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Do Racist Gun Control Policies Threaten Criminal Justice Reform?

Posted by William Kirk, Partner | Mar 16, 2020 | 0 Comments

Do Racist Gun Control Penalties Threaten Criminal Justice Reform?

Originally posted by Raheem Williams

Decades of criminal justice advocacy are finally starting to manifest into meaningful reform. Federal and state lawmakers have been taking small steps to reduce recidivism rates, scale back the war on drugs and break the school-to-prison pipeline. The fight against mass incarceration has evolved into a bipartisan effort, penetrating deep into red and blue states alike. Although the process of reform is far from over, these efforts are starting to pay off.

According to Pew Research, the incarceration rate is near a 20-year low. This progress is welcomed news for our minority communities that continue to suffer from gross disenfranchisement. Our system of mass incarceration is widely believed to be racist. However, many groups seeking to reign in the horrors of mass incarceration may be ignoring a movement that threatens to undermine the success of criminal justice reforms — gun control.

Gun control and mass incarceration share eerily similar origins. Gun control was birthed from racism. In the South, former slaves were forbidden from owning guns and laws were written to protect klansmen and prevent black people from taking up arms to defend themselves from the terror of white supremacists. Likewise, the movement regained momentum after the black panthers brazenly employed open carry in public protests and civic patrols.

Mass incarceration is believed by many to be an overt attempt to institute a New Jim Crow. Criminal justice reform advocates have rightfully identified sentencing disparities, laws that intentionally target communities of color, in addition to the over-representation of minority groups in our prison system. These arguments have proven to be so powerful that even conservative state legislatures have begun to answer the calls for change.

There's little reason to believe modern proponents of gun control are purposely targeting minority communities. The current push for gun control is a reaction to public safety concerns. However, strict gun control isn't likely to be race-neutral. FBI statistics show that African-Americans represent 43 percent of weapon possession charges despite being only 13 percent of the U.S population. This disparity doesn't consider gender differences in arrest and firearm ownership.  Unfortunately, strict guns laws are likely to put more poor black men behind bars.

Gun control advocates are quick to note the impact of gun violence in urban communities. However, these well-meaning activists may be ignoring the potential downside of strict gun control legislation. Poor people of color are likely to see disproportionate enforcement of gun laws as is commonly the case in criminal law. Likewise, the heavy enforcement of new gun control laws risks further inflaming tensions between our minority communities and law enforcement. We all want a safe and prosperous society, but the call for public safety shouldn't come at the expense of freedom. Gun control proponents should be mindful of the potentially disproportionate impact of any firearms crackdown.

About the Author

William Kirk, Partner

Bill Kirk has been named a Super Lawyer by Washington Law and Politics Magazine every year since 2003. He currently serves on the Board of Regents to the National College for DUI Defense and is the President of the Washington Foundation for Criminal Justice. Bill is one of only two attorneys in this state to pass the National College's Board Certification Exam.

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