Blacks and Guns

Copyright Ó 2002, by Alec Rawls

African-Americans have a serious problem with guns. They don't have enough of them. Despite being victimized by crime at several times the rate of whites, only 30% of black adults own guns, compared to 43% of whites.(1)

Blacks are also heavily represented in California and in those northeastern and Midwestern states which, like California, deny citizens their right to bear arms. Thus criminals in black neighborhoods can usually be confident of not meeting armed resistance from the law abiding citizenry. This safe working environment emboldens criminals to commit more crimes.

But that is only half the problem.

In the absence of self-defense, the moderating influence on crime must come from the police. Unfortunately, the way police crack down on crime—by cracking down on all kinds of minor infractions, looking for excuses to search people, being suspicious of everyone who looks suspicious—is a great irritant to the law abiding. Greater police presence also brings the drug war down on blacks with terrible force, prosecuting huge numbers of African-Americans for consenting behavior.

This leaves America's black neighborhoods on the horns of dilemma. Residents have a choice between being murdered, robbed and raped, or being subject to an overbearing police presence and sometimes to unjust prosecution.

This no-win situation was on display in Cincinnati the spring before last. Because Ohio is one the seven states (mostly in the mid-west) that do not issue any gun permits, community defense relies entirely on policing.(2) Irritation at the heavy police presence erupted in riots after a young black man was shot trying to escape arrest. To mollify community anger, policing was lessened, resulting in 73 murders over the next two months, a 700% increase over the same period the year before.(3)

Both horns of this dilemma could avoided if the law abiding people were allowed to bear arms. They would be able to defend themselves and each other from crime, which would deter predation from inside the community, allowing police presence to diminish. The police would have a few more dead predators to scrape off the ground, but far few victims.

Gun control laws in the United States originated as a scheme for keeping blacks disarmed. By turning gun rights into privileges, granted at the discretion of local police chiefs and county sheriffs, whites could keep blacks from bearing arms while still in practice maintaining their own rights. The slope turned out to be slippery and, in all but eight states, whites lost their gun rights too. Finally in 1987 people of all races started to reclaim their gun rights through the "shall issue" movement, requiring police chiefs and county sheriffs to issue gun permits to all adult applicants who are not disqualified by history of crime or mental illness.(4)

The crime reducing effects of shall-issue laws have been well documented over the last fifteen years, and the current economic downturn is only accentuating the effect.(5) Crime rates are stable in the thirty-three states that now protect gun rights while many anti-gun states are experiencing a resurgence of crime.

Boston, for instance, capital of one of the nation's most anti-gun states, experienced a 67% increase in murder last year. That is not as shocking as it sounds, as the rate is still fairly low, but it is significant nonetheless. At the extreme end, Oakland California is experiencing a return to crack-era murder rates. Similarly, murder in anti-gun Chicago is surging, while ex-murder capital Detroit actually had one less murder last year, after passing a "shall issue" CCW law in 2000.

Interestingly, the shall-issue movement has been slowest to reach those states in the northeast and mid-west that were the destination of the great northward migration of southern blacks in the hundred years after the Civil War. Today southern blacks can all get gun permits, and the safer streets and lessened police harassment that inevitably follow. Now it is the north's turn to stop denying people their constitutional rights.

Rights are not conditional on need. Nevertheless, no group needs gun rights as much as African-Americans. Many blacks live in impoverished conditions where crime thrives, but bringing in more police, and having them use every excuse to question and search, is a terrible burden. Law abiding blacks must be free to defend themselves and each other so that they can live as safe as other people without being under the heel of the police.

Alec Rawls is a columnist for The Stanford Review. Contact him at This article was originally published in the Review, 11/21/2002.

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1. For instance, in 1999, blacks were six times more likely to be murdered than whites (Bureau of Justice Statistics,, homicide trends in the U.S., Trends by race). On rates of gun ownership, see John Lott, More Guns Less Crime, second edition, University of Chicago Press, 1998,2000, p. 39.  Return

2. The others are Illinois, Kansas, Missouri, Nebraska, New Mexico, Ohio and Wisconsin. See < >.  Return

3. See "Cincinnati cop kills black man," San Jose Mercury News, AP, 7/28/01.  Return

4. The eight states that maintained protection of gun rights before the "shall issue" movement are: Alabama, Connecticut, Indiana, New Hampshire, North Dakota, South Dakota, Vermont and Washington. Florida adopted the first "shall issue" law in 1987. See John Lott, op. cit. p. 43. For a compendium of current state laws, visit < >.  Return

5. Lott, op. cit., is still the most comprehensive study.  Return


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