Mark Hughes, wearing a camouflage shirt and legally, openly carrying an AR-15 rifle, was among dozens of black people in downtown Dallas on Thursday evening who were peacefully protesting against the recent back-to-back officer-involved killings of two black men.
But in the hours between when Micah Xavier Johnson opened fire on Dallas police officers and his death, Hughes found himself at the center of controversy when the Dallas Police Department circulated a photo of him on social media and referred to him as a “suspect” in the attack.
Police later retracted their initial assertions and deleted the photo after determining that Hughes had nothing to do with the attack that killed five police officers and injured seven other people, but their methods have sparked controversy among black gun owners who say they’re discriminated against for exercising their constitutional right to bear arms.
“This is how they treat black men with guns,” said Babu Omowale, cofounder of the Dallas-based Huey P. Newton Gun Club, of the hunt for Hughes. “I was actually at the protest. I saw the brother with his gun, and it didn’t alarm me in any type of way because to me, he’s another brother expressing his Second Amendment right. But the police automatically view him as a suspect. But that’s how they view us — as suspects. They view us as possible criminals when we’re only applying our given rights as gun owners.”
Black gun owners said cases such as Hughes’, as well as that of Philando Castile, a black Minnesota man who was killed by a police officer during a traffic stop after the officer thought he was reaching for his gun, highlight a longstanding disparity in how police treat black gun owners versus their white counterparts.
“When officers see [black gun owners], they think that you’re going to do something aggressively towards them,” said Philip Smith, founder and president of the National African American Gun Association. “Just because you have an African-American carrying a gun doesn’t mean that he’s a shooter, and in Texas you can open carry, which shouldn’t have been a problem.”
Smith said black gun owners sometimes shy away from legally carrying firearms because of the negative racial stereotyping by some police officers. He argued that it’s an issue his association’s 11,000-plus membership often talks about.
There is no data about whether officers target minority gun owners at higher rates than white Americans, but Kevin Buckler, a professor of criminal justice at the University of Houston-Downtown, said statistics showing racial disparities in police stops suggest that black gun owners are at a greater risk.
“Transparency about the presence of the gun during the interaction is needed from the citizen, [and] officers need to ensure that they give clear instruction to the citizen on movements and behavior expectations,” Buckler said. “Many [police] departments have had success in early warning systems, which is an effort to identify officers early who have a tendency to escalate interactions or overreact and retrain them or terminate employment. It’s an effort to identify the ‘bad apples’ while maintaining trust and confidence in the officers who do their jobs well.”
Castile, whose girlfriend livestreamed his death on Facebook on Wednesday evening, had talked to his sister about the consequences of being a black gun owner, his mother said in a recent interview with CNN. Castile had a permit to carry, and his girlfriend, Diamond Reynolds, said he told the officer during a traffic stop that he was carrying his licensed gun.
In the video showing the aftermath of the shooting, the officer tells her: “I told him not to reach for it. I told him to get his hand out.” Reynolds then responds, “You shot four bullets into him, sir. He was just getting his license and registration, sir.”
Michael Cargill, the owner of Central Texas Gun Works, said he been racially profiled by police, including one incident where they pointed rifles at him because “they were looking for someone who robbed a store.” Cargill and others said that to curb this problem, police departments should be more diversified.