“The gun is the only thing that will free us — gain us our liberation.” Black Panther Party for Self Defense
The Jan. 6 spectacle of insurrectionists overrunning the U.S. Capitol building was the antithesis of a protest five decades ago. On May 2, 1967, 30 members of the Black Panther Party exercised their then-legal right to carry firearms openly as they entered the statehouse in Sacramento, California. They strolled past security, entered the legislative chamber, and silently protested the unchecked police brutality endemic in their Oakland neighborhoods. There were no threats, altercations, or deaths. Still, it was a turning point in the modern gun rights movement.
The media christened it the “Sacramento Invasion,” and that act of “good trouble” engendered swift reaction. The California Assembly passed legislation, supported by the National Rifle Association, to expand gun control within the state and effectively disarm the Black Panthers. Gov. Ronald Reagan signed the Mulford Act into law on July 28, 1967, validating cynics who long proclaimed that the most assured way to enact gun control was to see Black Americans purchase firearms en masse. It was one of the strictest gun control laws of its era.
Long before the Bill of Rights enshrined the right to bear arms into American mythology, anti-Black racism was foundational in American gun policy. Since gun violence and gun policy are interlinked, reducing preventable firearm-related deaths requires addressing racialized gun policy that cemented the marginalization of Black Americans. In antebellum Louisiana, colonists were legally obligated to stop Black people who carried any potential weapon, such as a cane, and “shoot to kill” if necessary. It was the 18th-century version of modern “stand your ground” laws that, according to the RAND Corporation, do little to reduce violent crime, but do increase white on black lethal shootings.
After the Civil War, enthusiasm for open-carry rights waned as states narrowed the definition of who possessed those rights. On Christmas Eve in 1865, the Ku Klux Klan was founded in Pulaski, Tennessee, and a century of racial terror and extrajudicial enforcement of disarming Blacks fell under their purview until the civil rights movement became a watershed moment for Black Americans.
But the struggle never ended. The legacy of Jim Crow, racist policing, and a rigid racial caste system continues today. It is the reason thousands of people can look in the mirror and feel entitled to storm the U.S. Capitol in a frenzied effort to eradicate a perceived threat to their privilege — or hide out and do nothing to stop it.
Gun policy has evolved, but the racially-biased impact has not. As healthcare takes a stand against systemic racism as a public health crisis, we must also stand against gun policies with disparate impact on thousands of Black lives annually. Reducing gun violence is not only a matter of life or death. It is a matter of racial justice.
We need a multilayered approach to reduce gun violence. If we focus only on mental health services for suicides and protective devices for preventable child shootings and extreme risk protective orders for intimate partner violence, then we ignore an important population of gunshot victims — Black Americans who have long been targeted by policies intended to restrict unfettered integration into mainstream American society. And if Black people benefit, so too will many of the 40,000 annual firearm deaths and the loved ones they leave behind.
Gun violence is not the sole purview of trauma surgeons such as myself. Obstetricians treat women who are victims of intimate partner violence. Pediatricians treat children who live in homes with unsecured firearms. Psychiatrists treat patients suffering from mental illness who may try to harm themselves. Emergency medicine, internal medicine, and family practice see it all. Altering disease outcomes requires intervening as far upstream as possible. For gun violence, the intervention must occur long before a patient is bleeding out on the operating room table.
To have the greatest impact on a scale that will help tens of thousands of people per year, we must intervene at the level of public policy. The collective voice of frontline advocates who see the toll of gun violence, support personnel within the hospitals, and administrators making system-wide decisions is how we serve the greater good for public health and safety.
Alicia Garza, one of the co-founders of Black Lives Matter said, “Each generation has a mission that has been handed to it by those who came before. It is up to us to determine whether we will accept that mission and work to accomplish it, or whether we will turn away and fail to achieve it.” For this generation, our mission in healthcare is to eliminate systemic racism in all forms that limit the ability of our patients to achieve the best version of themselves. To look in the mirror, embrace our privilege and power, and put it to use in service of the greater good. To look away is not an option. Now, let’s go make good trouble and achieve it.
Brian Williams, MD, is associate professor of trauma and acute care surgery at the University of Chicago.
Last Updated January 28, 2021