Can you imagine Martin Luther King, Jr. packing a sidearm?
I ask that question because the holiday named after Dr. King is next Monday, which comes about a month after the killings in Newtown that have sparked renewed interest in the gun-control debate.
I’ll ask the question again. Can you imagine Dr. King with a holstered revolver on his hip, much less an assault rifle?
Why not? It has to do with how you believe humans should respond to evil. For example, Wayne LaPierre from the National Rifle Association contends that the only way to stop bad guys with guns is to have good guys with guns. I have to agree with Mr. LaPierre to a degree. Unless you are a pacifist, i.e. a person who will never use violent force ever, even in self-defense, you have to acknowledge that the guy has a point.
Most of us, I assume, would say that we were justified in using lethal force against Hitler and Hirohito in World War II. Most of us also have no problem seeing our Forest Park police officers carrying sidearms. While most of us pray for peace, few of us are actually pacifists.
Back in the 1960s, there was debate in the African-American community about how to respond to the evil of racism. On one side were advocates of black power in groups like the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense. The iconic image of that position is of Tommie Smith and John Carlos raising black-gloved fists during the medal ceremony at the 1968 Olympics.
Black Panther Party leaders Huey Newton and Bobby Seale advocated “policing the police” — that is, black neighborhoods had to organize to protect themselves against the bad guys who in this case were abusive police officers. At times they publicly displayed loaded shotguns. Sounds like Wayne LaPierre, doesn’t it? A lot of black folks in that day looked at the Panthers as Robin Hood, like heroes who had the courage to stand up against evil oppressors.
The debate, however, seems to have eventually been won by Dr. King’s non-violent approach. What Dr. King showed us, I think, is that the violent force can only prevent evil from happening. His nonviolent approach to confronting injustice was based on what he had learned in seminary by reading Mahatma Gandhi, i.e. if you want to overcome evil, you have to do it in a way that doesn’t add more evil to the world. You have to be willing to suffer. That gives you moral authority.
My friend Bob Sherrell was one of those clubbed and tear-gassed in the March on Selma in 1965.
“There were men,” he recalled, “who wanted to get their guns in retaliation for the abuse we suffered. It was Andy Young in Brown’s Funeral Parlor who admonished that no one would be allowed in the protest movement who advocated force.”
It was especially the members of black churches, students and their white allies who became convinced that King’s approach was more consistent with their values, while the Black Panther approach got bogged down in criminal activity.
The reason those civil rights marchers had moral authority is that they were willing to suffer for what they believed in. They were tear-gassed, knocked over by firehoses and bitten by growling police dogs, but they kept on singing, “Oh deep in my heart, I do believe, we shall overcome some day.” That kind of moral authority changed a nation.
I called Tom Aftanas, deputy chief of police here in Forest Park, and asked him how often officers in this village fired shots in 2012. “Not once,” he replied and added that “officers will attempt to resolve problems by other means rather than lethal force if it is possible and safe to do so.”
I don’t want our police officers to rely on non-violent tactics alone. LaPierre is right to a degree. Some bad guys with guns are only stopped by good guys with guns. Ultimately however, Mr. LaPierre and Second Amendment extremists will be judged by history like the Black Panthers have been.
I don’t mind if you have a 30.06 for deer hunting and a 12-gauge pump for pheasants. I don’t even mind if you keep a revolver in your bedstand drawer to protect yourself — if you can guarantee me that one of your kids won’t play with it and get shot when you’re not watching.
But if we want to create a healthier society, let’s listen to Dr. King more than Wayne LaPierre, and let our police officers carry the guns designed to shoot humans. At the same time, let’s reassure NRA members that we’re not after all their guns, just the ones specifically designed to kill humans.