The Second Amendment protects our right to bear arms in general, but it’s up to state and local laws to spell out exactly what that means. In Texas, for example, you enjoy quite a few explicit freedoms as a gun buyer and owner: no registry, no waiting period, no need for a license to carry if you’re toting a rifle or a shotgun (it’s only necessary if you’re carrying a handgun). And unless you wave your weapon around “in a manner calculated to alarm,” as Texas Penal Code Section 42.01, subsection (a)(8) obliquely puts it, you can carry your gun around most public places—and many private ones—without fear of arrest.
In short, Texas is a great place to be a gun owner. Unless, as Mark Hughes discovered, you are black.
On the morning of July 7, 2016, Hughes decided to exercise his right to open-carry a weapon in order to make a political statement. By that night, he would be the most wanted man in Dallas.
Maybe you remember Philando Castile, the black man who was shot and killed by a police officer during a traffic stop in a suburb of St. Paul, Minnesota, the evening of July 6. Castile had informed the officer that he was carrying a handgun and that he had a concealed-carry permit. He went to reach for his wallet—it’s not clear whether he did so under instruction or not—when the officer, Jeronimo Yanez, shot Castile several times in the arm and torso. Diamond Reynolds, Castile’s girlfriend, remarkably calm as her boyfriend sat slumped and bleeding beside her, started live-streaming to Facebook Live immediately after the officer fired. Within hours the video could be seen on every major news network.
By the time of Castile’s death, the so-called “police-involved death” had become an tragically recurring occurrence. Two years earlier, police shot and killed Michael Brown in Ferguson. Three months after that, an officer shot and killed a twelve-year-old boy, Tamir Rice, in Cleveland. Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge had been shot and killed by an officer only a day before Castile. The death count of black men—and boys—killed during police altercations climbed, each fanning the flames of the burgeoning Black Lives Matter movement.
Hughes, a native of the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex, had taken part in marches and rallies against police brutality already. He and his brother, Cory, a former pastor-turned-activist based in Dallas-Fort-Worth, had protested in Ferguson, Baltimore, and beyond. Since news broke about Philando Castile’s death, Cory had begun to organize a march for the evening of July 7th in downtown Dallas. Hughes planned to attend, but as a black man and a gun owner, he resolved to speak up for Philando Castile in a way that went beyond marching and holding a sign.
“I knew what I wanted to do, what I wanted to stand for,” Hughes told me. And that meant taking his gun, an AR-15 rifle.
The protest started at Belo Garden Park at 7 p.m., with roughly 800 people heading up Commerce Street. By 8:45, the protesters had begun to disperse. About ten minutes later, shots rang out. And at 10:52pm, with the shooter still at large and downtown Dallas still on lockdown, the Dallas Police Department tweeted out a photo of Hughes holding his AR-15 rifle, declaring him a suspect.
“I got instantly fearful,” says Mark. “I didn’t think I was going to make it home.”