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Philando Castile Case Asks: Whose Second Amendment Right Is Protected?


We're turning back now to the story of Philando Castile, the Minnesota man who was killed in his car by a police officer last July. A little more than a week ago, a jury acquitted the police officer who shot Castile, officer Jeronimo Yanez, on manslaughter and other charges. There are many questions about this story, including the fact that the officer shot Castile in front of a 4-year-old child sitting in the back seat.

In a few minutes, we'll talk about what it means to a child to witness something like that. But first, we're going to tackle the fact that Castile was killed after disclosing he had a weapon in the car for which he had a permit. And for some, this raises the question of whether gun ownership, while a right in theory, is actually a race-based privilege in reality.

We wanted to talk about this with somebody with both a personal and professional take, so we found Nicholas Johnson. He is a professor of law at Fordham University in New York. He is a gun owner, a member of the NRA, and he is African-American. We reached him at his home in Yardley, Pa. And I started our conversation by asking him about his own personal history with guns.

NICHOLAS JOHNSON: So I grew up in rural West Virginia, so I grew up with guns. I joked recently with someone that until I was about 15 years old, I don't think I knew anyone who didn't have a gun.

MARTIN: Does this incident itself and the lack of legal consequence any way create feelings in you as an African-American gun owner for whom guns are a part of your life?

JOHNSON: I've talked with a variety of people about this and friends who are gun owners, et cetera. And one of the things that happens is that people tend to treat it as if that's the only point of decision making for millions of people out there who are, you know, sort of proceeding in line with the kinds of concerns that the case raises. But the truth of matter is that lots of people who owned firearms before this episode and will continue to own them after this episode are influenced by not only this thing but a variety of things that have occurred over the course of many years.

MARTIN: Well, what about police conduct, though? I mean, if the implication here is that one is justifiably in fear of one's life solely because an African-American man discloses that he has a weapon, does that not indicate that that's not a right? It's a race-based privilege and not a right. I mean, wouldn't that be a...

JOHNSON: Well, so this actually goes to a broader question. Like it or not, we allow police to use guns in a range of circumstances that go far beyond the traditional self-defense rules that apply to individual citizens. And the truth is that we allow police to draw guns, to point guns, to threaten with guns in scenarios where private parties would be arrested for a variety of those actions that police are either expressly or tacitly implicitly authorized to engage in.

So then the question becomes, does the tacit license allow racism to creep in? And I think there's no doubt that it does. The question, what to do about that tacit license, is a really difficult structural question.

MARTIN: But what does that mean? Does that mean that this is a - what? - a sad state of affairs and that nothing can be done or you feel that what - what's the bottom line?

JOHNSON: I am quite skeptical about the ability of politicians to structure a set of rules that will filter down adequately to line officers in a way that will actually eliminate the threat of these sorts of events. I mean, I've been profiled. I've been stopped for walking while black on suspicion of being a Hispanic man with no front teeth who had committed murder. So I've had most of the standard negative interactions with police. I also have had very good interactions with police.

I suppose that if you were to speculate about this, you would say, well, let's start punishing in more aggressive ways officers who make the wrong decision. That's a matter of political will. It's also a matter of sort of getting at, you know, what if juries disagree? I mean, how do you get into the jury room and prevent juries from letting off officers in the way that they did in this case? I guess this is a counsel of despair. I mean, I don't know what one does here.

MARTIN: Nicholas Johnson is a professor of law at Fordham University in New York City. He's also written extensively about gun ownership and firearm policy. Professor Johnson, thanks so much for speaking with us.

JOHNSON: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.