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Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Zimmerman, Race and Gun Control

A recent poll shows that most whites approve of the Zimmerman verdict, while more than three-quarters  of African Americans believe it was unjust.  Another recent Washington Post poll shows that, several months after the Newtown, Connecticut mass shooting, more whites oppose new gun control measures than support them, while over three-quarters of African Americans want more gun control.   Attitudes toward gun control are relevant because outrage about the verdict seems to rest in part on the fact that Zimmerman shot Trayvon Martin with a gun.  Had Martin been killed by a punch or by hitting his head on a rock after a shove, I suspect that the reaction might have been different.  If this is right, then it will be difficult to bridge the gap because the different experiences with firearms between the African American and white communities predictably generate different perspectives.

According to the Washington Post poll, whites are just over 50% as likely as African Americans to be shot to death--90 per million per year, versus 178 per million for African Americans.  But the circumstances are very different; most white firearm fatalities are suicides--75 out of 90, while a supermajority of African Americans who are killed by firearms die from homicide, 151 out of 178.  African Americans are ten times more likely to die from homicide than are whites.   These differences  suggest a reason behind racially divergent attitudes toward guns.   Prevention of suicide may be a less compelling ratonale for gun regulation than is the prevention of homicide, but more fundamentally, to prevent suicide through gun control would require a prohibition of private ownership even in the home, even of even rifles and shotguns, something never adopted in even in the most pro-gun control jurisdictions.

There are also very different racial experiences of the use of firearms for sport and recreation.  Non-whites hunt and shoot for fun at a far lower rate than their representation in the U.S. population--a 2006 Fish and Wildlife Service study reported that African Americans were 11% of the U.S. population, but less than 1.5% of hunters.  Whites, then, are much more likely to use firearms for recreational purposes and much less likely to be the victim of homicide; it is not surprising that more of them think of guns as basically good or neutral.  The African American community has a more consistent experience of weapons as being principally used to harm human beings; no wonder, then, that more of them think the fewer firearms in private hands the better. 

Posted by Jack Chin on August 14, 2013 at 04:24 AM | Permalink


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We have tried almost unlimited guns in the United States and now it is time for gun control.


Posted by: Ethan Vanderbuilt | Aug 24, 2013 2:36:28 PM


On the one hand, you may be right. On the other hand, I don't think your examples prove it. Rodney King, of course, involved guns; the police were armed and that made a big difference. OJ involved the different question of when African Americans approve of a verdict which whites do not. It is not as though, for example, OJ claimed to have killed people who were stalking him.

I think the most analogous trials are those of police shooting unarmed young African American men (and perhaps Bernard Goetz), and I think attitudes toward guns are completely relevant. Shooting sports are a venue where some whites interact on cordial terms with law enforcement, and where their sense of being part of the group protected by the police is confirmed.

I quite agree with Larry that race is a proxy for experience (yet race makes it more likely that that experience will continue).


Posted by: Jack Chin | Aug 14, 2013 6:54:52 PM

I don't doubt that there are racial differences in views on gun control. What I doubt is that differing views on gun control explain differing views on the Zimmerman verdict.

Posted by: AF | Aug 14, 2013 12:40:21 PM

As Professor Chin's post indicates, there is some powerful statistical evidence suggesting a racial skew, although, in my view, race is really a rough proxy for a somewhat different phenomenon involving the geographic distribution of firearms-related crime. There can be no question that the costs and benefits of the liberal availability of firearms are not randomly distributed. In low-crime, predominantly suburban and rural areas, the benefits of the liberal availability of firearms in terms of self-defense, sport, etc. likely exceed their costs by a good deal. But in high-crime urban areas, especially in areas of concentrated economic disadvantage, firearm-related crime rates are far higher, and the cost-benefit calculus likely looks different. In these areas, more guns do not mean less crime -- criminal street gang members, for example, carry guns at vastly elevated rates, and also are victims of firearms crime at vastly elevated rates. African Americans, of course, disproportionately reside in high-crime areas, and we should not be surprised that the residents of these communities may see the tradeoffs differently than those who reside elsewhere.

Larry Rosenthal

Posted by: Larry Rosenthal | Aug 14, 2013 11:24:38 AM

If I follow your post, Professor Chin, you're suggesting that the racial gap in reactions to the Zimmerman verdict is attributable to the fact that a gun was the murder weapon. If so, what explains the different reactions to the OJ Simpson and Rodney King verdicts, neither of which involved guns, and which seem to be among the most analogous trials in recent memory, at least with respect to racial polarization? It strikes me as rather clear that the different reactions are attributable to the races of the parties and the circumstances of the killing, and not to the fact that a gun was used per se.

Posted by: AF | Aug 14, 2013 10:48:25 AM

And most white killings are done by other white people. I'm not sure this reflects a "culture problem" so much as the continued de facto segregation in many communities, as well as the general racial homogeneity of peer groups.

Posted by: Tyler M. | Aug 14, 2013 10:45:23 AM

There is an important interaction between Florida's "Stand Your Ground" law and its guns laws. Florida liberally issues permits to carry concealed firearms without requiring effective training or supervision. Its stalking statute evidently permits these armed individuals to undertake the kind of surveillance apparently performed by Zimmerman, and Florida law imposes no duty to retreat if that surveillance produces a confrontation. Permitting armed individuals to go about in this fashion is, in my judgment, all too likely to produce violent confrontations that may escalate in unpredictable ways.

Larry Rosenthal

Posted by: Larry Rosenthal | Aug 14, 2013 10:41:21 AM

And most black killings are done by other black people. Sounds like a culture problem, not a gun problem.

Posted by: BobG | Aug 14, 2013 10:06:44 AM

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