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The Weekly Abolitionist: Gun Control, Structural Racism, and the Prison State

An excellent article published last week by Radley Balko in The Washington Post explores the racially discriminatory consequences of gun control laws in the United States, as illustrated through the lens of several recent news stories.

Balko begins by discussing the arrest of Shaneen Allen:

Last October, Shaneen Allen, 27, was pulled over in Atlantic County, N.J. The officer who pulled her over says she made an unsafe lane change. During the stop, Allen informed the officer that she was a resident of Pennsylvania and had a conceal carry permit in her home state. She also had a handgun in her car. Had she been in Pennsylvania, having the gun in the car would have been perfectly legal. But Allen was pulled over in New Jersey, home to some of the strictest gun control laws in the United States.

Allen is a black single mother. She has two kids. She has no prior criminal record. Before her arrest, she worked as a phlebobotomist. After she was robbed two times in the span of about a year, she purchased the gun to protect herself and her family. There is zero evidence that Allen intended to use the gun for any other purpose. Yet Allen was arrested. She spent 40 days in jail before she was released on bail. She’s now facing a felony charge that, if convicted, would bring a three-year mandatory minimum prison term.

In other words, a woman of color was arrested for a completely victimless crime and now faces a clearly disproportionate mandatory minimum sentence. This incident challenges the way most Americans think about gun control, which is often framed in terms of a conflict between pro-gun reactionary conservatives and anti-gun anti-racist liberals. Yet here a woman of color is facing outrageously disproportionate punishment for a victimless crime precisely because of the gun control laws that are typically associated with progressive liberalism.

This is not an isolated incident. Racially disparate impacts have been a disturbing reality of gun control for years now. Balko explains the disparity as follows:

Last year, 47.3 percent of those convicted for federal gun crimes were black — a racial disparity larger than any other class of federal crimes, including drug crimes. In a 2011 report on mandatory minimum sentencing for gun crimes, the U.S. Sentencing Commission found that blacks were far more likely to be charged and convicted of federal gun crimes that carry mandatory minimum sentences. They were also more likely to be hit with “enhancement” penalties that added to their sentences. In fact, the racial discrepancy for mandatory minimums was even higher than the aforementioned disparity for federal gun crimes in general.

Many liberals and progressives are aware of the racial disparities that plague our criminal justice system and are exacerbated by mandatory minimum sentences. But it’s important for them to recognize that these same dynamics are at play in gun control laws. As Anthony Gregory explains,

When it comes to restricting firearms, liberals have an amazing ability to ignore the hard truth of what they are advocating—putting more people in cages. That is what gun control is.

Why are those incarcerated for gun crimes so disproportionately people of color? Largely because gun control laws, like all victimless crime laws, give police enormous discretion. As Balko explains:

When someone robs a bank with a gun or kills someone with a gun, there’s no debate about who needs to be investigated and prosecuted. When a police agency is charged to seek out and prosecute people who are illegally possessing or transferring guns, they’re required to use their own discretion when it comes to what communities to target and what methods they’ll use to target them.

Inevitably, this will manifest as sting operations against communities with little political clout. (Or, just as troubling, deliberately targeting people for political reasons.)

Expanding the scope of criminal law beyond crimes with clear victims towards victimless crimes that police need to seek out expands the role of discretion in a manner that makes the already marginalized even more vulnerable. This is evident when trans women of color are profiled as sex workers. It’s evident when police searching for drugs stop pull over people for “driving while black.”  And it’s evident in how gun control laws are enforced in practice.

Balko quotes a particularly appalling recent example of racially biased sting operations by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (ATF). According to an investigative report by Brad Heath in USA Today:

The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives has more than quadrupled its use of those stings during the past decade, quietly making them a central part of its attempts to combat gun crime. The operations are designed to produce long prison sentences for suspects enticed by the promise of pocketing as much as $100,000 for robbing a drug stash house that does not actually exist.

At least 91% of the people agents have locked up using those stings were racial or ethnic minorities, USA TODAY found after reviewing court files and prison records from across the United States. Nearly all were either black or Hispanic. That rate is far higher than among people arrested for big-city violent crimes, or for other federal robbery, drug and gun offenses.

The ATF operations raise particular concerns because they seek to enlist suspected criminals in new crimes rather than merely solving old ones, giving agents and their underworld informants unusually wide latitude to select who will be targeted. In some cases, informants said they identified targets for the stings after simply meeting them on the street.

The ATF had very wide discretion in these sting operations, and that discretion resulted in large numbers of people being enticed into committing crimes and then locked up. Upwards of 91% of those caged are minorities. This is outrageous. And it should cause liberals who support the ATF as an essential part of gun control enforcement to seriously reconsider their views. Rachel Maddow has condemned the NRA for calling the ATF “jack booted thugs” and blocking the appointment of ATF leadership officials. Given the ATF’s role in actively perpetuating systemic racism, I think liberals like Maddow should strongly reconsider their support for the ATF.

Prison abolitionists should lead the charge against gun control laws, and prevent the prison state from growing as part of a knee jerk response to tragedies like mass shootings. Dean Spade of the Sylvia Rivera Law Project provided a good example of what a leftist resistance to gun control laws might look like after the Newtown shooting, writing:

In the wake of the Newtown shooting, the issue of gun control is being framed in very selective ways that ignore the realities of violence in our communities. The truth is that the most deadly, in terms of numbers, gun owners are police forces and the US military. When we have a conversation about gun violence that ignores the realities of state violence, it often produces proposals that further marginalize and criminalize people of color, poor people, people with disabilities, immigrants and youth. In Washington State, we’re fighting against a new bill that would create mandatory jail time for youth caught possessing a gun. We know that mandatory jail and prison sentences are part of what has created the massive boom in US imprisonment in recent decades that have devastated communities of color. We know that jailing youth does not make our communities safer, it just damages the lives, health outcomes, and educational opportunities of young people.

Any discussion of violence in society needs to recognize that the state and its criminal law enforcement apparatus are violent. Anyone who cares about equality or social justice should recognize when laws, even those supported by people they like, have grossly unequal consequences. Understanding these points should help us recognize gun control laws as part of a grotesque prison state that exacerbates inequality and injustice.

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