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The Alabama mall shooting highlights the dangers of owning a gun while black

The shooting of Emantic Bradford shows how gun rights don’t protect black Americans from police violence.

Protesters in Alabama carry “Justice for E.J.” signs days after Emantic Bradford Jr. was killed by a police officer.
Protesters in Alabama carry “Justice for E.J.” signs days after Emantic Bradford Jr. was killed by a police officer.
Kim Chandler/AP

When Emantic “E.J.” Fitzgerald Bradford Jr., a 21-year-old black man, heard gunfire at Alabama’s Riverchase Galleria mall on Thanksgiving night, he tried to flee. But when police arrived on the scene, they shot and killed Bradford, issuing a now-retracted statement incorrectly identifying the young man as the gunman.

Now, the local police department is suggesting that Bradford would be alive if he hadn’t been carrying his licensed firearm.

Police in Hoover, Alabama, initially praised the “heroic” officers involved in the shooting of Bradford, who they claimed had shot an 18-year-old man following a dispute and struck a 12-year-old girl with a stray bullet. But a day later, the police department said that while it was possible Bradford was involved “in some aspect of the altercation,” he did not fire the shots that started the mall incident.

As Vox’s German Lopez explains, Bradford did appear to have a gun. But he was licensed to carry a firearm, and it’s not illegal in Alabama to carry a gun in public. Witnesses have also told a lawyer representing Bradford’s family that, contrary to the official police account of the incident, Bradford never drew his weapon.

But the Hoover Police Department is sticking to its story: “We can say with certainty Mr. Bradford brandished a gun during the seconds following the gunshots, which instantly heightened the sense of threat to approaching police officers responding to the chaotic scene,” the department said in a Monday morning statement. Later in the day, the department attempted to clarify these remarks, issuing a second statement saying that “the word ‘brandish’ was used because Mr. Bradford had a gun in his hand as police officers responded to the active shooter situation.”

The officer involved in the shooting has not been named and has been placed on administrative leave.

While the police department argues that the shooting was a tragic mistake stemming from a reasonable fear, Bradford’s family says the incident is rooted in racial profiling: that police fired immediately upon seeing a young black man with a gun, despite the fact that his gun was legal and he might have been trying to help others.

According to local news reports, “Several shoppers were seen with their guns drawn” as the mall shooting unfolded. While reports have noted that the mall itself prohibited weapons, it is unclear if that ban was ever enforced.

Officers “saw a black man with a gun and he made his determination that he must be a criminal,” civil rights attorney Benjamin Crump, who is representing the family, said during a Sunday press conference. Crump says that witnesses saw Bradford trying to get people away from the initial shooting, and that he kept his gun in his waistband. The family has called for video of the shooting to be released.

Bradford’s family says his death is merely the latest in a series of incidents in which a black man who was lawfully armed was killed by police. They have a point: There have been several high-profile cases of black gun owners finding themselves in danger when interacting with police.

The Alabama mall shooting is the latest incident to raise questions about the rights of black gun owners

The police department’s recent statements about Bradford, coupled with the fact that Bradford lawfully owned his gun, has called attention to the ways that black gun owners are often viewed with suspicion and treated as threats.

The topic was most recently in the news in early November after the shooting of Jemel Roberson, a black security guard who stopped a bar shootout, only to be killed by a responding police officer.

Bradford’s family argues that, much like Roberson, their loved one was also denied the ability to be seen as a “good guy with a gun.”

”The pattern in America is if there’s a good guy with a gun and he happens to be black, police don’t see him as a good guy,” Crump said over the weekend.

The deaths of Bradford and Roberson are two of the latest in recent years where a black gun owner was fatally shot by police. In July 2016, after telling a Minnesota police officer that he was carrying a legal firearm when he was pulled over, Philando Castile was shot while reaching for his wallet.

In July 2018, Harith Augustus, a black barber working in Chicago’s South Shore neighborhood, was shot by Chicago police after an officer stopped the man and questioned him for “exhibiting characteristics of an armed person.” Video showed Augustus attempting to show an officer what appeared to be an Illinois firearm owner’s ID, before being startled by an officer attempting to grab him from behind.

In other cases — like that of John Crawford, who was walking around a Walmart with an air rifle in 2014, and Tamir Rice, a 12-year-old shot while holding a toy pellet gun — police officers have opened fire on black people who weren’t actually holding firearms at all.

The shootings have fueled concerns among black gun owners. Despite laws protecting gun rights and ownership, black gun owners say they aren’t as free to exercise these rights. “I choose to own guns for self-defense,” Louis Dennard, director of the National African American Gun Association’s Minnesota chapter, told Vox in 2017. “But that doesn’t automatically mean I’m safer when I’m armed — especially if I am stopped by police.”

“We’re being killed because we’re exercising our right in a legal, moral and ethical manner,” NAAGA vice president Douglas Jefferson told Mic shortly after Roberson’s shooting. “The right to bear arms is a right we’re supposed to have on paper, but in practice, it’s being curtailed. You do not have the right if it’s not being universally respected.”

It’s an issue that dates back decades, but it’s seeing new attention as gun ownership among African Americans increases and national attention to racial disparities in police shootings remains high.

The issue has led to criticisms of groups like the National Rifle Association for their reluctance to jump into discussions of police shootings involving black gun owners, and has spurred the creation of groups like the NAAGA — the National African American Gun Association — which aims to fill a gap for black gun owners whose policy needs aren’t being addressed by higher-profile advocacy groups.

With Bradford’s death, it is likely that these discussions will continue. “My son always respected the police and if you would have given a command when you came around that corner, say freeze, drop your weapon, he would have complied with your order,” Emantic Bradford Sr. recently told reporters.

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