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Key Moments From A Conversation On Guns And Black Southern Life

Guns & America’s Lisa Hagen co-moderates a panel discussion in Atlanta on guns in black southern life.
Guns & America’s Lisa Hagen co-moderates a panel discussion in Atlanta on guns in black southern life.

Active shootings tend to capture news headlines and generate think pieces much more than other forms of gun violence. Even when shooting deaths do make local news, thoughtful reflection about violence and culture isn’t a typical part of the coverage.

Last week in Atlanta, Guns & America’s Lisa Hagen and Kennesaw State University Professor Regina N. Bradley met with a panel of black southerners to slow down and talk about what guns mean to them. It was a conversation about southern history, violence, masculinity and the future. Speakers included award-winning author Kiese Laymon, local youth advocate and Moms Demand Action activist Sharmaine Brown and National African American Gun Association Vice President Douglas Jefferson. For those who couldn’t make it, here are a few moments that stood out to us:

1) On The Paradoxes Of Self-Defense And Domestic Violence:

Kiese Laymon talked about feeling some pride in a grandfather of his who had shot and killed a sheriff for raping his grandmother. Later, Laymon said he later learned that grandfather had used the same gun to beat his wife’s eye out of her head.

“I want to talk about the paradoxes of understandably—from my point of view—loving anybody who’s going to support protecting black folks from ‘them.’ We know who ‘they’ are,” Laymon said. “But I don’t think that the conversation can end or begin there when we also know, in my family, that the cousins and grandmothers and friends and fathers and nephews and nieces have been tremendously harmed by murder, by gunshot or by living in a house run often by a man who felt like he needed a gun to keep the house in order.”

2) What Other Policies Fail Black Communities?

Douglas Jefferson said removing guns won’t solve larger injustices in black communities.

“It’s a complex, nuanced discussion that we have, particularly in the African American community, around guns, because we know about the levels of violence that we see in our communities,” Jefferson said. “We know the devastation that gun violence has had in our communities. But I challenge anyone that looks at that and focuses solely on the gun, to look at that community and tell me what other failed policy is there in that community.”

3) A Son In The Crossfire

Sharmaine Brown lost her 23-year-old son Jared to a stray bullet.

“[He was] killed instantly,” Brown said. “The individual that fired the fatal shot, he was a convicted felon. He should not have even had a gun. He was shooting at another individual that he had played a video game with earlier that day.”

4) On What Americans Decide To Be Alarmed About

Laymon on public reaction to mass shootings:

“I do think it is interesting when a culture and country built on not just violence, but actual terrorism and genocide decides when it wants to be so alarmed—that is not to minimize mass shootings, small shootings anything – but if y’all brought me here I’ll be honest: I just think all these conversations about what individuals are doing with their small guns are ultimately bankrupt unless we talk about what the nation is doing with its big guns.”

5) On Pride In Guns As A Traditional Tool Of Black Resistance

Laymon recognized Jefferson’s viewpoint as rational, but asked him to hope for more.

“I guess I just lovingly disagree and hope we can utopically imagine a different kind of future for us, but I completely understand why black people would say we need guns,” Laymon said. “But the flip is like, we know where the people who evict us live. We know where the people who incarcerate us live. We know where the people who do harm to us live, and we ain’t f***ing them up with our guns.”

6) On Measures Like ‘Stop And Frisk’ And How Well-Intentioned Policies Hurt Black Communities

Jefferson pointed out that black people often bear the destructive brunt of policies aimed at curbing social ills.

“It was claimed the intent wasn’t to put [stop and frisk] in place to disenfranchise but that’s how it was weaponized,” Jefferson said. “So I look at it through that lens. If we’re talking about some type of restriction, where’s the weaponization mechanism? Because that’s the history of this country. We can’t get away from that. And not only is it history, it’s the present day.”

7) On Media Coverage And Non-Coverage

Brown said if local gun violence doesn’t make the news, communities can act to raise attention.

“My son was shot and killed here in Atlanta, but it was one individual person so you didn’t hear about it,” Brown said. “That’s just how the news portrays things. They don’t look at it unless it’s a large, mass number of people – I think it’s five or more. So I think that when things happen in our community, especially right here in Atlanta, I think we all should come together right here where we are and make a sound.”

8) Boys Are Taught Guns Will Make Them Men

Laymon talked about the power of the pleasure boys are taught to feel through guns.

“The gun is important to me, as a black boy who grew up in Mississippi because I was taught that you become a man [by]: shooting your first gun, having sex with your first woman or girl,” Laymon said. “I remember how good it felt when I shot my first gun. I remember what all the people around me said. But nobody around me when they saw me shoot my first gun said anything about mental health. No one around me when I shot my first gun said anything about suicide or suicidal ideation.”

9) Imagining A Different Future

Laymon said black people are good at imagining better futures, but that doing it well takes honesty.

“I don’t think the conversations are just about: We protect ourselves or we don’t,” Laymon said. “My most intimate relationship with a gun came from sitting in a bathtub having a gun f***ing cocked, ready to shoot shoot myself in the f***ing head. Why? Because my mama had put a gun to my head the day before. Why? Because I got kicked out of a white school. Why? For fighting white people. So it’s not just about the gun. It’s about these systems. And I don’t think we get out of this just by divesting ourselves of the gun.

But I do think cis-gendered men in this room have to be honest with ourselves, like yo: We have been taught to be ultra-violent not just to our partners, regardless of sexuality and gender, but to ourselves. And I wonder what a divestment in the violences that we have been taught to embody looks like.”

Guns & America is a public media reporting project on the role of guns in American life.

Copyright 2020 Guns and America. To see more, visit Guns and America.

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