Philando Castile’s shooting death, at the hands of a police officer in Falcon Heights, Minnesota, one year ago, was numbingly similar to a string of other killings of black men by police. But Castile’s shooting was notably different in one crucial respect: Castile was licensed to carry a gun. He carefully informed Officer Jeronimo Yanez—exceeding his legal requirements under Minnesota law, though following the advice some gun-rights advocates offer for concealed carriers when stopped by police. And yet Yanez almost instantly shot him. That aspect made the case a central focus not just for Black Lives Matter activists, but for some gun owners, too.
As I wrote at the time, Castile’s killing raised the question of whether African Americans truly have a right to bear arms in practice. Even setting aside the questionable grounds under which Yanez had pulled Castile over (a malfunctioning taillight is a classic pretextual stop police use to question black drivers), Castile had done everything right.
There’s a long history of African Americans attempting to arm themselves to defend against state violence. During the post-Civil War period, many blacks armed themselves to protect against white supremacist violence. Southern governments responded by attempting to strip the right to bear arms. A century later, the Black Panthers made a habit of openly carrying guns as a way of displaying to racist police officers in Oakland that African Americans couldn’t be pushed around. In response, the California legislature passed a ban on open carry, and Governor Ronald Reagan signed it into law.