The Slatest

Philando Castile Should Be the NRA’s Perfect Cause Célèbre. There’s Just One Problem.

Protesters carry a portrait of Philando Castile on Friday in St. Paul, Minnesota, after Officer Jeronimo Yanez was acquitted on all counts.

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Philando Castile received his permit to carry a firearm from the Hennepin County Sheriff’s Office on June 4, 2015. A year later, Castile had a gun in his pocket when a Minnesota police officer named Jeronimo Yanez pulled him over and shot him dead. According to dashcam footage, Yanez decided to open fire after Castile told him, truthfully and calmly, that he had a gun on him. During a three-week-long trial that ended Friday in an acquittal, Yanez testified that he shot Castile because he believed Castile was reaching for his weapon and therefore presented an imminent threat to the officer’s life.

The jury’s decision to acquit Yanez, who had been charged with second-degree manslaughter and dangerous discharge of a firearm, left Castile’s loved ones angry and heartbroken, sparked a 1,500-person protest in St. Paul, and provoked a profound outpouring of grief on social media.

Staying conspicuously silent on the Yanez verdict so far is an organization that can typically be counted on to offer extreme and uncompromising advocacy on behalf of licensed American gun owners: the National Rifle Association. As of Saturday afternoon, the NRA had issued no statement addressing the verdict, its pugnacious chief spokesman Wayne LaPierre had not been quoted in any media stories about it, and an email from Slate requesting comment had not received a response. For those who remember the aftermath of Castile’s death, this should come as no surprise: The NRA was almost completely silent then, too, putting out a tepid statement only after coming under intense pressure from some of its members. As was widely noted at the time, whoever wrote the statement—most likely LaPierre himself—couldn’t even bring himself to mention Philando Castile’s name.

On its face, the Castile case would seem to have all the trappings of a cause célèbre for the NRA. The group’s most fiercely held belief is supposed to be that law-abiding citizens shouldn’t be burdened—let alone killed in cold blood—by repressive agents of the government just because they want to protect themselves and exercise their Second Amendment rights. Castile should be a martyr for the NRA while Yanez—who reached for the holster of his service weapon as soon as Castile mentioned he was armed—should be its boogeyman.

It feels banal to even say it out loud: If Castile had been white instead of black, the NRA would have been rallying behind him and his family since the moment of his death and fundraising off his memory for the rest of time. Yes, it’s true that the organization is aligned with law enforcement in certain ways that partially explain its reluctance to get in the middle of a police shooting case. (For one thing, most of the NRA’s 5 million members, like most police officers across the country, are white and conservative.) It’s also true that, while many law enforcement leaders view the gun lobby’s most extreme policy goals—like concealed carry reciprocity—with serious unease, most rank-and file-cops do seem to believe that having more people around carrying legal guns would reduce, rather than increase, crime rates.

So maybe that’s why the NRA’s leaders are staying quiet on the Yanez verdict: They know that speaking up on Castile’s behalf would antagonize some corners of a law enforcement community whose good side they want to stay on. But even if that’s true, it doesn’t make the organization’s calculus any less craven, or less revealing about the hypocritical flimsiness of its supposed principles.

It also doesn’t change the fact that the NRA has chosen to stay on the sidelines of a case that should, by all rights, be the perfect example of everything their movement exists to oppose. Well, almost perfect.