By Dave Oedel
On Tuesday, January 5, 2016, after President Obama announced plans for executive actions to increase background checks on official gun purchasers, the firearms license office at Bibb County’s courthouse was especially busy with new applications for Georgia weapons-carry licenses. I visited the courthouse that afternoon toward closing time, and spoke with some of the applicants, as well as officials who were efficiently processing applications.
In contrast to Bibb’s majority-black population, the applicants in that obviously-unscientific sampling, about a dozen in all, were disproportionately white, and also unevenly divided by age and gender. Almost all the applicants appeared to be older than the U.S. median age of 37, and every applicant was male.
In terms of age, the solitary outlier was a young African-American man who appeared to be in his early twenties. Asked why he was getting a weapons license, the young man said he wanted no question about his right to defend himself – a basic legal concern as old as the Justinian Codex.
That young Macon man has ample reason to worry about his personal safety. Deputies in Bibb County have been unable to protect our young black men from gun homicides, with 28 Bibb homicides occurring in 2015, the vast majority of them the result of black-on-black gun crimes targeting young black men, all apparently committed by shooters without licenses to carry. President Obama’s proposed improvements to background checks would have had little effect on the murder rate in Macon in 2015 because the murderers here are typically packing unlawfully, and using guns obtained off the radar.
So who were the 2015 Macon-Bibb decedents by homicide? Here’s the grim list: Ulysses Pitts, Kemani Ridgeway, Sylvester Harden, Jr., Thomas Knighton, Carly Rigby, Andrew Brown, Tavaris Veal, Marquis Reginal Lowe, Alexander Carr, Victor Carroll, La’Smockie Fountain, Jerald Corbin, Andrew Sims, Kendra Jackson, William Ford, Javoris Butler, Brandon Harris, Aquallo Davis, Jr., Ricky Smith, Crystal Walker, Sammie Williams, Vernard Mays, Migell Diadell, Ta’Shuntis “Tootie” Roberts, Jarvis West, Robert Paulson, Deleon Wiley Hudson and Katelyn Foster.
All but two or three of them were black, depending on classification ambiguity. Twenty-four of twenty-eight were male. The decedents died, on average, in their twenties. Twenty-five of the twenty-eight died by gunfire.
Macon-Bibb homicides in 2015 were substantially higher than before, up from 16 in 2014, 18 in 2013, 21 in 2012, 13 in 2011, and 22 in 2010. Over the longer period from 2001 through 2014, the average annual rate of homicide locally was slightly under 17. Not one of those 14 years saw more homicides than 22. Macon’s homicides in 2015, 28 in total, were 53 percent higher than the average over the prior 14 years, and 27 percent higher than that prior highest year of 2010. Macon’s proportionate increase was comparable to the highest spikes anywhere, including Milwaukee, St. Louis, Baltimore, Washington, New Orleans and Chicago. Ironically, early indications are that the national homicide rate (including far safer areas outside the urban hot spots) may have declined yet again in 2015, at the same time that gun ownership was leaping to unprecedented levels nationwide.
No wonder that the young man in Bibb’s courthouse late in the afternoon of January 5, 2016, in the heart of a spiking urban homicide area, was seeking a weapons license. Despite the oversight of a black U.S. president for the past seven years, that young Macon African-American’s risk of death by gun homicide has markedly increased. Presumably uneasy about being a target himself, he’s not unwarranted in seeking some steely protection.
But blacks applying for weapons licenses are atypical. Legal gun ownership rates are substantially lower among blacks in the U.S. than among whites. While 41 percent of whites live in homes with a firearm present, only 19 percent of African Americans live in homes with a firearm present, according to a 2014 study by the Pew Trust. The true statistical disparity could be somewhat less pronounced because people in households in which family members are unlawfully packing aren’t necessarily admitting it to a pollster. Still, a significant disparity in household gun protection by race of homeowner exists from what seems true on the ground in Macon, largely in line with the Pew study. In any event, who wouldn’t instinctively prefer lawful, licensed gun owners over unlicensed holders of illegally obtained and concealed heat?
All gun homicides are tragic, and the deeper causes of homicide in places like Macon need attention. Addressing family structure, poverty, jobs and educational rescue, though, remain uncertain and long-range projects.
In the meantime, increasing lawful gun ownership among law-abiding African-American citizens — in effect, building an extensive bulwark of responsible neighborhood defenders (and not selectively enabling loner crazies like George Zimmerman, the mentally unstable killer of Trayvon Martin) — is a goal worth pursuing. Arming responsible black homeowners en masse would be useful not just for individual household protection, but also as a general deterrent against lawless would-be shooters. We need more than talk about black power — and that power needs to be licensed.
Instead, now, a small but frightening minority of murderous, strutting yahoos in Macon’s black neighborhoods, many of them with extensive criminal records and all of them having something eerily in common with George Zimmerman, can count on most of their immediate neighbors being scared, unarmed and effectively defenseless. Officials like President Obama and Bibb Sheriff David Davis make nice noises, but they’re demonstrably unsuccessful at shielding “folks” (as the president likes to call some people) from the growing onslaught of gunfire homicide in Macon’s predominantly African-American areas.
True, stripping guns from lawless would-be shooters in Macon should be one part of a measured response to the spiking gun homicide rate in Macon. As the president wrote on January 7, 2016 in the New York Times, we should work to “keep guns out of the hands of criminals and dangerous people.” Were Macon’s twenty-five gunshot murder victims in 2015 still alive, each one would likely have agreed with that statement. Instead of more red tape on already-lengthy background checks, though, it would have been better last year in Macon had our officers been doing the hard work of bravely confiscating concealed guns in the hood from unlicensed gun concealers not supposed to be packing, as I have repeatedly suggested. We might then have spared some people in Macon from the ultimate form of victimhood during 2015, instead of setting a homicide record.
The other critical feature of an effective antidote, though, to repeat, should be to get guns into the hands of mature, responsible, law-abiding African-American citizens. And guess who apparently agrees, at least in theory? President Obama also wrote last Friday in the Times that “all of us have a role to play – even gun owners. . . . All of us need to stand up and protect our fellow citizens.”
I doubt that President Obama specifically had in mind arming up law-abiding African Americans in hot spots like Macon, Georgia, but it’s the right idea.
In contrast to Macon, consider another smaller Georgia city, Kennesaw, which in 1982 notoriously enacted an ordinance mandating lawful public gun ownership by every eligible citizen. For the next 25 years, not a single murder occurred in that community.
And consider the more recent experience of “Murder City,” Detroit, where James Craig, the African-American police chief, called late in 2013 for arming up the law-abiding populace. Many mamas are now packing there, homicide has been down for the past two years, and the nation’s former murder capital has now surrendered its dubious title to St. Louis.
Two late-2014 St. Louis murder victims were of sons of Valerie Dent. Those hapless, unarmed African-American brothers, Steven and James, were shot dead while coming home from their overnight shift at a talcum factory. Ms. Dent was recently quoted in the New York Times as saying, “We get all in an uproar when the police kill someone. If we had that get-up-and-go on the black-on-black crimes, maybe we could stop some of this.”
At the staged CNN “town hall” gun-control media event in a leafy D.C. suburb on January 7, 2016, President Obama didn’t hear from unvarnished citizens in homicide havens like Macon and St. Louis. If he had spoken with Valerie Dent, or that young Macon man in line to get his gun license two days before the CNN show, the president might have learned that those in high-risk black urban neighborhoods could use some beefed-up black power of the licensed kind.
So, Mr. President, if you’re really listening outside CNN’s Anderson Cooper circle, please take note. Our front-line defenders against gun violence should be those people who know the local threats best, and are armed themselves.
If we do arm up our good black majority, tensions will rarely come down to a firefight. Quite the opposite. A credible threat of defensive arms held firmly and extensively by fair, thoughtful, restrained and responsible local working people will probably help Macon’s black neighborhoods approach the same safety profiles of white and mixed-race neighborhoods here, where rates of lawful gun ownership are far higher and gun homicide rates were zero in 2015.
Faced with well-regulated defensive firepower, self-styled would-be “gangstas” in Macon’s black neighborhoods will think twice before stepping into the widening mire of murder and evil that is sending so many young blacks in Macon to their deaths, or as for lawless shooters, to prison.
President Obama is right. Let’s stand against murderous gun-slingers. And in making that stand, let’s foster much higher rates of lawful gun ownership among responsible local people of color.
Dave Oedel is a professor at Mercer University Law School.