students hold signs protesting gun violence
Students participate in a school walk-out and protest in front of City Hall to condemn gun violence in Los Angeles on May 31, 2022. (Photo by RINGO CHIU / AFP) (Photo by RINGO CHIU/AFP via Getty Images)

Just 10 days after a white supremacist in Buffalo killed 10 Black people in a Tops grocery store, another gunman, using a similar AR-15-style rifle, murdered 19 children and two adults in an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas. 

America’s rampant gun problem continues without any sign of stopping, and in the wake of these mass tragedies, many are pushing for stricter gun control laws. In response to the Buffalo shooting, on May 18, New York Gov. Kathy Hochul signed two executive orders. The first order directs police to file an Extreme Risk Protection Order (ERPO) any time they believe someone is a threat, and the second creates domestic terrorism units within the Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Services and the New York State Intelligence Center. She has also proposed other policies, like raising the age to buy an AR-15-style weapon from 18 to 21, requiring guns sold by licensed dealers to be microstamped, and requiring law enforcement to report any guns recovered from a crime scene within 24 hours. 

Several other states have also taken action to implement gun control legislation in recent weeks. At a press conference on May 25, New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy once again urged state lawmakers to pass a set of bills he introduced in April 2021, which, among other things, would raise the age to purchase long guns to 21, require license-seekers to take a firearm safety course, and ban .50 caliber firearms. California Gov. Gavin Newsom also pledged to sign a package of bills that bans gun advertisements to minors as well as kits for building untraceable “ghost guns.”  One big question that remains, however, is whether these new laws will protect communities of color and other oppressed groups that white supremacists increasingly target.

New York currently has some of the strictest gun control laws in the country. According to Everytown, a gun violence prevention group, New York is one of 16 states to require background checks at the point of sale for all weapons and one of just 10 states to prohibit high-capacity magazines. Still, New York allows people to purchase AR-15-style weapons, and, along with 44 other states, allows people to openly carry long guns. 

Some prison reform and abolitionist groups argue that those most affected by gun control laws are not mass shooters and white supremacist groups but Black and brown people who face invasive searches and long sentences for gun possession, even when there is no accompanying crime.

In November 2021, a group of public defenders submitted an amicus brief in New York State Rifle & Pistol Association Inc. v. Bruen, a Supreme Court case in which a group of gun owners is suing New York state, arguing that the state’s current handgun licensing regime violates their second amendment rights. These public defenders, who represent indigent defendants from various counties across New York, argue that the state’s handgun licensing regime disproportionately harms Black and brown New Yorkers. 

“While white people throughout the nation amass firearm arsenals even as hobbies,” they wrote, “Black and Latinx New Yorkers are arrested, prosecuted, and imprisoned for simply possessing a single pistol for self-defense.” 

The group found that in 2020, 78% of all felony gun possession cases in New York involve Black defendants, while just 7% involve white defendants. Nationally, Black people make up 42% of those arrested for possession and carrying-related offenses, despite making up just 12% of U.S. residents and 10% of U.S. gun owners, according to 2021 data collected by Northeastern University.

“When we seek to reduce violence, we have to account for all of it,” said Avinash Samarth, public defender and counsel of record on the New York State Rifle amicus brief. “Police executing search warrants with guns drawn at six in the morning is violence. Police beating people suspected of firearm possession on the street is violence.”

Some advocates suggest that part of the problem is that gun control cannot be solved at the state level. A New York Times report from 2015 found that guns originating from states with looser gun regulations often make their way to cities like New York and Chicago, where they can sell for more than their original price. To prevent this, some advocates feel a federal approach is necessary. 

“We have been stuck in this place where despite 90% of the country supporting gun control, despite these states having pro-gun control legislatures and executives who pass gun control legislation, that does nothing to actually mitigate gun violence because so many of these other states that border these states don’t have any gun laws,” said Khalil Smalling, an organizer with NYC-DSA’s #DefundNYPD campaign.

As a result, Smalling said, state and local executives end up passing laws that inevitably criminalize Black and brown youth. As for solutions, he said it’s important to consider the role community can play in preventing violence before it starts. By building community trust, he said, “you’re able to address the roots of this potential harm with people who are high risk.”

In an era of continued and blatant white supremacist violence, tackling gun violence without further persecuting communities of color is something racial justice advocates are still figuring out how to address. In the meantime, families reeling from recent mass murders are looking to the courts for solutions. 

One family in Buffalo is going after the gun manufacturers. The family of Andre MackNeil, who had gone to Tops to pick up a birthday cake for his 3-year-old son, plans to sue Remington, the parent company of the one that manufactures the AR-15-style weapon the Buffalo shooter allegedly used. This is not unprecedented. In February 2022, the families of the victims of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting settled a lawsuit with Remington, and the governors of both California and New Jersey are backing bills that would enable victims of gun violence and their families to sue gun manufacturers for the harm their guns cause. 

“Regardless of where you fall on the issue of gun control, we need to have a united response,” Smalling said. He also advocates for survivor-centered solutions. “I want the involvement of victims who have lost loved ones in these shootings in Buffalo, in Uvalde.”

Katherine Demby

Katherine Demby is a writer based in Queens. She covers law, race, politics, and culture. You can find her on Twitter at @kaye_demz.