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What the Buffalo Shooting Says About Black America’s Fraught Relationship With Guns

7 minute read

The Buffalo community in upstate New York is still mourning the senseless massacre that occurred on May 15, when a gunman entered a local grocery store and killed 10 people in a racially motivated attack.

On Tuesday, President Joe Biden traveled to the city and condemned the incident as “violence inflicted in the service of hate.” He also labeled it an act of “domestic terrorism”.

“Jill and I bring you this message from deep in our nation’s soul. In America, evil will not win. I promise you. Hate will not prevail. And white supremacy will not have the last word,” Biden said on Tuesday.

The Buffalo shooting and other domestic white supremacist terrorist attacks on the country’s minority population–growing concerns for federal authorities–illustrate the difficulties of working toward racial reckoning in a firearm heavy nation.

Read more: The Buffalo Shooter Targeted a City Haunted by Segregation

The burden of America’s long love affair with guns disproportionately affects the Black community and has done so since the Second Amendment was written into law. Carol Anderson is an African-American studies professor at Emory University and the author of The Second: Race and Guns in a Fatally Unequal America, which explores the history of the Second Amendment and how it has kept the Black population helpless and at higher risk of gun violence, especially at the hands of white supremacists.

Speaking with TIME, Anderson discussed the Buffalo mass shooting and how it fits into the larger discussion around the Second Amendment and the targeting of Black civilians.

Your book explores how the Second Amendment has historically had a negative impact on the Black population. How does this recent mass shooting in Buffalo fit into that idea?

It fits because of the framing of who black people are. [The shooter] believes in the replacement theory, the one that’s been spewed by Tucker Carlson and by Elise Stefanik about the ways that black people are a threat to the white community, that they’re going to take over, that black people are dangerous, and that they have to be removed, they have to be compelled to leave. That was so much of the genesis of the Second Amendment, that black people are a threat, that they are dangerous that they pose ill will upon whites, particularly slaveholding whites.

[The founding fathers] made sure that the constitution had an amendment that provided the right for a well-regulated militia. In early America, that militia was really about controlling the enslaved population and putting down slave revolts. That’s what they were afraid of. Without the militia, without their guns, they felt they would be left defenseless.

When you hear the killer in Buffalo, talking about “they’re trying to take over and we’ve got to create terror that will [make them] want to leave”, that’s rooted in America’s history. The slaveholders didn’t want Black folks to leave because they needed somebody to do the work. What they wanted was a docile compliant, controlled Black population.

What’s the correlation between white supremacy and gun rights in America today?

They go hand together like love and marriage. We also saw it in the insurrection on January 6, because here you had black folks voting, despite the pandemic, because they knew that democracy was on the line. And because they did not vote for a white supremacist, but in fact voted that white supremacist out of power. You have this uprising, spurred by Trump and company identifying the sources of the threat, the sources of the steal.

There were over 900 messages to election workers and poll workers were so many times the Second Amendment was invoked as the right that would be used in order to take out these election workers who stole the election.

One of the things I laid out in the book is that in this period that we’re in right now, the standard-bearers that we see as being the right to Second Amendment citizenship, stand your ground and open carry. When that is applied to Black folks they don’t have those rights. In terms of stand your ground, white people are 10 times more likely to walk away with a justifiable homicide ruling when they kill somebody Black than when somebody Black kills somebody White.

We’ve seen these kinds of mass shootings happening in the recent past where a minority group is targeted. Why can’t we find a way to address this problem?

It is the power of anti-blackness, the power of the fear of Black people. The fear of black folks is so intense, that we have been willing as a society to lose our safety and security in our churches, in our grocery stores, in our schools and where we work, just to ensure access to guns. But 400 million guns have not made us a safer society. It has not brought about security.

[The country] is afraid of black people.

Read more: ‘There’s No Such Thing As a Lone Wolf.’ The Online Movement That Spawned the Buffalo Shooting

The shooter in the Buffalo incident made it very clear what his motives were and had no problem making his views public. How come he wasn’t seen as a threat beforehand?

Part of the perversion of anti-blackness is the inability of this society to identify a threat, a genuine threat.

[Think of] Kyle Rittenhouse with his AR-15 and [was met] by the cops who were like “oh, we are so glad you are here.” Even after he guns down three people killing two of them. He walks back with his hands up to surrender and the cops go right by him. They don’t see a threat. The Buffalo killer popped up on the radar because of threats he was making in high school. They investigate it and nothing came of it because he wasn’t viewed as a threat.

When you look at gun ownership today and see that a large percentage of legal ownership is white but there’s been an increase in Black gun ownership over the past year or so, what do you think is driving that increase?

Part of what is driving it was the Trump years and the reality of Black folks basically being on their own. Nobody was going to come to rescue them. So they were going to have to defend themselves, kind of the same way that was happening after the Civil War. The same way that was happening in the rise of Jim Crow, where you had Black folks arming themselves, because they could not rely upon law enforcement to protect them from the violence.

In terms of gun violence, illegal weapons find their way into poor Black communities and that drives a lot of the violence in those communities. What does that say about the flaws of the Second Amendment?

Because there is a floodgate of weapons that go into those communities, you have the communities trying to put a stop to the homicides that are happening but the other things that need to be done aren’t being done. Quality education, social structures and social support systems are not being implemented. Those have been gutted. Employment opportunities have been gutted. So what those communities are trying to do is limit access to guns. It’s one thing to get into an argument, it’s another thing to get into an argument with a gun.

What’s the middle ground between someone’s right to own a weapon and protecting the Black population from attacks like this?

There are states like Georgia and Texas, that are loosening their gun regulation laws around background checks and training. There are more guns than people in the United States. The killer in Buffalo had on body armor with a semi-automatic weapon. AR-15s aren’t good for anything but hunting people. Why would we have regular civilian access to that kind of weaponry?

If so-called gun rights advocates give an inch on these automatic and semi-automatic weapons then the belief is that they’ll be coming to take all of your guns. That poisonous rhetoric is why we don’t see movement on sane gun safety laws.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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Write to Josiah Bates at josiah.bates@time.com