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The racial politics of gun control

When Americans talk about guns, what's arguably most interesting isn't what we say about the devices themselves. It's what we betray about whose voices -- and lives -- matter when it comes to our country's virulent gun culture.

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Analysis by Brandon Tensley
CNN — When Americans talk about guns, what's arguably most interesting isn't what we say about the devices themselves. It's what we betray about whose voices -- and lives -- matter when it comes to our country's virulent gun culture.

Indeed, the heartbreaking permanence of the school shooting reality is undeniable when watching Sandy Hook Promise's wrenching new back-to-school PSA, which forces viewers to come to grips with present-day America for school children.

The heightened concern over mass shootings in schools is something Dave Chappelle satirizes in his controversial new Netflix stand-up special that highlights a harsh truth about America's relationship with gun control.

One of its few moments of insight arrives during the comic's discussion of gun violence. In particular, he subtly gets at a key trend: how much the messaging on gun regulation, on the whole, has changed in recent decades.

"Shooting up schools is a white kid's game. I hated school, too. It never occurred to me -- kill everybody in school? It's f***ing crazy," Chappelle says.

Decades ago, when Congress actually passed an assault weapons ban (that, notably, was allowed to expire in 2004), the broad concern was around guns in the hands of minorities -- black Americans, specifically. Our modern Congress finds itself paralyzed now that we're increasingly facing a different dimension of the issue: white people's guns and the consequences of their contested rights to have them.

Understanding this shift requires looking back at the social and political pieties that helped to spur America's contemporary gun-rights movement. Consider how fear of the Black Panthers motivated conservative politicians -- even the National Rifle Association -- to push for stricter gun control in the 1960s. The Panthers, frustrated by the country's repeated failure to protect its black citizens, advocated for black self-defense via gun ownership and "copwatching."

To no one's surprise, the backlash against this vision of protection was swift. In 1967, in response to the Panthers' activities, then-Gov. Ronald Reagan signed the Mulford Act, named after Republican Assemblyman Don Mulford and which repealed a California law that permitted people to carry loaded firearms in public.

Of the bill, Reagan said later that it'd "work no hardship on the honest citizen." (This citizen, we can assume, was white.)

Crucially, while unthinkable today, the NRA's position on gun regulation until the late '70s -- when more and more (white) people began viewing guns as a means of protecting themselves and their status -- was noticeably divorced from Second Amendment arguments, as Adam Winkler, a professor at the UCLA School of Law, charts.

How distant all that seems now.

These days, despite a bit of a resurgence in black gun ownership, the face of the gun-rights advocate has changed -- rural white conservatives are now among the most vocal proponents.

Take, for instance, Missouri, where, in the past two decades, "an increasingly conservative and pro-gun legislature and citizenry had relaxed limitations governing practically every aspect of buying, owning, and carrying firearms in the state," writes Jonathan M. Metzl, a professor of sociology and psychiatry at Vanderbilt University, in his new book, "Dying of Whiteness: How the Politics of Racial Resentment Is Killing America's Heartland."

Compare this to the rhetoric of the '90s, when, in signing what became the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994 (which contained the aforementioned Federal Assault Weapons Ban), former President Bill Clinton said, "Gangs and drugs have taken over our streets and undermined our schools."

It's the difference between vanquishing the specter of black criminality -- seen in gangs and the weapons associated with them -- and protecting the property of white conservatives.

Or put another way, the hypocrisy around gun ownership in America is a broadcast of something indisputably fundamental: the country's struggle to bolster a racial hierarchy.

There was a nod to this knotty history at the Democratic debate in September, when Cory Booker, New Jersey's junior senator and a presidential candidate, mentioned how even though gun violence had long afflicted areas of the state, it was often ignored until it crept into other, presumably whiter neighborhoods.

"We're never going to solve this crisis if we have to wait for it to personally affect us or our neighborhood or our community before we demand action," Booker said.

In Washington, it's still an open question as to whether lawmakers will make any headway on the issue, given the White House's waffling on proposals such as expanding background checks.

Chappelle's solution, though?

"Every able-bodied African American must register for a legal firearm. That's the only way they'll change the law," he says.

Chappelle may be (half-)kidding, but in his gag is also a history that reveals more about the politics of gun regulation in America than the words of most politicians.

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