February 27, 2020
Mike Bloomberg’s 2020 presidential bid has brought New York City’s infamous stop-and-frisk policy back into the national conversation, reigniting discussions about criminal justice, policing, and racial profiling. But the policy also raises questions about another controversial issue: gun control.
Bloomberg’s record on guns usually garners high praise among Democrats, and even affords him some progressive credentials. He’s used his wealth and platform to advocate for gun control policies that aim to stop mass shootings and other forms of gun violence throughout the country. In last year’s elections in Virginia, Bloomberg outspent the National Rifle Association to help elect Democrats statewide.
The former mayor has also used his gun control record to draw contrast between him and Democratic frontrunner Bernie Sanders. In a series of tweets, Bloomberg wrote, “The NRA put Bernie Sanders in Congress,” explaining that during Sanders’ first run for the House of Representatives in 1990, the NRA ran ads against his opponent and that as a senator, he voted against background check legislation five times.
For many of his supporters, Bloomberg’s record on guns offsets his support for less traditionally liberal policies. But considering that record in the context of stop-and-frisk complicates the story.
Bloomberg’s longtime support for stricter gun control measures is inextricably linked to stop-and-frisk. The policy, which began under Mayor Rudy Giuliani in the late 1990s, allowed police officers to “stop-and-frisk” anyone, without the need for any evidence to suspect that they were committing a crime.
Rates of overall crime are not necessarily higher in the United States than in other wealthy countries, but crime in the US does tend to be more lethal. This is largely due to the prevalence of handguns — with firearms present, armed criminals raise the stakes of conflicts between them. Proponents of stop-and-frisk argued that if criminals feared getting stopped and facing severe penalties for concealed carry, they would be less likely to carry guns with them. As a consequence, there would be fewer gun deaths.
The “criminals” in question, however, were overwhelmingly young, male, and Black or Latino. The thinking behind the place-based policing strategies of the Giuliani and Bloomberg eras was that there was more crime in Black and Latino areas because Black and Latino men committed more crimes. Under this assumption, the NYPD concentrated most of its efforts in predominantly Black and Latino neighborhoods, leading to a disproportionate amount of young Black and Latino men being not just stopped and frisked, but also harassed, assaulted, and arrested. According to a recent report from the ACLU, the vast majority of stops in the stop-and-frisk program were of young Black and Latino men. Under Bloomberg, the number of stops skyrocketed.
The desire to control Black access to guns did not start with Bloomberg, or even with Giuliani. A century before the ratification of the Second Amendment, the colony of Virginia prohibited gun ownership among slaves. Some of the earliest gun control laws in the newly independent United States were from the antebellum South, where several state constitutions and statutes explicitly prohibited Black people, both free and enslaved, from bearing arms. The post-Civil War “Black Codes” often included measures to restrict freed Black access to firearms and many vigilante groups, including the Ku Klux Klan, enforced their own extra-legal gun control. An 1866 edition of Harper’s Weekly reported that groups in Mississippi had “seized every gun and pistol found in the hands of the (so called) freedmen.”
While the civil rights movement has been remembered by much of white America as nonviolent, some Black scholars attribute much of the movement’s success to relaxed gun laws and Black people’s access to firearms. Charles E. Cobb, journalist and veteran member of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, argues that if it were not for Black people’s ability to bear arms, the movement would not have succeeded in the ways that it did. Cobb explained, “because nonviolence worked so well as a tactic for effecting change and was demonstrably improving their lives, some Black people chose to use weapons to defend the nonviolent Freedom Movement.” Since Black people could not rely on the protection of the state, many saw bearing arms as the only way to protect themselves and their communities.
The Black Panthers continued this tradition of group protection with their use of “copwatching.” Visibly armed, Panthers would watch and protect Black people during interactions with the police. Directly in response to this expression of Black constitutional rights, California passed the Mulford Act which prohibited carrying loaded weapons in public. The NRA supported the bill.
While the national gun control discourse has turned towards preventing mass shootings, many Black Americans still remember how gun control laws have disproportionately drawn police to Black areas. As shown by the 2019 discussion around Beto O’Rourke’s plan to confiscate assault weapons, stricter gun control legislation would necessarily entail increased police presence. And even where gun laws are more lax, Black people with guns, or even Black children with toy guns, are targeted by police as violent threats and are murdered as a consequence. In this environment, many Black activists do not want more police presence in their communities.
In recently surfaced audio of Bloomberg from 2015, he defends stop-and-frisk, saying, “Ninety-five percent of your murders […] fit one M.O. You can just take the description, Xerox it and pass it out to all the cops. They are male, minorities, 16 to 25.” In this context, it’s not hard to see the connection between stop-and-frisk’s targeting of Black people and Bloomberg’s fervent support of gun control. While fans of the former mayor may see him as a champion for ending gun violence, others wonder whether his support for strict gun control laws comes from a desire to stop crime or from a desire to neutralize a supposed Black threat.