Julián Castro’s Perspective on Guns and Policing Remains Essential

Democratic presidential candidate former Housing Secretary Julian Castro speaks in a Democratic presidential primary debate.
Democratic presidential candidate former Housing Secretary Julian Castro speaks in a Democratic presidential primary debate. Photo: John Minchillo

At Tuesday’s Democratic primary debate in Ohio, moderator Anderson Cooper asked Julián Castro how he’d end gun violence. Until then, the solutions put forth by his fellow candidates had focused mostly on implementing universal background checks, buying back some assault rifles, confiscating others, and banning their future sales. That most firearm deaths in America are caused by handguns went unmentioned. “What’s your plan to prevent those guns?” Cooper asked Castro. The former Housing secretary instead challenged the question’s premise, outlining the dangers of having police go door-to-door looking for weapons at all. “In the places I grew up in, we weren’t exactly looking for another reason for cops to come banging on the door,” Castro replied. He continued:

And y’all saw a couple days ago what happened to Atatiana Jefferson in Fort Worth. A cop showed up at 2 in the morning at her house when she was playing video games with her nephew. He didn’t even announce himself. And within four seconds he shot her and killed her through her home window. She was in her own home. And so I’m not gonna give these police officers another reason to go door-to-door in certain communities, because police violence is also gun violence, and we need to address that.

Castro drew attention to an under-examined aspect of the gun-violence debate: That too often, gun-control efforts seek intervention from the state, often using force, to prevent violence between civilians without challenging the state’s ability to use the same violence against them. This dynamic is vivified by cases like Jefferson’s, one of dozens of people killed each year by law enforcement — a disproportionate share of them black — who don’t even need guns to be viewed as threats. Jefferson was the second black person in the Dallas area whose killing at the hands of police made headlines in recent weeks. Earlier this month, former Dallas officer Amber Guyger was sentenced to ten years in prison for killing Botham Jean, her black neighbor, in his own apartment last year, after she walked in thinking it was hers and that he was a burglar.

American police officers regularly kill upwards of 900 people each year. The impunity with which they do so — the frequent lack of legal consequences, the regularity with which they lie to exaggerate the magnitude of an alleged threat and evade the perception of wrongdoing — raises the bigger question of whether they should suddenly be the only people carrying guns. The consequences of such an arrangement have already been felt, in many ways, by America’s black, Latino, and indigenous residents, whose relationship to law enforcement has long been defined by brutal antagonism and forcible control over their movement. Castro’s implied message is that white people can reasonably expect a buyback or confiscation program to unfold peacefully. But for black and brown people, there’s good reason to fear it will end with many of them dead.

Castro has made policing reform a centerpiece of his struggling campaign, including restricting the use of deadly force and making it easier to prosecute officers for misconduct. At multiple junctures, he’s invoked the names of black and Latino people killed by law enforcement to illustrate the need for such a plan, which he touts as the only one of its kind in the entire 2020 Democratic field. He speaks more specifically than practically any other candidate to the unique concerns informing how nonwhite people experience the criminal-justice system — a by-product, he says, of his own experiences growing up in Texas neighborhoods where gun violence coexisted alongside police harassment. That he’s currently polling around one percent nationally belies the value of this perspective. It’s easy to imagine Tuesday’s debate without it, and the prospect of police knocking down black, Latino, and indigenous families’ doors en route to a monopoly on gun ownership going largely unquestioned.

Julián Castro’s Essential Perspective on Guns and Policing