The NRA Claims To Be A 'Civil Rights Organization,' But They Do Not Believe Black Lives Matter

by Sa'iyda Shabazz
Originally Published: 
Radley Balko/Twitter

When Breonna Taylor was murdered in her home by police two months ago, she was sleeping beside her boyfriend, Kenneth Walker. Walker is thankfully still alive, and his story deserves to be highlighted because it draws attention to a problem that has come up after several police killings. Kenneth Walker is a legal gun owner and used his gun before the police shot Taylor. However, gun rights activists are being largely silent. That’s because gun rights activists generally don’t show support for Black gun owners exercising their constitutional right to bear arms.

If you’ve ever seen a rally in favor of the Second Amendment, it’s pretty much a sea of white folks. But, it’s important to note, that it’s not only white people who legally own guns. But, white gun owners are the only folks who get any sort of attention and support from groups like the National Rifle Association (NRA). When Black gun owners need support, those groups are slower to react, or remain completely silent. It’s just another way in which white supremacy rears its ugly head.

“What it means to carry a gun or own a gun or buy a gun – those questions are not neutral. We have 200 years of history, or more, defining that in very racial terms,” Dr. Jonathan Metzl, a psychiatrist and sociologist at Vanderbilt University, told The Guardian.

On the night Breonna Taylor was killed, plain clothes police officers (officers not dressed in uniform) burst into her apartment while she and Walker slept. None of the officers announced they were police, thanks to a “no knock” provision in the warrant they had obtained to search Taylor’s apartment for drugs. Thinking intruders were breaking in, Walker fired a shot at a police officer because he (understandably) thought they were being burglarized. In turn, officers opened fire, shooting Taylor eight times. Eight. Times.

Breonna Taylor is dead, and Kenneth Walker was charged with attempted murder of a police officer.

It’s important to note that not only is Walker a legal owner, but Kentucky is also a “stand your ground” state. Meaning, if Walker did believe someone was breaking into his house, he had every right to shoot at them. (This is the same law that got George Zimmerman acquitted after he murdered Trayvon Martin, let’s not forget. But clearly, it only works if you’re white.) Since Walker’s arrest, not one gun rights activist has said a word on his behalf. This is very telling.

“‘I talked to a number of people in African American communities, and for them, this meaning of guns being like a privilege was completely absent. They had very ambiguous or mixed feelings about weapons, because, for a lot of people I spoke with in St Louis they symbolized, ‘Carry a gun, get shot by the police,'” Dr. Metzl added.

Of course, the most famous case of a Black gun owner being shot by police is Philando Castile. When police pulled him over, he told them he was a licensed gun owner and that his gun was in the car. This is what he was supposed to do. As he went to reach for his license, police shot and killed him. His girlfriend and her four-year-old daughter were also in the car. This could have been the perfect moment for gun rights activists to speak up, but their silence was deafening.

As the ACLU points out, Black gun owners “who seek to follow the advice of the National Rifle Association and others to arm themselves may only make themselves more vulnerable.” This is because the group made to protect their rights doesn’t actually care about them. Not when the NRA has a certain kind of reputation to uphold.

In 2018, a Black man, Emantic Fitzgerald Bradford, Jr. was killed by police in Alabama. Like Kentucky, Alabama is an open carry state, and Bradford was not only a legal firearm owner, but a former Army recruit. He was carrying his gun in a mall on Thanksgiving night when another person began shooting. Normally, this is the kind of moment gun rights activists love. It reinforces their “good guys with guns will save the day” narrative. And it would, except for the fact that the good guy was black this time. Bradford used his gun to usher people to safety. And then, he was shot dead by police “within seconds,” according to witnesses.

So, if the black guy is the ‘good guy’ he will still die.

The only comment from the NRA was spokesperson Dana Loesch tweeting her surprise at the police’s refusal to release bodycam footage.

According to Alexandra Filindra, a political scientist at the University of Illinois Chicago, the NRA “has a membership whose demands, needs, and identity the group is feeding. It can’t contradict who they are and what they expect to hear. And the messaging is consistent with one group: whites.” Filindra has studied the relationship between racial prejudice and opinions held on gun rights.

With NRA membership being largely white, Black gun owners can’t get a seat at the table. As Dr. Metzl pointed out, gun ownership has always been seen as a white person’s right. So if you look at it from that standpoint, it’s not surprising they don’t value Black members. When you think about the average NRA member, you’re not thinking of a Black person. You’re thinking of a white man, likely approaching middle age. Probably a MAGA hat wearer. And there’s a reason that’s the first image that pops into your head. The organization makes sure that’s the branding they’re putting out. Those are the people they wish to appeal to. There’s no denying it.

The problem is, the NRA “claims to be America’s oldest civil rights organization, [but] it’s not acting as a civil rights organization,” Filindra tells The Trace. It’s worth noting that the org has worked to fight for the rights of Black gun owners. However, it’s only the cases that further their overall agenda. They helped a Black man in Chicago, Otis McDonald, to challenge the city’s handgun ban in the Supreme Court. And when Shaneen Allen, a Pennsylvania woman, was arrested in New Jersey because she believed her PA concealed carry license gave her permission to carry it into another state, the NRA fought for her.

Two men with their firearms listen to speakers at a protest to new gun legislation at the Utah State Capitol in Salt Lake City, Utah on February 8, 2020. GEORGE FREY/Getty

So if they fight for those people, why not everyone? It’s very simple and comes back to the same point: white supremacy and privilege. What is the thing that Philando Castile and Emantic Bradford have in common? That’s right, they were Black men murdered by white police officers. Remember the kind of white person (man) the NRA is trying to have as members? These are not the kind of men who are going to speak out against police officers. Even when those police officers are murderers.

Those who make up the typical NRA membership classification certainly don’t believe Black lives matter, especially over ‘blue lives.’ And those in charge know that. Which means they will very likely not speak up against white supremacy because they know what’s at stake if they ever did. And the NRA is most certainly not that kind of organization. Aligning themselves with the police will “preserve conservative values and lifestyles under threat from others,” The Trace explains.

When a group claims to be a “civil rights” group, they can’t pick and choose who deserves those rights. But that’s exactly what the NRA is doing when choosing to ignore the killings of these black gun owners. After Castile’s murder, the NRA was slow to speak out, and even when they did, still acquiesced to the police force. Their only acknowledgment was to say they wouldn’t officially comment on the case until all the details emerged.

If they wanted to know the details, all they had to do was watch the video.

Black gun owners are not a group to leave out when talking about gun rights. Truth be told, they’re the ones who are more likely to need gun rights as a defense. By ignoring their plight, these majority white groups like the NRA are making it clear that white supremacy is more important than actual civil rights. And for a group claiming to be a “civil rights organization,” they have a lot to learn about what civil rights actually look like.

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