Will More Guns Keep Us Safe? Two Sides of the Gun Debate
January 16, 2016 Susan Miller / USA TODAY & Colion Noir / NRA & Molly Hennessy-Fiske / Los Angeles Times
The bullet-pocked summer and fall of 2015 are gut punchers. President Obama has announced expanded background checks on unlicensed dealers. People might buy a gun for protection, but it more often causes harm. The number of times people with a gun have taken down a mass shooter is "extraordinarily low." Meanwhile, in the world of gun owners, Colion Noir, an articulate African American NRA advocate, has become an Internet sensation and his popularity is growing.
More Guns Are Simply Not the Answer
Susan Miller / USA TODAY
(January 5, 2016) -- "After months of soul-searching, I've decided to buy a handgun." Those were the jaw-dropping words in a Voices column two weeks ago by a respected colleague, USA TODAY reporter Trevor Hughes.
Hughes is quite familiar with mass shootings and the agony that ensues. He has covered sprees in Aurora, Roseburg and Killeen. After the Dec. 2 San Bernardino rampage, Hughes' frustration about a country unable to curtail the mayhem spilled over in another column in which he concluded that Americans must be OK with gun violence.
Now Hughes thinks he has no alternative but to join the pack. It was a wrenching decision he says, but one he felt necessary after the bloodshed of the past year left him with the feeling he needed "to do something different."
To be so exasperated by America's gun violence that to do something different means arming yourself is a scary sentiment. Here's an even scarier sentiment: Something different is also something very dangerous.
The bullet-pocked summer and fall of 2015 are gut punchers. President Obama, who has been visibly dispirited over gun violence, recharged on the issue this week, announcing Tuesday expanded background checks on unlicensed dealers at gun shows and online.
I share Hughes' dismay at this never-ending saga. But to arm yourself thinking that somehow you will have the expertise and coolness under fire to level an assailant in a flash seems delusional. Police say the San Bernardino attackers were able to fire more than 70 rounds in a matter of minutes before fleeing.
How many people -- whether a student, a churchgoer, even a marksman -- would have the wherewithal to process what was happening and make a split-second decision to whip out their gun and save the day?
I shudder to think about the outcome of misreading a situation and firing away.
"People overestimate their rationality and self-control," says Adam Lankford, author of a groundbreaking study that makes clear the link between gun ownership rates and mass shootings.
People might buy a gun for protection, but it more often causes harm in other situations, says Lankford, a criminal justice professor at the University of Alabama who analyzed mass shootings in 171 countries from 1966 to 2012. His study was presented at an American Sociological Association meeting in August, just days before two journalists were gunned down on live TV in Virginia.
Lankford says the number of times people with a gun take down a mass shooter is "extraordinarily low."
The numbers in his study speak clearly: Despite having just 5% of the world's population, the US -- with 200 million more guns than any other country -- accounted for a third of public mass shootings. The US, Yemen, Switzerland, Finland and Serbia ranked as the top five countries in firearms per capita -- and all ranked in the top 15 countries in public mass shooters per capita.
"Access to firearms is one of the most critical factors for making public mass shootings possible," Lankford says
Australia instituted stricter gun laws in 1996, including a major buyback that reduced firearms in the country by 20%, and since then the nation has had no mass shootings, Lankford notes. "No country in the world seems to have figured out a way to have a large number of firearms and not have public mass shootings happen," he says.
Nancy Lanza, the mother of Sandy Hook shooter Adam Lanza, was an enthusiastic gun owner who took her unbalanced son to shooting ranges. Did the fact that Nancy Lanza had an arsenal in her house save her from her gun-wielding son? No. Perhaps if she didn't have that arsenal, and she hadn't taken him to shooting ranges, the result would have been very much different.
Lankford acknowledges an uptick in gun sales by fed-up and frightened Americans like my colleague after a mass shooting. "But when the public responds to a tragedy by buying more firearms, they are digging a deeper hole," he says.
I agree with Trevor that something different must be done. But the answer must be fewer guns, not more -- and certainly not more in the hands of jittery, everyday citizens.
Freedom's Safest Place
Colion Noir / National Rifle Association (November 19, 2015) NRA's Black Commentator Becomes Web Sensation Colion Noir may not fit the NRA stereotype, but he does click with fellow members and is 'certainly causing some controversies' Molly Hennessy-Fiske / Los Angeles Times
HOUSTON, Texas (July 23, 2013) -- Colion Noir belongs to the NRA and owns several guns, including a sleek Glock 17 handgun and a customized AR-15 rifle. But as Noir frequently points out, he does not fit the stereotype of NRA members, or what he calls OFWG: "Old, fat white guys."
At 29, he's not old. Nor is he fat -- he's slender and stylishly dressed with sneakers made by Prada. He's also not white.
In the world of gun owners, Noir, an African American, has become an Internet sensation and his popularity is growing. At this year's National Rifle Assn. convention here, he was surrounded by fans when he arrived to film a Sportsman Channel segment on the NRA News stage.
"You are certainly causing some controversies," said Cam Edwards, host of the radio talk show NRA News Cam & Co.
Black People Shouldn't Own Guns
Noir has attracted followers with funny, edgy pro-gun videos -- titles include "Gun Control & Bathrooms" and "You Know You're a Gun Control Hypocrite if ..." He has emerged as a dynamic and unexpected NRA persona.
Gun control advocates dismiss him as an NRA pawn, and some blacks accuse him of being an Uncle Tom. But to many at the convention, Noir demonstrated a historic diversity among gun owners that defies stereotypes.
After Noir left the talk-show stage, fans approached to shake hands and pose for photographs. Most were white. A handful of them, like Quentin Smith, were black.
"Congratulations," said Smith, 44, a gun owner from Cypress, Texas. "There's a few of us out there."
The NRA does not release membership demographics, but according to a Pew Research Center survey, many gun owners in America are white -- 31% of whites polled this year said they owned guns, compared with 15% of blacks and 11% of Latinos.
You Know You're a GUN CONTROL HYPOCRITE IF. . . .
"This is one tie that binds all of us together," said NRA spokesman Andrew Arulanandam, describing the group as "the oldest civil rights organization in America."
Arulanandam noted that the NRA also recently signed on a woman and a young veteran as commentators who speak to other growing demographics within the ranks of gun owners. He said the NRA did not choose Noir because of his race.
"When he speaks, he's able to relate to a variety of people. That's why he has a broad following," Arulanandam said.
Noir was born Collins -- "Mr. Colion Noir" is a stage name -- son of an executive chef and a registered nurse. He graduated from high school in Houston, went to the University of Houston, where he majored in political science, and earned a law degree from Texas Southern University's Thurgood Marshall School of Law.
Noir is a practicing attorney. He reads fashion blogs, loves gadgets and drives a sports car and a truck -- neither with a gun rack, although he keeps a metal candy dish full of bullets in his living room.
Noir said he grew up hesitant to admit he liked firearms because it wasn't something people talked about in his middle-class neighborhood. He fired his first gun, a little Taurus .40, about seven years ago at the urging of a friend who took him to a shooting range.
"I remember how exhilarating it was," Noir said, comparing the experience to sky-diving.
Soon afterward, he was going to the range weekly and researching guns. He later joined the NRA and bought about a half dozen guns. Noir, who once worked at A/X Armani Exchange and favors tailored suits, worries that a concealed handgun might "print," or show through the fabric.
"Secret Service have the worst cut suits -- big and bulky," so their guns won't show, Noir said.
A few years ago he began posting YouTube videos of himself critiquing guns and accessories. Then he started tackling politics and pop culture, addressing mass shootings, assault weapon bans and gun control campaigns by New York Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg and the rapper formerly known as Snoop Dogg.
Noir said he recently started preparing a video about "stand your ground" laws after a jury acquitted George Zimmerman in the fatal shooting of Trayvon Martin in Florida.
"I decided to table it because there's too much complexity," Noir said.
Noir sprinkles his videos with gun slang and offbeat humor, sometimes delivered with a smirk, sometimes deadpan. Some videos have been viewed more than 800,000 times.
.45 acp Guns and The People Who Carry Them
In one, Noir sits on a plush couch in his loft next to his assault rifle, wearing his black Yankees cap and a modern plaid shirt, tossing off references to Justin Bieber and "Entourage" while mocking the owners of .45 handguns as "the Scientologists of the gun world" because they've attributed mythical powers to the .45 bullet -- think "Zeus' thunderbolt or Thor's hammer."
The camera cuts again and again to Noir wearing different baseball caps as he plays other characters.
Why carry a .45? The characters explain. "Because a 9 millimeter only kills your body, but the .45 -- that kills your soul," one says, staring dully at the camera.
"Maybe because I'm too lazy to shoot twice," another says.
"The only ones I know can survive a .45 is Wolverine and Superman," says yet another.
. . . .
Noir was launching his online brand last spring when the NRA approached him. Officially, he's a paid commentator, not a spokesman, though the videos are branded NRA. He and the group declined to say how much he's paid.
Once a deal had been struck, the NRA released an ad in March promoting his first video praising the gun rights group for championing the right of blacks to bear arms during Jim Crow and the civil rights movement of the 1960s.
"The same government who at one point hosed us down with water, attacked us with dogs and wouldn't allow us to eat at their restaurants told us we couldn't own guns when bumbling fools with sheets on their heads were riding around burning crosses on our lawns and murdering us," Noir says in the video as "Washington elitism" flashes across the screen.
It was not a misreading of history, according to UCLA law professor Adam Winkler, author of Gunfight: The Battle Over the Right to Bear Arms in America.
Winkler said that the armed Black Panthers of the 1960s, despite criticism by then-Republican California Gov. Ronald Reagan and many conservatives, paved the way for the NRA's current interpretation of the 2nd Amendment: that citizens should be able to carry guns in public, not just for hunting, but for protection, including protection against government tyranny.
Now some in the black community have denounced Noir for what they say is selling out to the white pro-gun establishment, with critiques posted on theroot.com and the Black Entertainment Television website.
"He's taking more heat from black people than anybody. The racism that exists now is mostly on our side," said the Rev. Kenn Blanchard, 50, a gun rights activist who is black. He said he advised Noir to accept the NRA deal.
Noir said he expected attacks, but he gets frustrated when critics highlight his race.
"Calling me an Uncle Tom simply because I'm into firearms, it doesn't even make sense. My entire identity as a black guy is based on my ownership of guns? Really?" he said. "Some of the most influential black individuals have advocated for the use of firearms, so how come when I do it, I'm vilified? Take a look at the Black Panthers, MLK, Malcolm X."
The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. supported gun rights? Noir noted that after King's home in Montgomery, Ala., was firebombed, King applied for a handgun permit.
When it comes to outreach to potential black gun owners, Noir will find that the demographics are stacked against him, Winkler said. Figures show blacks and Latinos are more likely to be Democrats who support gun control, especially young minorities in urban areas who associate guns with gangs and neighborhood violence, he said.
Perhaps Noir's rise says more about the NRA's acceptance of minorities than the group's ability to woo them.
At the NRA convention, as Noir left the talk-show stage, Chris Blow of Magnolia, Texas, stopped him. Blow, 59, is a longtime NRA member and had watched Noir's videos. Where, he wondered, did Noir like to shoot? Noir reeled off a few locations in the Houston area. Blow, who is white, smiled knowingly and shook Noir's hand.
"You seem like someone I'd like to go shoot with," he said.
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