The United States’ recent history is filled with mass shootings and a lack of political will to initiate reforms to curb gun violence. The past two months have seen two of the deadliest shootings in the nation’s history.
As of November 24, there had been 321 mass shootings in the US this year, according to the Gun Violence Archive, which tracks gun-related violence. October saw the deadliest mass shooting in modern US history in Las Vegas, when Stephen Paddock killed 59 and injured more than 500 concert-goers at the Mandalay Bay hotel.
On November 5, Devin Patrick Kelley killed 26 and injured 20 at a Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, Texas, the deadliest shooting in a place of worship in the US’ history. These tragedies have energised calls for increased gun control legislation.
Simultaneously, the far right has seen a surge in support after the election of Donald Trump, whom they view as sympathetic to their cause. US hate crimes have risen for the past two years. Minorities have taken to arming themselves for self-defence as a result.
Gun control has been used to limit African Americans self-defence groups in the past, most notably the post-Civil War “Black Codes”, which disarmed African Americans, and the 1967 Mulford Act, which was supported by the National Rifle Association (NRA) and attempted to inhibit the gun rights of the leftist Black Panther Party .
Al Jazeera spoke with Douglas Jefferson, the vice president of the National African Americans Gun Association (NAAGA), a Black alternative to the NRA, about their view on mass shootings, public perception of African American gun ownership and how responsible gun control could be achieved.
Al Jazeera: What approach does the NAAGA take towards gun violence tragedies like those in Las Vegas and Sutherland Springs, as compared with an organisation like the NRA?
Douglas Jefferson: [The] NAAGA addresses issues of gun rights in a holistic manner, particularly in regards to African Americans. The recent spate of mass shootings are just as tragic as past shootings. However, the reflexive response of many people is to blame the guns used to perpetrate such tragedies. This is a mistake in that this response does not actually solve the issue of mass shootings in a meaningful manner.
In the case of the shooting in Sutherland Springs, laws were in place that should have actually prevented this shooting. The issue was that mechanisms of the current laws did not function properly. Adding more laws and restrictions does not solve that issue. In the case of the Las Vegas shooting, the shooter had no history of arrests, mental illness, or violent behaviour in addition to keeping his plans to himself. That kind of individual is very hard to detect and interdict without laws that violate the civil liberties of the average citizen.
Al Jazeera: The African Americans community has a long history of gun ownership in its struggle to achieve equal rights. In response, conservative politicians have signed gun control laws that targeted the rights of African Americans. How do you view modern gun control legislation?
Jefferson: Gun ownership in the black community has been key to achieving many of the gains that we enjoy today. The marches of the Civil Rights Movement and the accompanied voting registration drives in the Jim Crow South would have been impossible without the Black people from those towns who hosted the out of town marchers in their homes and protected those same marchers with firearms against domestic terrorist attacks from [Ku Klux] Klan members and white mobs. While some of the current gun control laws were well intentioned and others weren’t, I don’t think that the current gun control law structure has had the desired effect of reducing gun violence.
This is [because] gun violence is not looked at holistically. There are many factors that contribute to the level of gun violence that we see, and the presence of the firearm itself is the smallest factor. Since firearms do not operate themselves there is a human element that must be contended with. Also, one must look at the differences between street crime-related gun violence and mass shootings.
Though the outcomes of the two instances are the same (injuries and death), the two phenomena are created by different conditions with structural poverty being the primary driver of street crime-related gun violence and a lack of societal mechanisms to identify and address individuals with mental illness or emotional instability in the case of mass shootings.
Al Jazeera: Is there a way to achieve responsible gun control? If so, what would be necessary?
Jefferson: While there are measures that could be instituted to curb gun violence, there is no one broad-based policy that addresses all gun violence without severely impeding on the rights of individuals who are unlikely to ever commit such crimes and such policies do not focus on the gun itself.
There is also the question of weighing the cost of prevention policies against the rights of the greater majority who do not commit gun violence. We have to remember that with every law there has to be an enforcement mechanism for when the law is violated. Our current legal system tends to lean toward draconian punishments for crimes and, given this fact, I am not inclined to believe that a slew of new gun control legislation would be much different. Given the history of the US, I can see a situation developing where black people are unfairly targeted by such laws. It has happened before in this country and it continues to happen to this day, particularly in the case of drug crime prosecutions.
Al Jazeera: The past few years have reportedly seen a rise in gun ownership in the African Americans community. What do you think is behind this?
Jefferson: There are multiple factors contributing to the rise in black gun ownership. One factor is the level of crime [experienced] in a number of our communities. People are concerned about their safety and realise that the police are not always able to respond in time to protect them. They want to be ready and able to protect themselves in the event that someone attempts to victimise them.
Another concern is the increase in violent rhetoric and acts from hate groups like the alt-right, KKK, and Neo-Nazis. There is a history in this country of such groups violently attacking members of the black community. The past has shown us that armed self-defence is a practical response to such instances where the state cannot be there to protect you due to physics (time and space), or won’t be there due to incompetence, moral cowardice, or outright malice.
Al Jazeera: NAAGA was founded in February 2015 as an alternative to the NRA for the African Americans community. Why did the African Americans community need an alternative? What did the NRA’s advocacy lack?
Jefferson: NAAGA seeks to address 2nd Amendment rights (those that guarantee gun ownership in the US) in a holistic fashion in regards to the African Americans community. When most people think of what a gun owner looks like, African Americans don’t come to mind. Generally, this is true even amongst African Americans. NAAGA seeks to change this reality by educating African Americans on the rich history of the black tradition of arms in this country, which has been integral to every moment of African Americans self-determination which created conditions for African Americans to live as fully fledged citizens of a country that historically has not recognised us as full citizens.
Al Jazeera: How does being a gun owner inform your identity as an African Americans?
Jefferson: I am proud to exercise my 2nd Amendment rights because I know that practice comes from a long and proud tradition of arms within my community. From escaped slaves who took up arms to maintain their freedom against slave catchers to Civil Rights leaders who defended their homes and families against Klan nightriders – who would terrorise them at night after the marchers had gone home, there are countless examples of African Americans affirming their rights as citizens and human beings by embracing the 2nd Amendment. I see myself and NAAGA as continuing that tradition and bringing to life the stories of many of these individuals that have been forgotten.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.