On March 28, 2019, I completed a four-hour private handgun licensing program. The course included an extensive power point presentation led by a qualified instructor, a firing proficiency test on a shooting range and a written examination.
After successfully completing the course, I purchased a Glock Model 17 semiautomatic 9mm striker fired safe action pistol. In less time than it takes to complete an average day’s work, I joined the ranks of the 42 percent of American households who own a firearm, legally and otherwise.
The gun that I purchased, the 9mm Glock, is an all too familiar weapon. For whatever reason, it seems to be the gun made most readily available to black-market street distributors and, as a result, has been the subject of countless police investigations, the source of numerous stray bullet tragedies and an ongoing source of inspiration for lyrical references made in hip-hop songs. It was also the gun that killed my best friend, Cornelius (aka Suppa Fly), when he was just 14-years old.
Cornelius and another friend, Fred, had somehow gotten their hands on a 9mm Glock and had agreed to a sort of co-ownership arrangement. This worked out fine until the day that Fred wanted to use the pistol at the same time as Cornelius and neither one was willing to give it up. They ended up tussling over the gun when it inadvertently discharged. A hollow point projectile ripped into Cornelius’ skull killing him instantly.
It was this tragedy and countless other tales that soured me toward gun ownership. It was the duck-and-cover drills practiced both at school and at home when I was growing up. It was the dispute that my dad had with a group of men when I was 8-years old that ended in a shootout and me hiding under the bed until a police officer pulled me out sometime after the shooting stopped. It was the ad-hoc memorials with candles, teddy bears and home-made posters lining up the sidewalk letting the whole neighborhood know that, yet another Black life had been lost.
Then, in 2012, the year I passed the bar and joined the legal profession, it was the 20 children between six and seven-years-old and six adult staffers at Sandy Hook Elementary School who met a senseless and violent end as a result of a lone gunman.
I’m sure you’re asking yourself, what could possibly cause me to have such a sudden about face on gun ownership? The reality is my world is becoming more dangerous. I am a high-profile Civil Rights attorney who has publicly taken on issues of police brutality, hate crimes and racial violence. In my pursuit of justice, I often find myself at odds with police unions, white supremacist and bigots from diverse backgrounds and in the era of Donald Trump, this community of people has seemingly become more emboldened.
I want to be clear— I believe the problem is within Donald Trump himself. Congresswoman Ilhan Omar recently dealt with this reality. Omar represents a number of historic electoral firsts: the first Somali-American, the first naturalized citizens from Africa, the first non-white woman from Minnesota, and one of the first two Muslim women, along with Rep. Rashida Talib of Michigan to serve in Congress. As a result she has become the target of endless xenophobia, hostility and threats of violence.
In a customary Tourette-like outburst, Trump tweeted out a reckless video advertisement linking Congresswoman Omar to the terrorist attacks of 9-11. Predictably, death threats against her took a sudden responsive surge.
On Sunday April 14, 2019, Omar released a statement declaring “we can no longer ignore that [violent crimes and other acts of hate by right wing extremists] are being encouraged by the occupant of the highest office in the land.”
We are all Americans. This is endangering lives. It has to stop. pic.twitter.com/gwB2kDUIRp
— Rep. Ilhan Omar (@Ilhan) April 15, 2019
In no uncertain terms, Trump has openly endorsed violence and brutality. On July 28, 2017, in a speech to a law enforcement audience, Trump encouraged the uniformed officers to “not be too nice,” but rather he’d like for cops to be “more rough.” Earlier, during a June 30, 2016 campaign rally, then candidate Trump, fantasized aloud to a room full of supporters that he’d “like to punch [a protestor] in the face!” He went on to encourage them to “knock the crap out of him, would you?” Promising “I will pay your legal fees.” The tone and rhetoric of his speech grew worse as the campaign continued and, by increasing numbers, white nationalist and other extremist began to respond.
In her statement, Omar pointed out that “Counties that hosted a 2016 Trump rally saw a 226 percent increase in hate crimes in the months following the rally and assaults increase when cities host Trump rallies.” According to the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reporting (UCR) Program’s annual Hate Crime Statistics report, hate crimes were up about 17 percent in 2017, marking a rise for the third year in a row, even though violent crime in America fell slightly overall. Crimes of antisemitism and race-based violence directed at African-Americans led the spike.
This is America
This may seem like I’m talking about a scene familiar to my grandparents, but we’re living in a present-day America where Black churches in the South are burning. Recently, several Black churches were targeted for arson and even bombings. Huge Ku Klux Klan rallies are openly being held in major American cities.
The most infamous of such gatherings was held in Charlottesville, Virginia in 2017. This is where my client, DeAndre Harris, found himself being pummeled by white supremacist wielding 4x4s, poles and other improvised weapons.
In representing Mr. Harris, I found myself involved in a coordinated effort to track down his assailants. After reviewing the records maintained by the Southern Poverty Law Center, it became clear that we were tracking dangerous individuals who had advanced military and gun training and a long history of violence. Members of their organizations began to send letters and social media messages to my home and personal online accounts with a slew of colorful declarations— the sum total of each came down to this basic assertion “you are not safe.”
While protesting gun violence and housing discrimination in Miami, Florida— a group of young people belonging to an organization called Bikes up Guns Down were accosted by an angry motorist upset that the youth’s protest obstructed traffic.
Mark Bartlett, the middle-aged white male assailant, first lobbed a litany of racial slurs from his car window. When his girlfriend went to confront the children directly, Bartlett backed her up by brandishing a firearm and threatening the protesting teens while spouting racial epithets. He was shocked when law enforcement responded to the scene and informed him that he could not behave in such a fashion. It took a bit more advocacy to ensure that the state prosecutor charge Bartlett with the appropriate felonies and hate crime enhancements.
A few weeks ago, a young Black woman in Dallas, Texas went out partying with friends on a Thursday night and found herself in a similar situation. A white man caught her alone in a dark parking lot and instigated an altercation. When L’Daijohnique Lee, tried to leave the encounter, Austin Shuffield pulled out a gun. When she tried to call the police, he slapped the phone out of her hand and brutally assaulted her as she stood alone in the dark. A bystander recorded the attack but dared not intervene after seeing the firearm Shuffield boldly put on display.
I asked myself what I would have done if I were in her shoes that night? What if I was the person standing by watching this unfold? Talking Shuffield down didn’t seem like an option in this scenario and confronting an armed man bent on violence is risky business for a civil rights attorney with an aversion to guns.
Calling the police has also proven to be a bit of folly. I’ve represented too many people of color who called them only to be victimized by those same officers or made out to be the criminals in the scenario. Persistent detractors have successfully created an image of me as someone who is anti-cop. One police chief in the city of Arlington in North Texas was brazen enough to openly brag that he could “kick [my] ass” and promised to see my behind bars “if it’s the last thing [he] did.”
Calling cops for help is just not an option.
Accepting the inevitable
I have had to be a lot more cautious these days. I rarely announce my presence or intent to attend public events. I have had to hire security detail and for the first time in my life, I’ve now become a gun owner despite the fact that I absolutely hate guns.
I’ve had to learn how to balance my disdain and the idea of adding to the proliferation of these micro weapons of mass destruction because of what appears to be a growing target on my back. As a student at Morehouse College, I remember reading stories in an anthology on the Civil Rights era focusing on a time when police chiefs took aim at civil rights lawyers. A period where churches burned and hate crimes went largely unpunished. As a student and lover of history, I studied these periods carefully, but it didn’t truly make an impact on me until I felt the implications of living in Trump’s America where he so fervently refers to wanting to “Make America Great Again.”
I don’t know what it will take for the gun laws in America to change. On March 15, 2019 a white conservative terrorist in New Zealand killed 50 Muslim worshippers in a targeted attack using two semi-semi-automatic rifles and two shotguns. By March 19, 2019 the Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern announced that all military style semi-automatics and assault rifles would be banned.
I admit that I envy and long for that kind of leadership in the United States.
I’ve learned to view gun-ownership the way I imagine cancer patients view chemotherapy. No one looks forward to going through chemo and we all hope that one day, a more advanced treatment will surface to fight off cancerous cells or even better, cure the disease. In the meantime, it’s a necessary evil. I honestly hope that the rhetoric and culture that is driving this nation to be one of the deadliest places on Earth due to gun violence will begin to change course.
I watched my children recoil when they first saw me with a gun. They were terrified. I think that was the appropriate response— these weapons are indeed truly terrifying. Over the course of the last two months, they have grown accustomed to the presence of this foreign object in our home. I even took my 8-year old son to the shooting range with me where he practiced by firing his first weapon.
It may sound strange, but I want each of my children to understand how to operate a gun and the principals of gun safety for as long as this unwelcome guest is a part of our home. This doesn’t mean that I’m not still holding on to hope that we won’t need it for much longer.
S. Lee Merritt is a national Civil Rights attorney and social justice activist. A graduate of Morehouse College and Temple University’s James Beasley School of Law, Merritt has emerged as an influential new voice for victims of police brutality and other atrocities against Black men and women. His commitment to social justice and the reform of the justice system in America is born out of his own experiences growing up in South Central L.A. Follow him @MeritLaw