Scott Walter

Respect for the poor

Why doesn’t the Left trust the law-abiding poor to own guns? That question leapt to mind after reading a recent piece in Nonprofit Quarterly by my friend Rick Cohen, who hails from the Left and, on other issues, has long demanded respect for the denizens of poor neighborhoods.

His article rightly scoffed at officials at a public school in North Carolina who had the brilliant idea of providing their sixth-graders with an “enrichment exercise” that consisted of sending a man in a ski mask into classrooms with a toy gun and pretending to rob the kids.

Rick repeated a crack by the website Progressive Populist that it’s a good thing no teacher pulled out a concealed weapon to shoot the fake bad guy. That could have happened “if the National Rifle Association has its way,” because those crazies at the NRA published a report this year “calling for arming and training teachers and other school personnel.”

Rick’s sneer brought another question to mind. Why does the Left, usually so skeptical about cops and the military, trust them to have all the guns?

Does Rick not realize that, historically, American gun control laws largely targeted “blacks in the south and the foreign-born in the north,” including Rick’s own Jewish forebears? The state of North Carolina, which draws Rick’s attention today, declared in 1840 that no

free negro, mulatto, or free person of color, shall wear or carry about his or her person, or keep in his or her house, any shot gun, musket, rifle, pistol, sword, dagger or bowie-knife, unless he or she shall have obtained a license therefor from the Court of Pleas and Quarter Sessions of his or her county

That explains why some black men on the left, like Washington Post columnist Courtland Milloy, revere the self-help legacy of 

Deacons for Defense and Justice — an organization of black men in Louisiana who used shotguns and rifles to repel attacks by white vigilantes during the 1960s.

Still more questions: Why does Rick, who doesn’t like it when a snobbish program officer at a megabillion-dollar foundation spouts questionable statistics to justify stripping people in poor neighborhoods of a significant role in their common life, turn around in this piece and repeat dubious stats on the dangers of guns in the home, strongly implying that neither school personnel nor ordinary citizens should be allowed to protect themselves, their families, and the children in their charge using guns?

Why is government alone to be trusted with guns, while civic groups like the Deacons for Defense and private individuals are only fit to be passive consumers of government's protective services? (And what happens when the government isn't interested in protecting "your kind"?)

While Rick usually strives to be fair-minded in his journalism, this time he gives no links to the NRA report he’s attacking, but only links to newspapers articles about it. Actually, the report makes a serious, well-footnoted argument, and it was produced by a task force whose members included people with the kind of police and national security credentials that Rick apparently believes provide the only justification for gun use, such as

● Ralph Basham, former director of the U.S. Secret Service, former Commissioner of U.S. Customs  and Border Protection, and former director of the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center

● Col. (ret.) John Quattrone, U.S. Air Force Security Forces Officer, three-time Commander, former Joint Staff Operations Antiterrorism/Homeland Defense Directorate, the Pentagon

Outside officials who worked with the task force included Dr. Rosa Blackwell, former Superintendent of Cincinnati Public Schools, and Augustine Pescatore, President of the National Association of School Security Officers and Commander, Office for School Safety, Philadelphia School District.

Nor is the NRA the only source for this argument. For example, shortly after the appalling massacre at Newtown, Connecticut, the head of the St. Louis County Police Department made the same argument to his local CBS station.

As for the social science stats Rick so confidently relies upon, the claims for increased risk of homicide and suicide are highly debatable, though you wouldn’t know it from his story. See, for instance, this refereed journal article by a leading conservative debunker, John Lott. That scholarly article is a decade old; so here’s a recent journalism piece by the same author that uses the latest stats available from the Centers for Disease Control.

Lest anyone think only conservatives have noticed that taking guns out of homes doesn’t make people safer, please note that Public Health Law Research, “a Robert Wood Johnson Foundation program at Temple University,” flatly declares:

Although [Child Access Prevention] laws may represent a promising intervention for reducing gun-related morbidity and mortality among children ... there is currently insufficient evidence to validate their effectiveness as a public health intervention aimed at reducing gun-related harms.

But Rick, I believe both of us think moral arguments are more important than statistical squabbling. As your fellow populist, I challenge you to walk around dangerous neighborhoods where poor people live and ask law-abiding families whether they think they'll be safer if their guns are taken from them, and whether gun ownership is too grand for the likes of them—a special privilege to be accorded to professionals only.

I trust law-abiding poor people to handle weapons honorably, and I believe that ordinary law-abiding citizens have a right and a duty to participate in the protection of their communities. Why don’t you?

FOOTNOTE: The best moral arguments I’ve ever seen on the duty we all have to defend ourselves, our families, and our communities are in Jeffrey Snyder’s essay “A Nation of Cowards.” The best historical argument that the Second Amendment rests upon this moral understanding was written by a woman and published by Harvard University Press: Joyce Lee Malcolm’s To Keep and Bear Arms: The Origins of an Anglo-American Right

UPDATE: John Lott points out that he wrote an article in March that also asked, "Can poor people be trusted with guns?" In it, he documents many instances where the Left works to make gun ownership as expensive as possible in order to erect barriers to the poor's ability to exercise their constitutional right to defend themselves. For instance,

Just a few weeks ago, the Obama administration made the extremely unusual move of lobbying state House members in Colorado for a bill that would charge people a fee when they purchase a gun. Democrats voted down Republican amendments that would have exempted poor people from paying the fee and capped the fee at a maximum of $25.

So for the Left, it's vote suppression worthy of the KKK to ask poor people to obtain a free photo ID before exercising their right to vote, but if it's their right to defend themselves, then the sky's the limit on fees, waiting periods, mandatory safety courses, etc. 

The Left also likes to complain about "inequality," but Lott easily shows how these kind of anti-poor gun laws generate inequality. Take Chicago, for example:

While gun ownership nationally varies very little with income, there is a huge difference in Chicago: zip codes with a median family income of $120,000 have twice the handgun ownership rate as those with a median family income of $60,000 and those families are in turn twice as likely as those at $30,000.


UPDATE: Rick Cohen responds at Nonprofit Quarterly to the question Scott Walter posed to him here at PhilanthropyDaily: "Why doesn't the Left trust the law-abiding poor to own guns?"

Cohen's response is here.

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