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Black Gun Owners In Texas Decry Racial Bias

Todd Wiseman/Randall Pugh
Texas Tribune illustration

Mark Hughes, wearing a camouflage shirt and legally, openly carrying an AR-15 rifle, was among dozens of black people in downtown Dallas on Thursday evening who were peacefully protesting against the recent back-to-back officer-involved killings of two black men.

But in the hours between when Micah Xavier Johnson opened fire on Dallas police officers and his death, Hughes found himself at the center of controversy when the Dallas Police Department circulated a photo of him on social media and referred to him as a "suspect" in the attack.

Police later retracted their initial assertions and deleted the photo after determining that Hughes had nothing to do with the attack that killed five police officers and injured seven other people, but their methods have sparked controversy among black gun owners who say they're discriminated against for exercising their constitutional right to bear arms.

“This is how they treat black men with guns,” said Babu Omowale, cofounder of the Dallas-based Huey P. Newton Gun Club, of the hunt for Hughes. “I was actually at the protest. I saw the brother with his gun, and it didn’t alarm me in any type of way because to me, he’s another brother expressing his Second Amendment right. But the police automatically view him as a suspect. But that’s how they view us — as suspects. They view us as possible criminals when we’re only applying our given rights as gun owners."

Black gun owners said cases such as Hughes', as well as that of Philando Castile, a black Minnesota man who was killed by a police officer during a traffic stop after the officer thought he was reaching for his gun, highlight a longstanding disparity in how police treat black gun owners versus their white counterparts.

“When officers see [black gun owners], they think that you’re going to do something aggressively towards them,” said Philip Smith, founder and president of the National African American Gun Association. “Just because you have an African-American carrying a gun doesn’t mean that he’s a shooter, and in Texas you can open carry, which shouldn’t have been a problem."

Smith said black gun owners sometimes shy away from legally carrying firearms because of the negative racial stereotyping by some police officers. He argued that it's an issue his association's 11,000-plus membership often talks about. 

There is no data about whether officers target minority gun owners at higher rates than white Americans, but Kevin Buckler, a professor of criminal justice at the University of Houston-Downtown, said statistics showing racial disparities in police stops suggest that black gun owners are at a greater risk.

“Transparency about the presence of the gun during the interaction is needed from the citizen, [and] officers need to ensure that they give clear instruction to the citizen on movements and behavior expectations,” Buckler said. “Many [police] departments have had success in early warning systems, which is an effort to identify officers early who have a tendency to escalate interactions or overreact and retrain them or terminate employment. It’s an effort to identify the 'bad apples' while maintaining trust and confidence in the officers who do their jobs well.”

Castile, whose girlfriend livestreamed his death on Facebook on Wednesday evening, had talked to his sister about the consequences of being a black gun owner, his mother said in a recent interview with CNN. Castile had a permit to carry, and his girlfriend, Diamond Reynolds, said he told the officer during a traffic stop that he was carrying his licensed gun.

In the video showing the aftermath of the shooting, the officer tells her: "I told him not to reach for it. I told him to get his hand out." Reynolds then responds, "You shot four bullets into him, sir. He was just getting his license and registration, sir."

Michael Cargill, the owner of Central Texas Gun Works, said he been racially profiled by police, including one incident where they pointed rifles at him because "they were looking for someone who robbed a store." Cargill and others said that to curb this problem, police departments should be more diversified.

“We need to get law enforcement officers [who] live in the communities they’re supposed to protect and serve,” he said. “They need to learn conflict resolution and understand the people they’re serving. They’re just coming when something bad happens, and they’re not interacting with people on a day-to-day basis.”

The tensions surrounding black gun ownership have a long historical record in the United States, according toresearch from the National African American Gun Association. Dating back to the 17th century, French and British colonies have openly prohibited gun ownership among black people and Native Americans. And during slavery and the post-Civil War period, states in the South imposed strict laws against black gun ownership that lasted through the Civil Rights Movement. When California’s legislature banned open carry in the 1960s, it was in response to the Black Panthers openly carrying guns.

Black gun owners also are frustrated with what they see as indifference from their allies. The National Rifle Association, the nation's most powerful gun rights organization, took two days to comment on Castile's death, only posting a statement on Twitter calling the shooting "troubling" and saying it "must be thoroughly investigated" after a swell of online outcry.

“The NRA is an organization that has a bunch of old white guys, and honestly, I don’t think they have the tools and minorities in the organization to address these types of issues,” said Cargill, who said he's a national member of the association. “They don’t have enough diversity in their staff and leadership. Probably, they were afraid to make the wrong statement.”

The NRA did not respond to The Texas Tribune’s requests for comment. A spokesman for the Texas State Rifle Association said in a statement that while the group does not speak for the NRA, "every law-abiding citizen, no matter their race, creed, or sexual preference, has a right to protect themselves."

Racial profiling and gun ownership had emerged as hot-button issues during last year's legislative session when state lawmakers were debating the open-carry law that went into effect in Texas this January.

Amid concerns that minority gun owners would be racially profiled by officers, Sen. Don Huffines, R-Dallas, introduces an amendment that would prohibit officers from stopping someone solely because they are visibly carrying a handgun. The measure, which eventually passed, attracted support from Democrats who said it would help prevent racial profiling. Conservatives said it also was necessary to protect the Fourth Amendment rights against unreasonable search and seizure of legal gun owners. 

However, the Huffines amendment was later removedfrom the open carry bill. He expressed disappointment and said it should be "an integral part of open carry." However, critics, including police unions and officials, had vehemently opposed the measure, saying it would tie their hands and impose a negative impact on public safety.  

"It absolutely allows criminals to carry a gun with impunity," said, Austin Police Chief Art Acevedo at the time. 

Nationwide, even though African-Americans don't necessarily oppose gun ownership, they are less likely than whites to have guns in their households, according to a 2014 survey by the Pew Research Center.

Statistics from the Texas Department of Public Safety also show minorities' low participation rates among concealed handgun license holders. Last year, less than 8 percent of the 217,588 people who received an application for a concealed handgun license were black.

Omowale, who named his Huey P. Newton Gun Club after the cofounder of the Black Panther Party, said he won't be scared away from his right to bear arms. He said he and some members of his group will sometimes strap themselves with guns such as AK-44 rifles and 12-gauge Mossberg 500 shotguns and patrol their Dallas neighborhoods. He said his group also promotes the benefits of black people legally owning a gun.

“We will arm ourselves — every black man and woman — legally. We have to defend our right," he said.

The Texas Tribune provided this story.