Picturing Justice, the On-Line Journal of Law and Popular Culture

Taunya Lovell Banks
is Jacob A. France Professor of Equality Jurisprudence, University of Maryland School of Law


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Moore tries to convey the historical connection between whites' fear of non-whites and the protection of gun ownership using an eight minute cartoon. The cartoon starts with the Mayflower, focuses on the colonists' fear of indigenous people, and only links this fear to blacks as we approach the civil rights era.

Feature article

Bowling for Columbine: Race, the NRA And Gun Control

by Taunya Lovell Banks

Who would ever think that there is a connection between the 1999 massacre at Columbine High School and race. Initially, I resisted an underlying premise of Michael Moore's latest documentary film, Bowling for Columbine, that there is a connection between race and the National Rifle Association's (NRA) opposition to gun control. So what if the NRA was founded in 1871 the same year that the Ku Klux Klan was outlawed, mere coincidence. So what if student witnesses at Columbine claimed that the one black victim of the massacre was killed just because he was black, mere speculation. So what if former NRA spokesman Charlton Heston attributes the significantly higher rate of gun violence in the United States than Canada to our greater ethnic diversity, even Moore admits that Canada is pretty diverse too.

Then I remembered that the Virginia Colony in 1639 enacted a law providing that "all persons except negroes to be provided with arms and ammunition or be fined." Thus, one of the earliest laws in English colonial America that distinguishes blacks from non-blacks regulated gun possession. A year later a second law clarified that "all persons" included any "capable" unfree non-negro person (i.e., indentured servant). This mandate to arm grew out of a well-founded fear by colonialists that local hostile indigenous groups would massacre them. Understandably, these Indians were hostile because the colonialists were taking their land

Moore tries to convey the historical connection between whites' fear of non-whites and the protection of gun ownership using an eight minute cartoon. The cartoon starts with the Mayflower, focuses on the colonists' fear of indigenous people, and only links this fear to blacks as we approach the civil rights era. Yet the Virginia colonial law illustrates how these two fears combined from the beginning, suggesting that European settlers feared armed black slaves or servants as much as or more than attacking Indians.

In 1991 Robert Cottrol and Raymond Diamond wrote a provocative article advancing what they claimed to be an "African American perspective" on the Second Amendment's right to bear arms language. They pointed out that most colonies, while not prohibiting free blacks from owning firearms prevented blacks, and often Indians, from serving in the militia. After the Civil War black codes enacted by southern states generally prohibited blacks from owning firearms. During and after slavery blacks needed weapons to protect themselves from white violence. The inability of blacks to protect themselves from white violence, especially post emancipation, Cottrol and Diamond assert, effectively undercut their constitutional and statutory rights.

Once I opened my mind to Moore's premise, I was reminded of more recent attempts to regulate gun possession by blacks. Notable among them was the Chicago Housing Authority's 1988 "Clean Sweep" policy authorizing warrantless sweeps of public housing units and confiscation of unlicensed or unauthorized weapons. The policy was instituted in response to resident complaints about the unsafe living conditions resulting from the widespread violence in the housing projects. Litigation followed and the circumstances for conducting the searches restricted until, in response to death of seven-year-old boy in fall of 1992, the housing authority instituted an even more aggressive sweep program that resulted in further litigation. Although the housing authority's policy was facially neutral, most of the public housing residents affected by this policy were black.

Other cities, plagued by crime and violence, instituted gun amnesty programs encouraging inner city residents, most of whom are black, to turn in all unlicensed guns, sometimes in exchange for money. Yet, no one would suggest after the massacre at Columbine that police officials institute a gun amnesty program or conduct clean sweeps of the houses in Littleton Colorado. In fact, the response of many Americans might be arm yourself to protect your family. Thus, Cottrol and Diamond argue, black Americans who live in an environment where violence is an everyday threat also should have access to weapons. Their conclusion, while understandable, does not make the community any safer. Just as selective access to and restrictions on guns is not the answer to America's gun violence problem, neither is arming everyone.

The consequences of unregulated gun control are displayed in a chilling scene where we see the actual tape of Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, the Columbine shooters, as they rampage through the school cafeteria. I kept wondering whether the students in the cafeteria who survived the massacre will ever fully recover from this trauma. Moore does not address the psychic trauma of people and communities impacted by gun violence. He simply questions American's love of guns.

Throughout the documentary Moore, a life member of the NRA, carefully navigates the line between being anti-gun and anti-gun regulation. His focus is gun violence rather than gun use. Nowhere in the film is this point conveyed so clearly as when he compares gun ownership and gun violence in foreign countries, notably Canada (7 million gun owners and fewer than 100 gun-related deaths), with gun ownership and violence in the United States. Suggesting that there is not necessarily a correlation between gun ownership and gun violence, Moore effectively undercuts the traditional explanation for America's gun violence.

In a funny, eureka-like moment, Moore inserts a clip of comic Chris Rock questioning gun control and asserting that bullets not guns kill people. Rock's solution to America's gun violence -- make the cost of bullets so prohibitive that people will think twice before shooting some one. The audience laughed, but I bet some thought that Rock had a good idea. As a follow-up, Moore accompanies two Columbine survivors to K-mart's headquarter to ask the corporate officers to stop selling bullets in their stores.

Whether you agree or disagree with Michael Moore's point of view, Bowling for Columbine raises provocative questions about the NRA, the prevalence of gun violence in the United States and American's resistance to gun control legislation. Occasionally Moore seems to stray far a field alleging connections between gun violence and the Clinton administration's "workfare" welfare reform policy. There are other flaws as well such as the linking the Columbine massacre to the presence of Lockheed Martin in Littleton. Moore's self indulgence causes the movie to run about 30 minutes longer than necessary. Nevertheless, Bowling for Columbine is a must see film for the questions it raises about America's love of guns and penchant for violence.

Posted November 25, 2002

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