Members Only | May 31, 2022 | Reading Time: 4 minutes

White supremacists radicalize young white men. Gun makers sell them guns. The NRA makes both look noble. People die

In the US, gun culture and white-power politics go hand in hand. 


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Last week 19 children and two teachers were murdered by an 18-year-old who legally bought two semiautomatic rifles. The week before, 10 Black people visiting the supermarket were murdered by an 18-year-old who legally bought a semiautomatic rifle. 

Seventy-seven percent of mass shootings are committed with legally bought guns. Seventy percent of school shooters have been under 18. The Sandy Hook shooter was 20. The Parkland shooter was 19. 

The radicalization of young men and permissive gun laws for teenagers is fueling a crisis of mass shootings and violence.

In the United States, gun culture and white supremacy go hand in hand. 

The most high-profile shooting massacres have been committed with legally purchased guns. 

While gun control laws were common in American history, the right to own a gun was only protected for white men. The first gun-control law passed in the British colonies was to prevent a British colonist from providing a gun to any Native American in 1619 in Virginia. Race or enslavement was a common justification to restrict gun ownership until 1867, as slave owners were terrified of slave rebellions. 

It was also particularly important for white men on the frontier to have access to firearms to aid in stealing land from Native Americans. Land colonization was so important that early colonies actually armed enslaved Black men and enrolled them in militias to defend against indigenous tribes. 

However, as the frontier moved West and slave rebellion became a larger worry, this practice lessened and laws were passed to bar the use of guns by enslaved people or to restrict their usage to only when supervised. 

Historian Carol Anderson argues that not only were guns restricted based on race, but that the Second Amendment was in large part motivated to protect the rights of slave owners to have guns to put down slave rebellions. 

After the Civil War, southern states passed Black Codes to make it illegal for free Black people to carry guns and the KKK confiscated them, but Reconstruction ended these laws.

Access to guns has remained racialized since the Civil War, even if the explicitly discriminatory laws ended. Self-defense and “Stand Your Ground laws” have only provided white men with protection because police and juries see Black men as the perpetrators of violence, not the victims. 

Even women are rarely successful in legally justifying their right to use a gun in self-defense. “Stand Your Ground laws” don’t apply to domestic violence victims. Women often resort to killing their abusers when they have an opportune moment, not when there is “imminent” danger. 

The NRA’s history is deeply racist while promoting an extreme image of the Second Amendment and the need for guns. The NRA was initially formed in 1871 to promote gun training and safety. It didn’t start promoting unfettered access to guns until the 1960s. 

In the 1920s and 1930s, NRA president Karl T. Frederick supported gun-control measures, like requiring state licenses and only granting them to “suitable” people. His framework left the discretion for licenses in the hands of local law enforcement, which allowed Black people to be systematically denied access to firearms while ensuring “suitable” white people could buy them. 

The 1960s saw a new wave of gun control measures that began the NRA’s transformation. However, while some members were threatened by new gun-control measures, many in the NRA simultaneously wanted such laws to take guns away from the Black Panthers

While the NRA would never publicly endorse any gun-control measures today, it has been reluctant to support people of color availing themselves of their Second Amendment rights, and even ignored the Philando Castile case.

Between 2012 and 2019, there were 11 mass shootings with ties to white supremacy. Everytown for Gun Safety estimates over 10,000 hate crimes are committed every year with a firearm. Of those, 63 percent are based on race. Fifteen percent on religion (religious hate crimes particularly against Jews are also a result of white supremacy).

In 2021, 21-year-old Robert Long murdered eight women, six of Asian descent in Atlanta. Two weeks ago 18-year-old Payton Gendron murdered 10 Black people after posting a manifesto about Great Replacement Theory. The shooter in the Poway Synagogue shooting believed in white genocide conspiracy theories. He was only 19. The Charleston church shooter, Dylann Roof was 21. 

All these shootings were committed with legally purchased guns. 

All of them could have been prevented by raising the age to buy a rifle to 21, enforcing universal background checks and passing red-flag laws that would enable confiscating someone’s guns if they show signs of radicalized white supremacist thinking or a propensity for violence. 

The NRA and gun manufacturers not only oppose all these very reasonable reforms, but they target young men vulnerable to radicalization with advertising. 

Gun companies post images of teens using weapons, market guns in different colors and appeal to teens possibly interested in law enforcement. 

Companies skirt rules about advertising disclosure by using paid influencers to pose with guns on Instagram and social media sites. Instagram has a policy that “branded content” promoting weapons isn’t allowed on the site, but that doesn’t stop influencers from promoting weapons and hiding financial connections.

White supremacists and gun manufacturers are targeting young men online. 

The predictable result is tragic mass shootings. 

States are making it impossible to teach these young men about racism, which might combat their radicalization, while making it easier for them to buy guns. 

Young mass shooters are buying guns legally because federal law allows automatic rifles to be bought at 18 and they pass their background checks with no red flag law recourse. 

Closing the universal background check loophole could have stopped the Charleston shooting, raising the minimum age for rifle purchases could have stopped the Sandy Hook, Parkland, Poway, Buffalo and Uvalde mass shootings as well as the vast majority of school shootings. 

Red-flag laws that took white supremacy seriously could have stopped almost all of these shootings. These are also three of the most popular gun reform measures. 

Fifty-four percent of Republicans and 83 percent of Democrats support raising the age to buy any type of gun to 21. Eighty-three percent of Americans support universal background checks. Seventy-two percent support a national red-flag law and requiring a license. 

Democrats have introduced bills to raise the age, enforce universal background checks and pass red-flag laws as well as a host of other gun-reform measures. 

The only thing standing in the way is the NRA and the politicians they’ve bought.

Mia Brett, PhD, is the Editorial Board's legal historian. She lives with her gorgeous dog, Tchotchke. You can find her @queenmab87.


  1. Rick Baumhauer on May 31, 2022 at 2:36 pm

    This gives a pretty good overview of what we’re up against, and the way that interlocking issues are leading to tragedy. However, in the case of Sandy Hook, age restrictions would not have made a difference, as the guns used were purchased by the shooter’s mother (who he also killed, before going to the school).

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