In less than 24 hours, two black men have been killed by police officers even though the Second Amendment indicates that they should have been protected. Black America yet again bears witness to state-sanctioned violence at the hands of trigger-happy rogue cops—one in Louisiana, a state that has open-carry laws, and the other in Minnesota, where the victim had a permit to conceal and carry firearms. The truth, however, is that the Second Amendment (and subsequent open-carry laws) does not apply to black people in America.
This past Monday, America celebrated its 240th birthday. We rejoiced, we attended cookouts and we were hopeful that equality could be within reach. Then, the next day, with the senseless killing of 37-year-old Alton Sterling—a black man who was shot several times while being held on the ground by police outside a Baton Rouge, La., convenience store—we realized yet again that “liberty and justice for all” does not apply to black and brown people.
I watched the killing of Sterling on Wednesday morning. I rarely watch these videos because they are triggering and it immediately becomes traumatizing to see unmovable, bloodied black bodies, but because it was shared so many times, I felt it was for a reason. It wasn’t.
The facts appear pretty clear. Two white Baton Rouge police officers responded to a 911 call about a man who reportedly possessed a gun. In the 48-second video, the officers tackle Sterling, one straddling his legs while the other kneels to his left. Sterling is visible from the chest up, his back on the ground, with his hands behind his back, and you can hear the interaction, along with screams in the background from onlookers not knowing what to expect. Officers can be heard saying, “He’s got a gun! Gun!” and “You f—king move, I swear to God.”
Seconds later, gunshots rang out. Sterling is shot in the head execution-style. The police officer originally on Sterling’s legs is now on the pavement with a gun pointed at the victim’s head. Blood is spattered on Sterling’s chest and is also on a nearby car.
Despite initial reports that Sterling possessed a gun, the newest video may highlight some inconsistencies. But even before specific details were released, I reminded myself that Louisiana is one of 45 states with open-carry laws (with varying restrictions), meaning that he would have the right to possess a gun in many public places throughout the state. But open-carry laws didn’t apply to Sterling because he is black. This caused me to examine why his possession of a gun, in a state that permits it, would require police backup. It doesn’t.
The self-interrogation increased when, late Wednesday night, Philando Castile, a 32-year-old cafeteria supervisor, was killed in front of his child and girlfriend, who streamed it live on Facebook for the world to see. In the video, she explains that after being pulled over for a broken taillight, her boyfriend was shot multiple times while reaching for his license. Castile informed officers that he had a firearm in his possession and a conceal-and-carry permit in the car. The blood on his shirt is visible. His arm, which is hanging on by the bone, is clear. And now he is dead.
The Second Amendment was never intended to protect black people. The fear that black people will exercise constitutionally protected rights is what strikes the biggest fear in white people and, by extension, white police officers. This is part and parcel why, in 1967, then-Gov. Ronald Reagan quickly signed the Mulford Act into law in California when he discovered that black people wanted to carry firearms.
Many studies have shown that police officers’ overtly racist attitudes and implicit bias toward black people increase the likelihood they they will shoot unarmed black suspects (pdf). But we’ve also witnessed many instances in which unlawfully armed white people have escaped police violence in ways that even unarmed (or lawfully armed) black people have not. In 2014, 18-year-old Steve Lohner carried a loaded shotgun as he walked down an Aurora, Colo., street and refused to show police identification. He walked away with a citation. That same year, John Crawford III, a 22-year-old man living in Dayton, Ohio, was gunned down by police in a Wal-Mart as he carried a BB gun that he’d picked up off a shelf. Tamir Rice, a 12-year-old boy living in Cleveland, was killed over a BB gun. Ohio is also an open-carry state. These are not isolated incidents.
The Bill of Rights—the first 10 amendments to the Constitution—was written at a time when black people were legal property, and the application of those laws obviously doesn’t apply to anyone deviating from whiteness and maleness. Even though the Second Amendment supposedly applies to all American citizens, it is as much an example of white privilege as the open-carry laws associated with it. Gun culture is permeated by the intersection of white supremacy and the fragility of masculinity that is evident in the state-sanctioned violence endorsed by police officers.
White police officers want black Americans to obey the law while repeatedly restricting our rights. The pervasive racial disparities, from arrest to sentencing, erode constitutionally protected liberties—individual liberties that should apply to black people, too. Instead, in the past 24 hours, the black community has yet again discovered that the Second Amendment was written with the ideology that white life is valued and deserves to be protected, while we are still struggling to get them to acknowledge that #BlackLivesMatter.