The NRA’s Catch-22 for Black Men Shot by Police

A National Rifle Association spokesperson says Botham Jean would still be alive if he’d had a firearm. But when African Americans legally bearing arms are shot by police, the organization’s media outlet doesn’t defend them.

The grieving family of Botham Jean, flanked on the right by its lawyer, Benjamin Crump, in Dallas on September 10, 2018 (Associated Press)

The city of Dallas, Texas, has been rocked by news of an off-duty police officer shooting a black man in his own apartment. On September 6, the off-duty police officer Amber Guyger entered Botham Jean’s apartment and shot him dead. She has since claimed—after a number of shifting accounts—that she mistakenly thought she was entering her own apartment and believed it was being burglarized.

Most people reacted to the news of the shooting with outrage—regardless of the circumstances, shooting an innocent man dead in his own home is a horrible tragedy. Conservatives such as National Review’s David French have argued that Guyger “committed a crime by forcing open Jean’s door, deliberately took aim, and killed him.” Commentary’s Sohrab Ahmari observed, “Even within the four walls of his castle, his home, Jean was not safe from undue police violence.”

The National Rifle Association’s spokesperson sees the incident a bit differently. Dana Loesch argued that Jean would still be alive had he been armed and shot Guyger instead. “I don’t think there’s any context that the actions would have been justified,” Loesch acknowledged, but asserted that “this could have been very different if Botham Jean had been, say he was a law-abiding gun owner and he saw somebody coming into his apartment.” At a time when many conservative writers were expressing empathy for Jean and hoping that justice would be served, Loesch’s disciplined adherence to the NRA’s bottom line stands out.

Loesch’s reaction is an example of what one might call the “Rice rule,” after Tamir Rice, the 12-year old killed by a white police officer while playing in a park with a toy gun: There are no circumstances in which the responsibility for a police shooting of an unarmed black person cannot be placed on the victim.

At the same time, scolding dead people for being unarmed is standard procedure for the NRA, which attacked Clementa Pinckney, the pastor of Mother Emanuel AME Church, where nine parishioners were massacred by the white supremacist Dylann Roof, for supporting gun control. The group similarly suggested that shootings at Planned Parenthood; at Umpqua Community College in Oregon; in Fresno, California; and at the Capital Gazette in Maryland were so deadly because the victims weren’t armed. The NRA even faulted James Shaw Jr., who prevented a mass shooting at a Waffle House by tackling the shooter, for not being armed while he did it. Ted Nugent, the closest thing the NRA has to a celebrity spokesperson, once called mass-shooting victims “losers” who “get cut down by murderous maniacs like blind sheep to slaughter.”

But the NRA’s conspicuous lack of outrage after the shootings of Philando Castile, Jason Washington, and Alton Sterling, all black men killed by police while in possession of a firearm, suggests an impossible double standard. When armed black men are shot by the police, the NRA says nothing about the rights of gun owners; when unarmed black men are shot, its spokesperson says they should have been armed. To this day, Loesch defends Castile’s shooting as justified—despite the fact that Castile informed the officer he was carrying a firearm. In Washington’s case, Loesch said she was “never going to keyboard quarterback what police are doing.”

There’s also a catch-22 here: If Jean had been armed, Guyger would have a much more plausible defense. If innocent unarmed black men like Jean are shot, it’s because they lack firearms; if innocent black men who are armed like Castile or Sterling are shot, it’s because they had a gun. Heads, you’re dead; tails, you’re also dead.

Yet the NRA did release an ad siding with President Donald Trump against the NFL players protesting police violence. One might ask why the NRA waded into the conflict over the NFL protests at all. The group has long urged citizens to arm themselves against the possibility of government tyranny, only to come down on the side of the state when it kills innocent people who are black. An additional irony is that, historically, the only American population to be forcibly deprived of its weapons was black Americans at the end of Reconstruction, disarmed by racist paramilitary groups.

In recent years, the NRA has made frequent forays into culture-war disputes that have little to do with gun rights per se. This week, its NRATV hosts attacked a children’s program featuring anthropomorphic trains for introducing a train from Kenya. Previously, they argued that undocumented children separated from their parents under the Trump administration are “better off,” complained that American men “are being turned into second-rate women,” described laws banning anti-gay discrimination as “slavery,” called for the imprisonment of people protesting Trump Cabinet officials, dismissed the Women’s March as “anti-American,” and attacked the media for being insufficiently pro-Trump. None of this has anything to do with gun restrictions. So why is the NRA doing it?

The answer may have less to do with the defense of gun rights than the sale of firearms. As Josh Sugarmann, the executive director of the Violence Policy Center, told NPR, the NRA is “a de facto trade association masquerading as a shooting-sports foundation,” funneling millions of dollars each year to the group and its affiliates. Marketing violent fantasies to its members encourages them to buy firearms. According to the Pew Research Center, three in 10 Americans own a gun, while 29 percent of gun owners own five or more. This is the NRATV’s target demographic; given its demonization of Democrats and liberals, it’s clear the outlet is uninterested in the 20 percent of Democrats who own firearms.

The NRA has long nurtured the fantasy of revolutionary violence against a tyrannical government—in 1995 former President George H. W. Bush resigned from the organization after the NRA chief Wayne LaPierre called federal law-enforcement officials jack-booted thugs. During the Barack Obama–era, however, this sort of rhetoric went into overdrive, and gun sales skyrocketed as right-wing figures warned of a need for liberty-minded citizens to prepare themselves for armed struggle against the government. It’s no coincidence that this coincided with the election of America’s first black president. During Reconstruction, terrorist groups such as the White League promulgated hoaxes about armed blacks seeking to kill white men en masse and rape white women, in order to scare up recruitment and preemptively justify violence against their political rivals. The specter of “negro rule” proved a powerful motivator.

With Obama’s departure, the NRA lost its chief gun salesman. Since then, the NRA message machine has gone into overdrive, seizing on culture-war issues that can sell as many guns as having a black president once did. NRA representatives now compare liberals to the terrorist group ISIS, publish fiction warning that Syrian refugees would establish an ISIS branch in the United States, argue that “minorities” should be blamed for gun violence, and, in a startlingly on-the-nose echo of Reconstruction-era racist propaganda, warn that if Black Lives Matter isn’t stopped whites will face mass rape and murder like white people in South Africa. No wonder former Republican Representative Joe Scarborough observed in February that NRA messaging can “come close, pretty close to inciting violence.”

NRATV tells its viewers that they are under assault from liberals, black people, undocumented immigrants, and Muslims, and that they might one day need to kill them—in self defense, of course. Like the president, the NRA has correctly divined that fomenting and exploiting white people’s fears and hatreds is an effective sales strategy. If marketing murder fantasies is what it takes to move the product, then so be it. When the answer to any problem has to be “Buy more guns,” then absurd logic, such as holding dead people responsible for being shot by police in their own home, is inevitable.