Does Anti-Pot Prejudice Explain NRA’s Reluctance to Condemn Philando Castile Shooting?

Yesterday the Washington Examiner claimed to have discovered the real reason for the National Rifle Association's reluctance to take a stand on the 2016 shooting of Philando Castile, a Minnesota man with a concealed-carry permit who was killed after announcing to the cop who pulled him over that he was armed. The sticking point for the NRA, according to the Examiner, was not, as many critics on the left have alleged, that Castile was black but that he was a cannabis consumer. The Examiner report, which was quickly echoed by outlets such as The Raw Story, Salon, and Newsmax, was based on an ambiguous tweet by NRA spokesperson Dana Loesch that does not bear the weight these stories place on it but nevertheless raises some interesting questions about anti-pot prejudice and the right to bear arms.

The context of Loesch's tweet was a thread begun by Colion Noir, an NRA-TV host who has been sharply critical of Jeronimo Yanez, the officer who shot Castile and was acquitted of manslaughter in June. Noir was responding to an August 9 tweet that reiterated the familiar (and demonstrably false) allegation that the NRA only cares about the Second Amendment rights of white people. "How much the NRA cares about your legal right to own a gun is directly related to the color of your skin," wrote a woman named Laura Weatherspoon. Noir, who is black, posted a link to that tweet with the comment, "Good God (forgive me father) enough w/ this lame argument." When another Twitter user asked Weatherspoon for evidence to support her contention, she replied, "Philando Castile followed the safety rules he was taught and he was shot to death. NRA said nothing. They are usually quick to speak up." That is where Loesch chimed in, saying, "He was also in possession of a controlled substance and a firearm simultaneously, which is illegal. Stop lying."

Loesch's comment could be read as a response to Weatherspoon's complaint that the "NRA said nothing," which is how the Examiner et al. interpreted it. But it was more likely a response to Weatherspoon's assertion that "Philando Castile followed the safety rules he was taught." Later in the same thread, someone asked, "Why can't you just say 'Philando Castile should not have been killed for legally possessing a gun?'" Loesch replied that "it wasn't legal possession due to controlled substance present." Loesch, who has avoided taking a position on whether Yanez should have been acquitted, insisted she was not defending the shooting, which she has called "a terrible tragedy that could have been avoided" (by whom or how, she did not say). On Twitter she said she was "remarking specifically on someone's language," i.e., Witherspoon's claim that "Philando Castile followed the safety rules."

So it's true that Loesch brought up Castile's marijuana use, although she did not say it was the reason the NRA, which the day after the shooting said it would "have more to say once all the facts are known," has not criticized Yanez or commented on his acquittal. But she obviously thinks Castile's pot smoking is relevant in some way. It is hard to figure out why.

Although "possession of a controlled substance while armed" is a distinct offense in some states, Minnesota does not seem to be one of them. But Minnesota law, like federal law, does prohibit "an unlawful user of any controlled substance" from possessing a gun in any setting or circumstance. Yanez testified that he smelled marijuana when he approached Castile's car, and police later found six grams inside an uncovered Mason jar wrapped in a plastic bag. Castile's girlfriend, Diamond Reynolds, who was in the passenger seat at the time of the shooting, said she regularly smoked pot with him. If so, Castile was not legally allowed to own a gun, let alone carry it in public. According to the state of Minnesota and the federal government, none of the 36 million or so Americans who consume cannabis each year, even in states where it's legal, has any Second Amendment rights.

You might expect that an organization dedicated to defending the Second Amendment would object to such an irrational, unfair, and arguably unconstitutional rule. When it comes to other restrictions on the right to arms, the NRA does not take the position that "the law is the law" and leave it at that. To the contrary, the NRA criticizes gun laws that it believes unjustifiably impinge on that right, such as "assault weapon" bans, limits on magazine capacity, and restrictive carry-permit policies. Just yesterday, Loesch went on Fox News to criticize a Michigan law that bars foster parents from carrying concealed weapons, saying, "It is the right of an American citizen to be able to bear arms." On Tuesday, Loesch retweeted a Reason TV video in which John Stossel castigates police and prosecutors in New York for arresting and jailing gun owners from other states who unknowingly violate local law when they fly into the city with their weapons. She apparently does not take the attitude that the gun owners should have known better and have only themselves to blame. But when it comes to the arbitrary ban on gun possession by cannabis consumers, neither the NRA nor Loesch raises any objections.

Castile's cannabis consumption is in any case irrelevant to the question of whether Yanez's decision to shoot him was justified in the circumstances, unless you not only believe the officer's bizarre claim that the whiff of marijuana made him fear for his life but also think such a reaction would have been reasonable. Bringing marijuana up, as Yanez's defenders frequently do, is a way of glossing over the officer's inept, panicky handling of the traffic stop, which is the main reason Castile is dead. Loesch and the NRA have been carefully avoiding that issue, and I suspect their reticence has less to do with race or anti-pot prejudice than with fear of offending cops by seeming to side with their critics on the left.

I reached out to Loesch, who complained that Washington Examiner reporter Kelly Cohen did not try to interview her, via Twitter and the NRA, but I have not heard back yet. I will update this post if and when I do.