As theater, it was an incredible gesture. As politics, it was a catastrophe. The sight of heavily armed black men brandishing rifles galvanized support for Mulford’s bill, which promptly passed and was signed into law by Governor Ronald Reagan. It set off a spree of gun-control laws that only began to be rolled back years later—leading to the current regime of permissive laws.
“The gun-control laws of the late 1960s, designed to restrict the use of guns by urban black leftist radicals, fueled the rise of the present-day gun-rights movement—one that, in an ironic reversal, is predominantly white, rural, and politically conservative,” Winkler wrote.
Signs of that shift are visible around the nation now. In Texas, gun owners (largely white) staged an open-carry rally on the capitol grounds in Austin in January, an echo of the Panthers’ rally in Sacramento. (Even some gun advocates looked askance at that move.) Meanwhile, the Panthers’ tactic of carrying guns and watching the police has an echo in the rapidly spreading practice of filming encounters with the police, just as happened in the Sterling and Castile shootings. Black Americans may not enjoy the full protection of the Second Amendment, but technology has offered a sort of alternative—one that may be less effective in preventing brutality in the moment, but has produced an outpouring of outrage.
One common thread through all of these cases is the constant threat of state violence against black Americans: from un-Reconstructed Southern officials; from California police; and today, from police around the country.
Gun advocates frequently argue that more guns, and more people carrying guns, produce a safer society. This, and the contrary claim that they undermine public safety, depend on statistics. But anecdotally, both Castile and Sterling represent cases in which carrying a gun not only failed to make the men safer, but in fact contributed to their deaths. The NRA has not made a public statement on either case, and a spokesman did not immediately reply to a request for comment.
In any case, the American approach to guns is, for the moment, stable. The courts, and particularly the Supreme Court, have inched toward much broader gun rights, including a suggestion of a personal right to bear arms. The death of Justice Antonin Scalia may, in the long term, produce a more liberal court, but that will require reversing years of precedents. In the meantime, spates of mass shootings and a slightly increase in violent crime have produced highly vocal calls for gun control, but there’s little reason to expect those efforts to succeed. To date, they have almost universally failed. In fact, the last few years have brought ever looser gun laws. Quick changes in gun laws, regardless of whether they’re desirable, are a remote possibility. As a result, the most relevant question right now is not whether gun laws should change, but whether existing gun laws apply equally to all Americans—and if not, why they don’t.