White people in America will fight for your right to bear arms - so long as you don't look like Philando Castile

The police officer who shot Philando Castile says he reacted to 'the gun, not the colour of his skin'

Hannah Smith
Monday 11 July 2016 12:07
<em>Philando Castile/Facebook</em>
Philando Castile/Facebook

By now we are all familiar with the passion and vigour with which the majority of Americans defend their right to bear arms. It is difficult, of course, to understand this attachment to the constitution when you’re outside America and, in truth, it doesn’t matter if we understand or not. Despite 13,286 Americans being killed by guns in 2015 and 26,819 injured, it doesn’t look like they’re about to change their opinions any time soon.

But if they’re not about to change their minds, they at least need to clarify the situation. Because right now, it isn’t true that everyone in America has that right – at least not in practice.

Philando Castile was shot during a routine police stop for a broken taillight which didn’t exist. Recent audio recordings suggest that the officers had pulled the car over because they “looked like they had been involved in a robbery.” The emergence of these tapes could actually start to make sense of the picture, as much as racial profiling can ever make sense. But the police department involved has not yet verified the recordings. What we do know is Castile was just a man, in a car, with his girlfriend and baby. A black man whose crime was seemingly being black and carrying a gun he was licensed for and that he mentioned to the police officer voluntarily.

The police officer who featured in the widely shared video of the aftermath of Castile’s shooting has said that he specifically told him not to reach for anything. Castile’s girlfriend, however, claims that the officer asked Castile to get his licence and then told him not to move; as Castile went to put his arms up, she says, he was shot.

And here lies the problem with America’s constitution. Castile is by no means the only man to be killed by US police; in fact official figures show that US police killed more white men than black men last year. However, the figures get more complicated when you dig further. Compared to the overall population, a black man is twice as likely to be killed by the police as a white man.

When you look into the individual circumstances behind the shootings, it gets increasingly difficult to find an example of a white man being shot by police just because they were white and possibly armed, whereas it is strikingly easy to find examples of unarmed black men being shot just because police thought they had a gun (whether or not they actually did).

It seems that carrying a gun makes you dangerous in the eyes of the police if you’re black, yet the right to carry one is enshrined in the constitution. You know, so you can protect yourself from, well, all those scary black men…probably.

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This might sound extreme, but that’s because it is extreme: extreme thinking with extreme consequences. What you will discover if you scroll through the individual cases of police shootings from 2015 is that the majority of police shootings against white or black men are provoked, as you might expect. In many cases, police have been directly shot at or otherwise attacked. Clearly being an officer in a country where everyone can carry a gun is dangerous, and no one would dispute that.

However, I only found examples of white men being shot when there was no direct attack on officers after the police had been called to suicides or called to attend an individual with mental health issues. This is a massive problem in itself, of course – police are clearly authorised to shoot if a person does not drop their weapon when asked, but when you’ve been called to save a person who wants to take their life, surely shooting them when they refuse to drop the weapon they wish to kill themselves with makes the entire sorry saga futile.

But just who are the licensed gun owners of America protecting themselves from when they assert their right to bear arms? Because until they answer that question honestly, the ambiguity endangers the lives of black American men. If the gun lobby really only has a passion for white people to bear arms and to protect themselves against imaginary black attackers, far more innocent men will die merely for legally carrying a gun but being the wrong colour to safely do so.

Despite staggering evidence of white aggression towards police officers, it remains the black man who’s seen as most threatening. If Americans really care about their constitution, they need to help tackle that prejudice or give up their aggressive commitment to guns.

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