I have been close to gun violence my entire life. Growing up on the South Side of Chicago, I’ve seen my classmates carry firearms to keep themselves and their families safe from harm. And I later represented some of those same individuals in court—being prosecuted for firearm possession—when I started work as a public defender.
The people I knew growing up, and now the people I fight for in court, are also victims of gun violence themselves. I see those same people get arrested, prosecuted, and caged for the simple act of possessing a firearm—something protected and even exalted elsewhere in our country.
Last week, the United States Supreme Court heard oral arguments in the first major Second Amendment case in over a decade. The New York State Rifle and Pistol Association (NYSRPA) is calling on the court to strike down New York’s restrictive gun laws that allow people to be arrested, prosecuted, and imprisoned for possessing guns. Meanwhile, on the other side, New York was joined by progressive organizations such as the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and the NAACP Legal Defense Fund (LDF) in fighting to uphold the gun restrictions.
Yet spectators who expected to see the familiar, purely partisan divide on this highly charged issue would likely have been surprised to hear Paul Clement, former solicitor general for George W. Bush and the attorney for the NYSRPA, invoke an amicus brief during oral arguments by an unlikely ally: NYC public defenders. New York City defenders rightfully argued on behalf of the hundreds of thousands of people they represent that New York’s gun laws should be struck down because of their disproportionate and devastating impact on Black and brown communities.
As the leader of the Cook County Public Defender’s Office, which represents the majority of people accused of criminal offenses in Chicago and its suburbs, most of whom look like me, I stand with those defender offices. While I support policies that actually stem the flow of guns, prevent violence, and heal those who have been harmed, I also support ending the way we criminalize gun possession. I do this because there is no Second Amendment on the South Side of Chicago.
Despite the Second Amendment’s claimed protections—that have only expanded in the last 60 years—Black and brown men in New York, Chicago, and other localities around the country aren’t protected like white gun owners: We’re arrested, prosecuted, and warehoused in prisons. The questioning by Supreme Court Justices in the oral arguments underscores a major reason why: Guns in the hands of Black and brown people are seen as a threat to public safety, while in the hands of white gun owners they are viewed as an essential means of self-defense—a constitutional right. Embedded in the justices’ inquiries—full of racially coded language and myths about “high-crime areas” and “muggings”—was a false assumption that police keep communities safe and a dangerous distinction between “these people with illegal guns” (read: Black people living in cities) and “ordinary hardworking people” who have to commute home every night (read white people in the suburbs).
— Sharone Mitchell, Jr. at There’s No Second Amendment on the South Side of Chicago