Brentin Mock is a staff writer at CityLab. He was previously the justice editor at Grist.
African Americans worry that Pittsburgh’s new gun control proposals could leave them more vulnerable to racist and state-sponsored violence.
Want to talk about issues like these in person? Join CityLab in Pittsburgh on Wednesday, March 13, for a conversation on what it means to be protected in urban spaces. CityLab's Brentin Mock will interview writer Kiese Laymon, to be followed by a panel discussion with local leaders and journalists. Event is free, RSVP required.
By the end of 1975, the military conflict in Vietnam had ended and many black veterans returned to a Washington, D.C. that had been dubbed “Chocolate City” by the funk band Parliament. The label referenced D.C.’s confluence of a booming black population, an emerging black political leadership, and a growing quorum of successful black businesses. However, there had also been a (then) record 407 killings the year prior, with 60 percent of those attributed to guns, and the majority of the victims African Americans. These murder trends had been steadily building up since the early 1960s, leading Washington Post reporter Carl Bernstein to call D.C. “Dodge City” in a news story headline.
There was enough outrage about the rising gun violence that the city council was able to pass the “Firearms Control Regulations Act of 1975,” which made it illegal for residents to carry or purchase handguns. Anyone who possessed a handgun had to register it with the District and keep it “unloaded and disassembled” in their homes. It was, at the time, considered one of the most stringent gun control laws in the U.S. If the driving force behind the bill, city council member John Wilson, had it his way, it would have been even stricter, requiring every resident who owned a gun to turn them into the city or face prison time.
In December 2018, Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto and city council members Corey O’Connor and Erika Strassburger proposed a far more lenient package of gun control ordinances: People within Pittsburgh city limits could keep their guns, but no assault weapons could be carried in public. The bills also prohibit the sale or purchase of assault weapons and ammunition, but there are no gun stores in Pittsburgh. The last one, Braverman Arms Company, closed in December 2017.
Like the 1975 D.C. gun law, Pittsburgh’s are in response to urban gun violence. Specifically, they are the gauntlet that city leaders promised after anti-Semite and white nationalist Robert Bowers used three Glock .357 handguns and an assault rifle to kill 11 people at the Tree of Life synagogue in the Jewish neighborhood of Squirrel Hill. However, the sponsors of the ordinances say that the ordinances are also meant to address gun violence throughout the city, including in neighborhoods where African Americans are more frequently the homicide victims. Yet, there is an unresolved tension amongst some African Americans that outlawing guns could leave them more vulnerable to both racist and state-sanctioned violence while giving police yet another pretext for arresting and locking up young black people. That outcome is not entirely out of the question for a city where young African Americans have been arrested and imprisoned just for rapping about guns.
Such concerns were also present back in 1970s “Chocolate/Dodge City” D.C. days. Many black organizations and leaders opposed the D.C. gun laws out of fear that they could further criminalize their communities. And they were right to be concerned: In 1993, the Bureau of Justice Statistics reported that African Americans were arrested at five times the rate of whites for gun possession, despite white men owning guns at much higher rates. However, the handgun ban in D.C. appeared to be serving its essential purpose: One study found that the gun-control law “coincided with an abrupt decline” in gun-related homicides and suicides.
As Pittsburgh attempts to join the growing surge of cities and states placing new restrictions on gun handling, one major thing it will have to figure out is how to create laws that will take more illegal guns off the streets and save more lives, while ensuring that black people don’t become criminalized collateral damage in the process.
“You could do a house-by-house round up, potentially under the law, of certain neighborhoods,” says Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto. “That isn't the way that we intended and that's certainly not what we will do through the administration of it. It will be used as a deterrent in order to keep guns from proliferating in all of our neighborhoods, and it will be used as a way to help those who are going through and struggling with a difficult time in their lives, but it will not be used in a way that will target specific zones or neighborhoods.”
Whether Pittsburgh can use the ordinances at all is still in question. D.C.’s handgun ban was struck down in 2008 by the U.S. Supreme Court in the case D.C. vs Heller. Five justices had been convinced that the Second Amendment bestowed an unequivocal right for an individual to keep a loaded gun in their house. Since then several additional federal court rulings have made it more difficult for states and cities to regulate gun activity. Pittsburgh leaders are pushing their ordinances through despite overbearing legal precedents and threats from the county’s district attorney that he might have to criminalize the mayor and city council members if they pass them.
The bills themselves don’t come up for a vote until later this month, but when they were first introduced in December, there was little formal discussion about whether the gun control ordinances would actually make black communities safer, or if it would make them more heavily targeted for police harassment. In the months since, there have been several public hearings where African Americans have voiced concerns about racial equity issues in the bills. Activist Khalid Raheem of the New Afrikan Independence Party told the Public Source that gun control legislation doesn’t address all of the systemic failures of public institutions that lead to gun violence.
“If it’s proposing to disarm black people, no, not in the age of Trump, and Charlottesville,” says Claude “Paradise” Gray, an activist who worked to stem violence in New York City in the 1980s and 1990s through organizations such as Blackwatch. He is also co-founder of 1Hood Media, a Pittsburgh-based social justice organization. “We need to learn how to be safe with guns. I think every black child should be taught gun safety and gun control, but the gun control I want black people to learn is how to control your gun and how to control yourself.”
There is a long black history of gun control opposition—or at least, skepticism—that supports this viewpoint. Consider that in the late 1960’s after Martin Luther King was killed, it wasn’t the NRA that was gung-ho on gun rights like it is today—it was black racial justice organizations that had adopted and arguably popularized the campaign for every individual’s right to bear arms. When the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense marched on the California capitol building with rifles and shotguns in 1967, it was to protest a bill introduced by a Republican to prohibit carrying loaded weapons in cities—which the NRA supported.
“The Black Panther party for self-defense calls upon the American people in general and the black people in particular to take careful note of the racist California Legislature which is considering legislation aimed at keeping the black people disarmed and powerless at the very same time that racist police agencies throughout the country are intensifying the terror, brutality, murder and repression of black people,” said Black Panther leader Bobby Seale that day.
The legislature passed and then-Governor Ronald Reagan signed the gun control bill into law several days after the demonstration.
Before the Black Panthers took up the mantle, black activists such as Malcolm X, Fannie Lou Hamer, and Julian Bond had openly advocated for the right for black people to defend themselves with guns, and even Martin Luther King was packing for a minute. Black gun clubs were spread across the South to defend black families against the Ku Klux Klan and similar white supremacist outfits. In 1919, a band of black war veterans in D.C. got engaged in full-armed combat with a white mob that was planning to attack their neighborhood.
That race riot had not been forgotten by black activists in 1970s D.C. who were on the frontlines of fighting police violence, many of whom, themselves, had grown up fighting off violent racists throughout the Jim Crow South. As James Forman Jr. wrote in his book Locking Up Our Own, an organization called the Black United Front fought the proposed 1975 handgun ban from the outside while D.C. city council member Douglas Moore fought it from inside government lines. Their main concern was that white areas outside of D.C. had no corresponding gun control laws in place, which meant African Americans within the district would be left open to gun violence committed by people who lived outside of it.
This sentiment was shared in other cities like Detroit where Mayor Coleman Young once said, “I’ll be damned if I let them collect guns in the city of Detroit while we’re surrounded by hostile suburbs and the whole rest of the state.”
Robert Bowers, the gunman in the Tree of Life Shootings, lived in the Baldwin Borough about 30 miles south of Pittsburgh. While that shooting targeted Jewish worshippers, a guy like Bowers could have just as easily attacked a black church, as Dylann Roof did in South Carolina in 2015. The Southern Poverty Law Center lists 36 hate groups in Pennsylvania, several of which are located near Pittsburgh, including a white nationalist group called the American Freedom Union.
This past January, hundreds of mostly white men and women stormed Pittsburgh’s City Hall building, many of them brandishing military-grade firearms, to protest the city’s proposed gun control ordinances. It was a photo-negative picture of what the Black Panthers did in 1967 except this time the NRA is on the gun rights demonstrators’ side. Should Pittsburgh fail to achieve the same legislative outcome that California achieved after armed black activists stood their ground on this issue 52 years ago, it will be difficult to claim that racism doesn’t play a role in the gun debate.
There were 58 homicides in Pittsburgh in 2017. Of those, 76 percent were African American. Eight were white. Some have wondered why the city doesn’t respond with the same urgency when black people are killed.
“I can understand how some would view it as: Why wasn't this done when the grandma sitting on her porch in the Hilltop community was killed several years ago, or when a young man was killed in East Liberty after school on his way home, or most recently when an honors student was sitting in a house playing a video game in Homewood,” said Peduto. “I hope that the families of those folks realize that this is being done as much for them as for those that were lost on October 27th. It's all about the stealing of any innocent life.”
City council members say they are preparing amendments to the gun control bills that will address these concerns. When introduced later this month, they will be accompanied by a bill from city council member Robert Daniel Lavelle to increase funding for an organization called the Group Violence Intervention Unit, which identifies and offers wraparound social services to people who are most at risk of becoming either a victim or perpetrator of gun violence. The organization is credited with helping drop shootings to a 12-year low in Pittsburgh. In some ways this constitutes a benefit to black communities as a result of a tragedy that happened in a Jewish community. However, African Americans who support a right to defend themselves with a gun would see a protective benefit stripped away from black communities, on account of what happened in a Jewish community, should the gun control bills pass. That anxiety is backed by history.
“We didn’t start the fire, but we always get hit with the water hose,” says Gray. “We always end up catching the brunt of discipline for shit we didn’t do. We have a God-given right to defend our liberty and families by any means necessary like any other man.”