My husband likes guns – a lot. He collects a variety of pistols, rifles and shotguns and likes to shoot targets at the range and, occasionally, skeet.
When a clever squirrel figures out how to raid his fenced-in garden, he has been known to pick up the air rifle to scare it off. He once bought a pistol for me to carry in my car when I would return home very late from my copy editing job in Tucson, Ariz., where getting a gun was as easy as going to a shop and telling the clerk you weren’t a dangerous criminal. But once we moved back East, I was fine with keeping my distance.
Though guns are not an interest I share, his hobby never did more than amuse me—because you know how it is with married couples: compromise. He doesn’t join me on every theater outing, either. But the first time he took our young son to the range to enjoy the gun experience, I stopped smiling.
After the events of the past few weeks, of course, anyone with an ounce of awareness knows why.
While I would never fear that a police officer would mistake my prematurely white-haired, middle-aged husband of Norwegian-English-Irish descent for some kind of miscreant plotting trouble, I would worry that our tall, handsome, curly-haired black son would not get such a pass. As someone once said of him, a casual observer might not instantly know he is black but would be just as sure he’s not white.
While the investigation into the shootings by police officers of Philando Castile and Alton Sterling continue and not everything is known, both men, as well as the unfortunate Texas man identified as a suspect in the murder of Dallas officers because he was packing, were existing in open-carry states. Diamond Reynolds, Castile’s girlfriend, has said she shouted that he had a permit for the gun he warned the police he had in the car. It didn’t matter.
Even with Second Amendment protection, just imagine the reaction if Cliven Bundy and his cohorts, holed up in Nevada, were black. The politicians who flocked to support him? Well, remember how the Black Panthers taking advantage of California law put such a scare into then Gov. Ronald Reagan, he passed gun control legislation with the backing of the NRA?
Different rules for different people.
Now, my husband is not one of those “our son is not black or white but a child of the world" types, not at all. When I was pregnant, we talked about how in the United States of America, our son would be black, a proud member of a race that has survived and thrived despite crushing discrimination. And when he was 10 or so – we knew that was young but we also knew the studies that said whites believe African American boys as older and less innocent.
We told him that if he were running down the street with his United Nations group of friends and there was trouble, he might be the one the police would retain or worse. So stop running.
Yes, we said, police officers ideally are your friends, but if you are ever picked up or stopped, comply – then call us or a lawyer.
He, of course, had the occasion to use the advice when he was stopped for what an officer said was cruising through a “STOP” sign, an infraction he denied. He was questioned about what he was doing driving a nice care around HIS neighborhood. He took the ticket and fought it in court despite the fact that it cost more to hire a lawyer than pay the fine. It was the principle of the thing. He won and we were proud.
While my husband may never know what it is to be black in the United States, issues of bias and inequality affect people who are a part of him, particularly a young man who shares his DNA. When a young black man is killed in uncertain circumstances in an encounter with law enforcement, my husband can do more than sympathize; he can say, “That could be my son.”
These days my husband doesn’t go shooting as much as he used to, though the squirrels still need to watch out. The range he belonged to requires membership in the NRA, and when the organization focused on politics rather than safety issues and the like, he decided to let his membership lapse.
And now, he’s also happy that years ago, his son followed his mother's lead and decided guns were not his thing.
Mary C. Curtis is a columnist at Roll Call. She has worked at The New York Times, The Baltimore Sun and The Charlotte Observer.