Inside America's crazy gun culture

Police officers in riot gear stand by as protesters gather in Charlotte, N.C. on Thursday, Sept. 22, 2016. The curfew has ended for Friday in Charlotte following a night of mostly peaceful protests o
Police officers in riot gear stand by as protesters gather in Charlotte, N.C. on Thursday, Sept. 22, 2016. The curfew has ended for Friday in Charlotte following a night of mostly peaceful protests o

Just a kilometre from where the tourists party wildly on Bourbon Street, New Orleans, we get a good close look at America's out-of-control gun culture.

In a house smoke-choked by chain-fired joints, there's an AK-47 and an assortment of pistols, one with a 30-round aftermarket drum magazine, lying on the loungeroom table. Along with PlayStation controls.

Snake, Ace and Deuce live in the Eighth Ward. This is the ghetto, and in the eyes of most they are gangstas, but gun ownership in the US is not about race or neighbourhood.

A man wears a hoodie which reads, 'Black Lives Matter' as stands on the lawn of the Capitol building on Capitol Hill in Washington. Photo / AP
A man wears a hoodie which reads, 'Black Lives Matter' as stands on the lawn of the Capitol building on Capitol Hill in Washington. Photo / AP


From the hoods to the wide front lawns of the rich, citizens are legally armed with AK-47s, AR-15 assault rifles and a multitude of semi-automatic pistols. They are in survival mode.

"We're with the 'All Lives Matter' cause," says Snake. "We got a heart for everyone. Stop the violence. Increase the peace. But you got to protect yourself.

This is New Orleans, know what I'm saying?"

America's gun culture is a cherished right and a demon that will never be beaten back into its box. But in this time of high national tension, it is police copping heat for using guns on black citizens.

We have seen how cops work in undeclared war zones; seen how they make plans to survive each traffic stop. Seen how the scorn is wearing them down.

The cops put on brave faces but those we spoke to are deeply troubled. Gun-carrying citizens are increasingly refusing to yield to authority. The hatred for cops is such that something in American society is broken.

Every stopped car, every person questioned, every rally attended, is treated as a life-and-death event for cops, and citizens. And every time it looks like cooling down, the anger reheats.

There are still protests in Charlotte, North Carolina, after a (black) policeman shot a black man dead, again in questionable circumstances. When one night of protesting turned into a deadly riot Mayor Jennifer Roberts pleaded: "Violence is not the answer."

Which is what black people are trying to tell cops.

Since Ferguson, the suburb of St Louis, Missouri, was set aflame after a white policeman shot dead 18-year-old black man Michael Brown in August 2014, a number of avoidable killings has seen cops plunge in the public's esteem.

The July 5 killing of black CD seller Alton Sterling by white Baton Rouge police, outside a convenience store, relayed to the world by onlookers shooting video on their phones, was clearly an unnecessary death.

The four NBA basketball players gave an anti-violence speech and expressed their support of the values behind the Black Lives Matter movement. Photo / AP
The four NBA basketball players gave an anti-violence speech and expressed their support of the values behind the Black Lives Matter movement. Photo / AP


As was the inexcusable shooting the following day of Minnesota man Philando Castile, live-streamed on Facebook by his girlfriend Diamond Philips.

The day after Castile died, Micah Johnson, a military veteran armed with an AR-15- type assault rifle and a pistol, targeted white officers at a Black Lives Matter rally in Dallas, killing five and wounding nine.

Ten days after that, another military vet and black separatist, Eugene Long, called in police to his ambush in Baton Rouge, killing three and wounding three.

In the aftermath of Alton Sterling's death, a black officer from Baton Rouge, Montrell Jackson, posted on social media of the searing contempt coming at him from the streets, from his own people, for being a black man in a blue uniform.

"Please don't let hate infect your heart," he wrote, before dying in vigilante gunfire.

So far this year, US cops have shot dead close to 700 people, most in undisputed circumstances. But what did the world hear of the five cops who were shot dead, at traffic stops, during our 18-day visit to the States? Or the overall 42 cops shot dead so far this year?

If cops were viewed as their own distinct social category, they are per capita much more likely to die by gunfire than whites, black, Hispanics or Asians. But because most cop deaths have no political context, they don't make news in Australia, let alone outside their home states in America.

Cops are hyper-vigilant, partly because of recent events, but because that's how it always is. Memphis task squad officer Vernon Sumner says there's no such thing as a routine traffic stop. Pulling over a vehicle is called an "unknown risk stop".

"Nobody likes the police," says Memphis Lieutenant Hugh Word. "It's a numbers game here on the streets. Everyone's got a gun. And I want to go home. I got things to do."

'Y'ALL MURDERERS'

At a police barricade preventing Black Lives Matter protesters surging into Graceland, where a vigil is being held to commemorate the anniversary of the 39th death of Elvis Presley, they hurl insults at the black cops for defending "the white God of Memphis".

Tomiko Shine holds up a picture of Tamir Rice during a protest in Washington, D.C. Photo / AP
Tomiko Shine holds up a picture of Tamir Rice during a protest in Washington, D.C. Photo / AP


Much has changed since Elvis lived and died here. There is a black police chief and a majority black police force. Yet the abuse directed against the black men in blue is visceral. "Black cops are bad cops," they scream. "You are traitors to your race."

Members of the New Black Panther Party, an anti-white militia, have seized on the killings of black citizens by police to advance its cause. They stand in the faces of the black cops, berating them.

"Y'all lost your niggerhood when you laid down with the pigs," the Panther's leader tells them, as two drones fly overhead scanning the vicinity for citizen-snipers. "Y'all murderers."

We have spent time with some of these same cops, touring the most violent parts of Memphis, where shootings occur daily, if not hourly. We have done the same in Jackson, Mississippi.

The narrative filtering through the US, echoed back to Australia, is of racist cops who want to hurt black people. For cops and their families, this is hard to bear.

Jackson - midway between Dallas and Baton Rouge - is per capita America's blackest city. Of the 400 police who work its streets, only 20 are white. One of the city's veteran cops says being black offers him no cloak of protection.

"I feel it's coming," says patrol officer Charlando Thompson. "So many people don't like police." Days before he arrested a man who was winged by a police bullet after approaching a squad car and wildly punching the lone officer in the head. "He said he just wanted to punch a cop," says Thompson.

Dashanka Cooper, wife of black police Lieutenant Alfred Cooper, says she "starts the day thinking positive, paying and hoping to see him at the end of the shift".

Black Lives Matter protesters sit in the middle of Peachtree Street during a protest in downtown Atlanta. Photo / AP
Black Lives Matter protesters sit in the middle of Peachtree Street during a protest in downtown Atlanta. Photo / AP


Recent events leave her more worried than when Alfred deployed with the army to Afghanistan. "I felt comfortable knowing he was there versus the streets of Jackson," she says. "Here, you just never know what could happen."

Lieutenant Cooper tells his two daughters that if he's shot dead it's because his time has come: "Know that I died in doing something I wanted to do, which is protect my country, my family and my community."

Dashanka tells her daughters: "'Every officer is not a bad officer.' Their dad is an officer and he's a good guy. He's there to serve and protect and wouldn't want to harm anyone. He's there to help them at the first chance he can get."

Daughter Madison, aged 9, knows her dad is working in a time of unusual risk. "I pray that he's not one of them," she says.

White officer Dwight "Lane" Morrison says the targeting of cops rattles all officers. "It has changed my thinking," he says. "I have heightened awareness. I just hope it will settle down."

Morrison no longer takes his squad car home after finishing his shift. It's not considered wise to let people know where a cop sleeps.

An activist slaps high fives with members of the National Guard in Charlotte. Photo / AP
An activist slaps high fives with members of the National Guard in Charlotte. Photo / AP


After the Baton Rouge ambush, every call-out sees cops taking extra time to scan their surrounds, including rooftops. Cruising Jackson's night streets with black patrol officer Andrea Gray, 28, she says when white officers are targeted, all officers are targeted.

She became a cop after her husband, training on his bike, was deliberately sideswiped by a racist driver who thought, in the gloom, he was black. Her husband was white.

"I'm not saying the police are always justified (in shootings)," Gray says, "but I don't think we deserve to be plucked off." She says there's a "new thing" in the US, with people rejecting police authority.

Much of it centres on police powers at traffic stops. If cops establish probable cause to search a person or a vehicle, that person is handcuffed and put in a police vehicle, even before they are arrested.

Citizens feel violated; especially when weighed against their cavalier right to carry guns. But - incredibly, to Australian eyes - a person walking the streets with a semi-automatic rifle gives a cop no basis to ask questions. That would be a civil-rights violation.

That is why there was such initial confusion as to the shooter's identity during the Dallas massacre: 30 Black Lives protesters attended the rally were lawfully carrying semi-auto rifles.

Thirty-one US states are "open-carry", meaning guns can be worn in plain view without need for a permit. Not until you brandish or discharge a weapon has an offence been committed.

'THERE IS NO SAFE WAY'

Arthur "Silky Slim" Reed's Stop The Killing Inc scans Baton Rouge's police radio to learn when black people are stopped by police. Reed's team took the first footage of Alton Sterling being shot.

A protester walks in front of a line of police officers blocking the access road to I-277 on the third night of protests in Charlotte. Photo / AP
A protester walks in front of a line of police officers blocking the access road to I-277 on the third night of protests in Charlotte. Photo / AP


Reed says many black parents "have the talk" with their children about how to behave - "yes sir, no sir" - when stopped by police.

"I haven't had that talk with my children," he says. "I would much rather one of my children be a victim so we can fight to change this rather than to let them bow down to a system they don't see their father bow to.

"There is no safe way (to respond to police). Unfortunately, we live in a nation where the Ku Klux Klan still exists. They just took off their robes and put on police uniforms or became judges and lawyers."

The killing of three Baton Rouge police, says Reed, was "something we didn't need to happen. Unfortunately, it did happen because there are so many people who keep seeing the same kind of injustice being served to blacks in America and are fed up.

"This individual wasn't a member of Black Lives Matter. He came from the United States Marine Corps. They trained him to kill, we didn't."

Into this world patrol officer Gray heads each evening, alone, earning around $22 per hour, in her squad car. "My family is very concerned," she says.

In most states, cops drive solo due to budget restraints. They typically await the arrival of a second squad car when pulling vehicles over, but this is not always possible. They always touch two fingers on the boot of stopped cars.

I thought at first it was superstition, but learned it's so if they get shot, they've left prints on the fleeing vehicle.

Around 2am, there's a call to an all-night Jackson pancake joint. Two girls have just had their vehicle shot up. There are three bullet holes through the back - one round lodged in the dash, somehow missing the driver.

The driver, Aushanti, says it was a case of mistaken identity. She and her passenger sit live-streaming the event to friends, showing little concern they both nearly died.

The cops are incredulous. "To my experience, it don't happen randomly," says officer Chris Vance. "They were trying to hit somebody."

'PLANNED EXTERMINATION'

Snake, Ace and Deuce reject they are part of any gang. They say gangs are organised criminals; they just look after their own. They call themselves "Fam", for family.

Says Snake: "It's way past gangs. They're killing just because they got a brand-new gun."

Deuce agrees. "I know people who'll go out and shoot someone in the leg just to see what their gun will do. Just to see what the ammo will do. They want to see how it will open up a leg."

They believe there is strategy to flood their neighbourhood with guns and drugs - at this time, a heroin plague is running unchecked. They believe it's to keep them in ghettos, where they can stop scaring white people and hopefully exterminate themselves.

"It's all methodically planned," says Ace.

It's easy to see how he could come to this conclusion. Any young man fitting their general description is viewed as a killer, a thief, or both.

"The ward where I used to stay is now full of caucasians," says Deuce. "I can't walk there in the daytime without somebody thinking about calling the cops, and I damn sure can't go out there at night-time."

Deuce lost an opportunity to trial for Oklahoma City University's basketball team because of a minor transgression on his record for disobeying a cop's order not to cross a road.

Snake did four years for attempted murder. "I know how it feels to attack someone with a firearm, even though I did it for self-defence reasons," he says. "I don't want my momma to get a phone call saying her son is out shot dead. So I know how it feels from another mom's perceptive."

They say they are not anti-police. They are more concerned with surviving gunfire from up the street.

Then a group of younger Fam members turn up. All carry pistols in their track pants. A rap song is playing and the mood hits trance intensity as they wave loaded pistols about in our faces.

It's people like these - young, black and armed - cops fear most. And it becomes easy to see how things can go so quickly wrong on these streets.

The younger ones believe their weapons bestow strength and character. Raised without fathers, who are dead or fled to start other families, guns are the manhood they never learned.

The black community in the US is divided between those who say the cops are murderers, and those who say they are ignoring the problem within. In one week in early August, 99 people were shot in Chicago, 24 of them fatally. Almost all were black-on-black shootings.

Like most Americans, the men in the hood reject any chance of a nationwide gun ban. It's too late; guns are everywhere; besides, it's their Second Amendment constitutional right to bear arms.

"Everyone who has a gun is a patriot," says Deuce. "We need guns to protect ourselves."

LETHAL WEAPON 'PANIC BUYING'

Outgoing President Barack Obama spent two terms trying to stop gun violence and failed. It is estimated US homes have hoarded 12 trillion rounds of ammunition, insurance against any political move on guns.

The preferred weapon of mass killers is the semi-automatic AR-15. Short, black, skeletal, light and lethal, first seeing service in the Vietnam War, it is now the most popular rifle in the US.

Martin Bryant used it to do maximum damage at Port Arthur in 1996, leading to John Howard's gun buy-back scheme.

Firing one, at a gun range in Memphis, it has no recoil. Accuracy is easy, given you have plenty of rounds to adjust your aim. "They're a nice toy," says the gun-range guy.

At a gun show in Mobile, Alabama, Tim Taylor from Jared's Tactical & Firearm says the AR-15, his most popular-selling rifle, can - with the right after-market accessories and training - fire 1000 rounds a minute.

"People are buying AR-15s," he says, but not necessarily because of Dallas or Baton Rouge.

"It's because people are panicking about Hillary becoming president and her potentially banning them. I don't know whether she can, but that's what everyone's worried about. People are more worried about their rights being taken away than cops being protected."

Birmingham, Alabama father-of-three, Rodney Blakney, wears two guns on his hips: a .40 caliber revolver and a Colt .45. He and wife Audrey homeschool their kids, in fear of the streets.

"The kids can't really go outside," he says. "We have gunshots in our area. I try to protect my family, at all costs. I wish I lived in a time where I didn't have to carry, but that's how it is."

Memphis officer Lieutenant Word says open-carry laws "don't make crime better or worse".

As we cruise Mt Moriah, east Memphis, he points out all the big stores that have closed. Citizens have fled.

"Three years ago I had 55 officers," says Word. "I'm down to 19. They're quitting. What's going on is the new normal. All these people are angry and hateful. They're showing up with guns at rallies.

"They're killing officers in the open and it's going to get worse. Taking down the Second Amendment? That's like banning religion."

- news.com.au

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