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Cook County Public Defender Sides With Second Amendment

Cook County Public Defender Sides With Second Amendment
AP Photo/Kamil Krzaczynski

The chorus of public defenders slamming New York’s “may issue” carry regime and siding with Second Amendment supporters in a challenge to the state’s gun law is growing even louder with the addition of Cook County Chief Public Defender Sharone Mitchell Jr., who recently wrote a searing explanation of why he’s standing with his colleagues in New York in opposing the subjective restrictions on the right to bear arms.

Almost as interesting as what Mitchell has to say is where he chose to say it; in the pages of The Nation, one of the bigger names in commentary on the Left.

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).

I have seen the harmful effects of this racist way of thinking throughout my childhood and career. It is those decades of experiences that lead me to side with the likely verdict of justices whose questioning in this case highlights so much of what is wrong with our legal system. As I assume this seemingly contradictory position, there are several stories I reflect on.

I think about a college classmate, who is Black. A licensed gun owner in another state, he was visiting family in Illinois—a state with different licensing laws. He left his licensed gun in his bag, which he put through the metal detector at a bar where he planned on watching the Air & Water Show. The bag set off the detector and my classmate was arrested and prosecuted for possession of a firearm. I became his public defender. Because of his arrest, he served time in jail, lost his job, and faced housing instability. The shame and trauma stay with him to this day.

I think about a man my office represents, a father of four kids and professional driver, who purchased a firearm after being caught in the cross fire of a shooting on the freeway. He was willing to do anything to keep himself and his family safe. But he was Black. Shortly after he started carrying a gun for his own protection, suburban police arrested him and prosecutors charged him with a felony for not having the right license.

Read Mitchell’s entire column when you have a chance, because it’s a really powerful argument in favor of the Second Amendment right that’s tailored for an audience that’s been taught to believe that gun control is what good, caring, supportive liberals believe in. Mitchell’s point is simple; their good intentions are putting good people in jail or prison for simply possessing a gun without the express permission of their local or state government. That’s not how rights work.

It may seem odd for a white guy in rural Virginia to be so happy about New York and Chicago public defenders making the case for the Second Amendment, but my first real introduction into the gun control debate came when I first met my wife 25 years ago, when she was a single mom in Camden, New Jersey (at the time the city with the highest homicide rate in the country). I wasn’t even a gun owner myself at the time, but I had an experience that opened my eyes to the harm done by restricting people’s right to armed self-defense.

It was a normal evening for us; we’d spent the first part of the night on the computer and then as the hour grew late I called her and lay on my bed as we talked about our future together.  We were growing sleepy when I heard something I’d never heard before; the sound of gunshots.  I knew they had to be close for me to hear them over the phone, and with some alarm I asked Elaine if she was okay.  She didn’t answer.

I’ll never forget that helpless feeling when only silence greeted my voice.  I grew louder, shouting into the phone, “Talk to me! Where are you?  What’s going on? Elaine, answer me!!” I didn’t know her address, or I would have called the Camden Police Department to beg them to check on her and the kids.  Instead, I sat helplessly.  At some point I stupidly hung up the phone, and tried to call her back, but only got a busy signal.

It was the longest night of my life, spent pacing and chain smoking, tears streaming down my face as I begged God not to take her from me before I even had a chance to begin my life with her by my side.  I prayed that her kids were safe, and I swore that if I had the chance, I would do my best to protect them from any harm.

As the sun rose over the Oklahoma City skyline, I decided to call her office once it opened.  Maybe one of her co-workers could check on her.  While I waited impatiently, I tried to search the internet for news of any overnight shootings in Camden, but couldn’t find any.  In retrospect, I should have known I wouldn’t have.  Shootings in Camden, home to some of the most restrictive gun laws in the country, are so common that they’re never a big story.

As soon as I thought someone might be in her office, I dialed the number with trembling fingers.  I thought about what I would say to the stranger who answered the phone, and wondered if I could even get through my request without breaking down in tears again.  And then I didn’t have to wonder, because Elaine answered the phone.

I won’t get into the details of my reaction, except to say that yes, I cried again. She thought I was overreacting, because she had simply fallen asleep as we were talking.  She didn’t even consciously hear the shots fired, because the sound was so common that she had learned to tune it out.  And that was the moment I realized that it’s not just 911 that was a joke in her neighborhood.  So was the idea that gun control had made Camden any safer.

I didn’t become a gun rights advocate that day, or even a gun owner.  But from that moment forward, I’ve never believed that gun control laws make good people in bad neighborhoods any safer.  If gun control worked, it would be the criminal waiting months to find a gun on the black market, while the law abiding zipped through the speedy process of legally acquiring a firearm.  Instead, in gun control enclaves from Los Angeles to Chicago, D.C. to Camden, it’s the good people who are forced to wait, who are arbitrarily denied the exercise of their fundamental right to keep and bear arms, while the criminals easily get a hold of guns.  And make no mistake; even in the worst neighborhoods, the good people far outnumber the criminals.

I wrote that in 2013, and the only thing I wish I could go back and revise was that last paragraph. I know that even good people can easily get a gun for self-protection if they’re willing to do it illegally. And sometimes those folks get caught, and arrested, and sentenced to prison for possessing a gun without a government issued permission slip.

That’s not how we treat rights, and Sharone Mitchell Jr. is absolutely accurate when he says that the Second Amendment doesn’t exist in the South Side of Chicago. It doesn’t exist in South Central L.A. either. It’s a non-entity in Camden, Newark, and Trenton, New Jersey. Dorchester, the Bronx, and Baltimore.. all places where the Second Amendment doesn’t exist because bearing arms in self-defense without the express written permission of the state or local government will put you prison.

That will soon change, hopefully. And while Sharone Mitchell and other public offenders will undoubtably still be busy even after the Supreme Court issues its ruling in NYSPRA v. Bruen, lets hope that the opinion is strong enough to put a halt to the current abuses of the right to bear arms.