The Scottsdale lawmaker's statement at an August town hall makes him the third Republican lawmaker in recent months — following former State Representative David Stringer and State Senator Sylvia Allen — to make headlines for comments on race.
Lawrence, who represents Legislative District 23, was speaking at a gun control event held by March For Our Lives Arizona, as Cronkite News first reported.
According to Democratic State Representative Diego Rodriguez, who also attended the forum, Lawrence was responding to a question about how lawmakers could pass gun-safety legislation without contributing to the criminalization of black and brown communities.
“I hate to bring realism to any of the conversation,” Lawrence reportedly told the audience. “And I can see you taking a deep breath already: ‘What is this nutcase going to say now?'"
"Black and brown communities, if you look at the weapons that they have, they are not licensed," Lawrence continued, despite Arizona having no state firearms licensing system. "They are better armed than the police officers who are supposed to be controlling them. They have firearms galore. Black and brown communities, black communities in particular, have gangs. And the gangs have to be stopped.”
The comments drew gasps from the audience, Cronkite News reported.
Reached on the phone, Lawrence said he regrets his remarks. He said he meant for his comments on firearms in "black and brown communities" to address guns in non-race-specific gangs.
"I am sorry I specified black gangs, because they are not different from white gangs and Latino gangs," Lawrence told Phoenix New Times. "They should not be delineated. Gangs are gangs, whatever the color of the gang."
He continued: "I am sorry that is the big thing everyone wanted to quote. It was a bad comment."
Lawrence's comments drew immediate criticism from House Democrats after the Arizona Republic published a story about them on Friday.
"Jay, we are not a different specimen needed to be controlled, just a different color from you. And BTW Police are supposed to keep us safe," tweeted Democratic State Representative Raquel Terán.
"[Some] might look or speak differently – they are all #Arizonans. Each of whom deserve to be treated with respect by law enforcement AND their elected officials," wrote House Democratic leader Charlene Fernandez.
According to my GOP collegue Jay Lawrence police officers are suppose to control black and brown communities. Jay, we are not a different specimen needed to be controlled, just a different color from you. And BTW Police are supposed to keep us safe. https://t.co/D4QWrXMFMV— Raquel Terán (@RaquelTeran) September 6, 2019
In a phone call with New Times, State Representative Rodriguez said that he reacted with confusion when Lawrence began answering the question about passing gun laws with minority communities in mind.
.@jlawrenceLD23 some might look or speak differently - they are all #Arizonans. Each of whom deserve to be treated with respect by law enforcement AND their elected officials. After all, we are part of the #United States not the divided ones #UnitedNotDivided #equality— Charlene Fernandez (@CharleneforAZ) September 6, 2019
"When he went on that tangent, immediately in my mind, it was just, 'Why is he saying this? Where is he going with this?'" Rodriguez said. "My next thought was, 'I don’t think Jay Lawrence has any meaningful experience in black and brown communities and he’s speaking out of ignorance.'"
Rodriguez, who is based in Laveen, said that, while he does not excuse Lawrence's comments, he does not believe they are "of the same nature as the racist comments that were made by Representative Stringer and Sylvia Allen.”
Stringer faced bipartisan calls for his resignation in June 2018 after expressing his belief that there "aren't enough white kids to go around" in Arizona public schools. Those calls were renewed after Phoenix New Times published audio of him saying black people "don't blend in," among other racist comments. Stringer eventually resigned over unrelated revelations that he took a plea agreement on sex crime charges involving children.
State Senator Allen was criticized in July after New Times published audio of her expressing concern over declining white birth rates and saying that the United States is "going to look like South American countries very quickly." Republican leaders who called for Stringer to step down, including Arizona Governor Doug Ducey, defended Allen.
Lawrence's comments at the August 29 forum were not the first time the lawmaker drew media attention for making controversial remarks. In February 2018, Lawrence expressed discomfort during a committee hearing on a bill to increase access to feminine hygiene products in women's prisons.
“I’m almost sorry I heard the bill,” Lawrence said in a comment that was later mocked by HBO's John Oliver. “I didn’t expect to hear pads and tampons and the problems of periods.”
In January 2018, Lawrence defended President Donald Trump's infamous description of Haiti and El Salvador as "shithole countries."
“There are villages in this world, places in this world, where people live in huts, or live seven or eight people to a small one-room house. They bathe and get their water and defecate in the same places from which their water comes,” Lawrence told New Times at the time. “I have no problem with referring to those kinds of places as hellholes, as did one of our senators, or shitholes, if our president did say that.”