When Emantic "EJ" Bradford was mistakenly shot in the face by an Alabama police officer in a mall earlier this month, I was reminded of what a friend told me when I was researching my book, "Let It Bang," about becoming a licensed gun owner. "Your book is always going to be timely because police not going to stop because they're not going to stop shooting black men," he said.
That was years ago.
21-year-old Bradford was a black man just like Philando Castile; Castile was shot down in his car in the summer of 2016 after calmly and correctly notifying officers that he was a gun owner. Meanwhile, this summer, 17-year-old Antwon Rose II and 26-year-old Botham Shem Jean were shot and killed — both unarmed — by people sworn to protect and serve them. I'm also a black man, and all of these deaths terrify me.
I don't carry a handgun because through the process of learning to become proficient with one, I learned just how dangerous being near one has become for a person like me.
I'm lawfully licensed in the state of Oklahoma to carry a concealed handgun. I spent hours and hours at a gun range, becoming so proficient that the National Rifle Association awarded me instructor status. And yet I don't carry a gun in public. I don't even keep a loaded gun in my apartment. If not for the knowledge that the rights provided to me by the Second Amendment were once stripped from men who look like me, I would no longer even own my Glock 17 and Glock 26 weapons. These guns have already served the purpose I bought them for, which was to try to better understand and get to know the kind of people who loved them and used them — people I had little in common with.
But most importantly, I don't carry a handgun because through the process of learning to become proficient with one, I learned just how dangerous being near one has become for a person like me.
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Antwon Rose II wasn't in any position to shoot anyone when he was gunned down by an Allegheny County police officer on June 19, 2018. (When officers searched his dead body, they found an empty clip of a handgun in his pocket.) Bradford, killed on Thanksgiving, 2018, was simply in possession of a visible firearm — which he was legally allowed to own — and he ended up getting shot in the back after a different person fired shots in a mall altercation. Benjamin Crump, the lawyer representing Bradford, told media on Monday that an independent autopsy showed Bradford had been struck three times from behind.
How does it come to that?
The Journal of Personality and Social Psychology published a study in 2014 that showed black boys as young as 10 are more likely to be thought of as older and guiltier of crimes. They are also likelier to be victims of police violence than their white peers. "The evidence shows that perceptions of the essential nature of children can be affected by race, and for black children, this can mean they lose the protection afforded by assumed childhood innocence well before they become adults," study co-author Matthew Jackson told the American Psychological Association. "With the average age estimation for black boys exceeding four-and-a-half years, in some cases, black children may be viewed as adults when they are just 13 years old."
But you don't have the take Jackson's word for it — just look at the death of Tamir Rice. A 911 caller described Rice, just 12 when he was shot and killed by Cleveland police, as "older looking" and acting "gangster" with what turned out to be an airsoft gun.
And a 2017 study published in the same journalshowed black men are viewed as larger and more threatening than white men of the same size. "We found that these estimates were consistently biased," study author John Paul Wilson told the American Psychological Association. "Participants judged the black men to be larger, stronger and more muscular than the white men, even though they were actually the same size," said Wilson. "Participants also believed that the black men were more capable of casing harm in a hypothetical altercation and, troublingly, that police would be more justified in using force to subdue them, even if the men were unarmed."
This is not an uncommon occurrence. In the United States, people yell about how more than 30 people are murdered each day. According to ProPublica, nearly 15 of the 30 people murdered each day with guns are black men. And yet, a 2014 op-ed written by a member of the Wall Street Journal's editorial board said black men dying is mostly the fault of other black men. "The problem is not our gun laws," Jason Riley wrote. "Nor is our drug laws, or racist cops, prosecutors or judges. The problem is black criminality, which is a function of black pathology, which ultimately stems from the breakdown of the black family."
Given this data, and given the very public, very mainstream beliefs held by many Americans — including the esteemed members of the Wall Street Journal editorial board — why would I, a person better with a handgun than most, ever really feel safe in possession of one?
During my 21st-century odyssey through gun-toting America, I've seen parts of my country I had never seen before, and met people I would never have interacted with otherwise. I visited those places and I talked with those people about my fears and the fears of many men and women who look nothing like me. Right now, Americans need badly to be talking about what makes us afraid, since so much of our political and cultural discourse is dominated by fear. This is an important task, and I believe in it.
I know I'm afraid, and I want the world to know me as much as anyone can know a tattooed black man with muscles, locs and affinity for skinny jeans. Because I can't actually wear a sign on my chest that says I'm an Eagle Scout, that I'm a student at Oklahoma State University studying creative nonfiction writing in an effort to earn a PhD in English. That I love Jason Isbell's music, cling to Elmore Leonard's novel, and I'm in pain too, just like so many people in this world.
Because it only took Officer Jeronimo Yanez 62 seconds to decide that Philando Castille was a bad man, a dangerous man, the wrong kind of gun owner.
I believe all lives are important and meaningful, and that if we engage we may be able to make the world a little less scary — a little less deadly. "The impossible is the least one can demand." I didn't write that, James Baldwin did. I just decided he was right.