity of NRA membership confounds me. I don’t see how the promotion of responsible gun ownership is not in the perceived best self-interest of more black Americans. I don’t see how actively encouraging and mobilizing more urban black members is not in the perceived best interest of the NRA and other gun-rights organizations. What am I missing?
Tamara Tabo is a summa cum laude graduate of the Thurgood Marshall School of Law at Texas Southern University, where she served as Editor-in-Chief of the school’s law review. She has clerked on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit and worked as a researcher for multiple projects on the intersection of cognitive science and law, including Baylor College of Medicine’s Initiative on Neuroscience and the Law. She looks forward to a career of teaching and writing about, but never practicing, law. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org