I proposed a social experiment to friends a few months ago. Let’s take two groups of guys with guns through a nondescript walk somewhere public. No flashy firearms – leave the ready-slung AR-15 at home – just men at the mall, or on the subway, legally carrying Glocks on their hip, or perhaps shotguns on their backs, as a test of the reaction of local law enforcement and the public.
Now, let’s make the first group white guys and the second black guys. Dress one group in business casual, the second in Five Points formal. A week later, switch clothes and go again.
Yes, I was serious.
In late April, an editor at The Guardian approached me to write a piece after Gov. Nathan Deal signed the Safe Carry Protection Act, dubbed the “Guns Everywhere Bill” by critics. That’s a big-deal paper and a huge byline. It’s also a mortgage payment. We talked.
Rather than make some grand statement about the evils of gun culture, or the merits of the law in its stated intent, I wanted to raise the question about differential application of the law. Perhaps cops wouldn’t automatically find a reason to surround a group of armed black men with a SWAT team. Would five guys who look like Lil’ Jon and his crew walking down Peachtree be more likely to inspire “probable cause” and an “articulatible suspicion” in the local police than five guys who look like Tarentino and the Reservoir Dogs?
I didn’t want to guess. I wanted to test.
Bobby Seale sat with me about 15 years ago in a campus radio station in Amherst, Mass., describing the early days of the Black Panthers in the ’60s. He and Huey Newton would walk down the streets of Oakland with a loaded shotgun in one hand and the ordinances for open carry in the other, testing cops’ knowledge of the law. Sadly, that’s not all they did, of course. Several shootouts later, the group effectively disbanded.
But compare that response to Cliven Bundy’s interaction with police, still top of mind in late April, and you can see why one might be after empirical evidence of a racially disparate reaction to armed citizens.
The new law states that police officers can’t demand the presentation of a weapons permit without reasonable suspicion of criminal intent. But that was also prior law, said Jerry Henry, president of gun rights group GeorgiaCarry.org. “The only reason that was put in there is that there are an awful lot of law enforcement officers who don’t understand the law.”
GeorgiaCarry.org has been testing law enforcement’s reactions for years, notably Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson Airport in areas not covered by security screenings. Even before Guns Everywhere passed, it was legal to carry at the airport … a factor that may contribute to Hartsfield-Jackson leading the nation in the number of guns confiscated during screenings.
Racially-differential enforcement of the law threatens the law. When I talked with Henry in April, he endorsed the experiment in principle.
My friends said I might be putting people in harm’s way. “George, please be careful with this one,” a friend from New Orleans wrote. “It terrifies me to think what Roscoe P Coltrane thinks of any person of color with any weapon.”
Another told me that academics have review boards for experiments involving human subjects. “That’s why I’m not an academic,” I replied.
I had volunteers. We were getting ready.
And then, six days after Deal signed the bill – and a couple of days after my talk with The Guardian and GeorgiaCarry.org – Geddy Kramer walked into the FedEx package sorting center in Kennesaw with a shotgun in hand. Kramer, 19, shot an unarmed security guard and then five other co-workers before killing himself.
A compliance test then would have been both tasteless and likely to run into an elevated immune response by police, or so I thought. We waited.
On July 17, New York police killed an unarmed Eric Garner using an illegal choke-hold after he failed to obey a police command. On August 5, police killed 22-year-old John Crawford in an Ohio Walmart aisle after the African-American inspired enough terror in someone with the toy gun he plucked from a shelf to rationalize a SWAT team response. Ohio, I might note, is an open-carry state. Even if it were real, he wouldn’t have been breaking a law simply by holding it.
Michael Brown’s death in Ferguson, Mo., rather puts it over the top.
Articulable suspicion rests to some degree on the subjective perceptions of a police officer. So does the term “reasonable fear,” the get-out-of-jail card for police involved in a questionable shooting. I’m no longer sure I can take a chance that a police officer’s improper “suspicion” would not turn into unjustified fear if facing black guys with guns on their hips.
Black people legally carrying guns in a group may simply be too dangerous to do without warning every cop within 100 miles that you’re planning to do it. But that rather defeats the purpose of examining how police might treat black gun owners differently from white gun owners. This constitutional right appear too dangerous to test.