Imagine if you will, centuries of racially-targeted denial of a well established, and popular civil right in the United States. Within this context, imagine that going back to colonial times, that it was at times legal to physically attack or even kill a free black person who was practicing this right, or that later state constitutions would outright prohibit the exercise of this right if you happened to have the wrong skin color.
Imagine too, the US Supreme Court determining that citizenship rights could not be extended to free persons of color, lest they exercise this fundamental liberty. I am of course, talking about the right to keep and bear arms, which in a nutshell has laid out the horrors of systemic racism applied to that right from the colonial era to the Civil War.
In 1857, Chief Justice Taney wrote in the infamous Dred Scott case, that to extend citizenship to the “negro race” would allow black people to “keep and carry arms wherever they went.” This, along with voting and free speech, was problematic to white America at the time. Fear of slave revolts was so powerful, that even free blacks were to be denied basic civil rights, lest they perhaps attempt to overthrow slaveholders.
After the Civil War, when thousands of freed slaves had served in the Union Army, and learned the use of arms, the situation was no better. As former Confederate states rejoined the Union, they quickly imposed onerous restrictions on the bearing of arms, with the understanding that they would not be enforced against white citizens. In 1870, the state of Tennessee banned ownership of all but the most expensive handguns. By 1907 five southern states had outlawed handguns altogether (South Carolina, 1902) required their registration (Mississippi, 1906) or had instituted full or partial bans on inexpensive handguns (Tennessee in 1870 and 79, Arkansas in 1882, and Alabama in 1893).
In each case, these laws were explicitly race based. Other southern states would over time admit that their gun laws were specifically designed to limit or prevent black citizens from acquiring or bearing arms, or would enforce such laws only along racial lines. In 1911, New York City passed the infamous Sullivan Act which was an open effort to disarm Eastern European immigrants, and other persons not wealthy or politically connected enough to acquire a permit to carry a pistol. As late as 1968, many believed the Gun Control Act of 1968 was passed less to control guns, and more “to control blacks”.
Thomas Nasts 1878 political cartoon vilified white supremacy and reveals how helpless recently freed blacks were in some parts of the South
Into the 1980’s and 90’s further attacks against poor (and usually black) persons and their right to keep and bear arms continued. Many state housing projectsattempted to ban the possession of guns in public housing, while in 1988 Maryland imposed a ban on inexpensive handguns, perhaps the most modern and recent ban on guns based on price.
Florida at one time, went so far as to require a license to own “Winchester rifles” or other repeating rifles. This law, first enacted in 1893, and revised in 1901 was an insidious way to prevent minorities from gaining access to modern rifle cartridges like the .30-30 Winchester or modern bolt action rifles chambered for the same cartridge as the US Army Springfield. By attempting to bar blacks and other minorities from accessing modern repeating rifles, Florida was seeking to ensure they would remain helpless against a tyrannical state, and white supremacists. Needless to say, white people never had trouble gaining permission to own modern repeating rifles during this time.
The National Firearms Act of 1934, or NFA was the first attempt at a national set of gun control laws that applied in all states. While not overtly racist, it targeted “gangster weapons”, and also would have originally placed handguns under the same strict regulation as machine guns and other NFA items. However, then, as now, “gangster” is often a polite way of describing an ethnic minority or minorities who are seen as undesirable. In the early 20th century, this was often Eastern European immigrants, which New York City’s Sullivan act targeted, in what may have been the first case of racist gun control laws targeted at Europeans.
Today, the NFA continues to burden law abiding Americans by vilifying safety equipment such as suppressors, and making it difficult to acquire rifles and shotguns with short barrels. All this, due to racially driven moral panics over Prohibition era “gangsters” who often ran the gamut of socially unacceptable ethnic origins.
Today, there is a great deal of heated debate on the way police treat ethnic minorities lawfully bearing arms as opposed to how they treat white people. In the 1960’s and 70’s, active and openly armed resistance played an important role in the Civil Rights Movement, and the Black Panthers most famously took it to to extremes by openly bearing arms at several state capitol buildings. It should be noted, that in California and Washington State, that action resulted in new laws about the open display of guns, but modern day (and mostly white) open displays of arms under similar circumstances have not been met with new legislation.
Members of the Black Panthers protest for gun rights in Olympia, Washington – 1969
We might speculate that modern day attempts at gun control are race neutral, but if you consider that most, if not all gun control is driven from major population centers, and that “tough on crime” is just another racist dogwhistle, then we can start seeing the more implicit gun control. Rarely do these sorts of laws openly target rural areas, but “inner city gun crime” is regularly trotted out as some sort of crisis to stamp out – and if it happens to disarm law abiding minorities, who cares?
One might ask why in the enlightened 21st century, there is still fear over armed minorities. The answer remains the same. An armed person is free, but a disarmed person is a subject. The War on Drugs succeeded in destroying the inner cities by breaking up families, and disenfranchising millions of minorities, and on the heels of this, modern day gun control has succeeded in leaving only criminals and violent gangs armed. Today, as in the harsh years of the 19th century, racism requires minorities to be unarmed, and unable to fully stand up for themselves, or their rights, lest they too gain their place in the sun and walk as equals in American society.
The question then, is how to combat this pervasive, systemic racism? The very political party that claims to support the best interests of American minorities, also is the one that openly, and actively seeks to disarm them. The Democratic Party’s open assault on gun rights even has a paternalistic ring to it, that is straight out of the 19th century. We must ban guns “for the children” or “to protect our communities.” From their lofty (and mostly white) seats of power, they demand the inner cities and urban areas of America surrender their arms, their liberties and their rights in order to “fight crime”, and in return, they are met with hostile police forces, an ongoing war on civil rights disguised as a war on drugs, and the assurance that the government will protect them. This of course, being the same government that has spent hundreds of years actively suppressing these populations. How it is different today is beyond me.
Today, it is expected ethnic minorities will be left wing leaning, and it is expected if you are left wing, you are anti gun. It is a perfect formula that took centuries to perfect. How better to disarm a people, than to convince them to support that idea themselves? It is insidious, twisted and a violation of all basic moral and legal ideals which this country was founded upon. Landmark Supreme Court decisions like Heller and McDonald have established once and for all that the 2nd Amendment applies to ALL states and ALL Americans. Places like Chicago and Washington DC have grossly abused these rulings by imposing strict limits on carrying guns, and imposed excessive financial and regulatory burdens on acquiring permits to carry a gun. Other states like California and many East Coast states already do the same. It is the same, age old tactic. Pay lip service to civil rights, but make sure that only the well to do, and well connected can actually exercise them.
What then can be done to combat the deeply rooted racism that is at the heart of gun control in modern America? This is a very complicated question, as the very idea of minorities organizing for their interests has been seen as threatening by many people over the years. However, there are now a rock solid set of Supreme Court cases which make it patently clear that the right to keep and bear arms is a right for all Americans to enjoy. There are many pro-gun groups which actively promote the right to keep and bear arms, and increasing minority membership in them is a net positive for all parties involved.
The divisive nature of American politics today often pits people with shared common interests against each other, if they happen to espouse different beliefs in other areas. While many rational Americans agree about some things, they do not agree on all, but in the arena of gun rights, all gun owners should welcome each other, and put aside other political differences to promote gun rights for all people. This may be the biggest stumbling block to overcoming the deep seated racism that is modern day gun control. Far too often I have seen so-called conservativesreject gun owning allies, because they voted the wrong way. Divisive and emotion driven political beliefs on non gun related issues keep gun owners apart from each other, and this wedge is almost assuredly a deliberate action to keep people from coming together in common purpose.
Racism is a vicious, ugly and horrible blight on American society, and now more than ever it must be stamped out, and gun rights taken back from laws rooted in keeping slaves and free blacks under control, or in suppressing the rights of the poorest and most vulnerable members of our society. Civil rights are for everybody, and everybody must come together to defend them.
For more reading about the roots of racism in American gun control, I recommend Clayton Cramer’s The Racist Roots of Gun Control, and Robert F. Williams’ Negroes With Guns as well as Akinyele Omowale Umoja’s We Will Shoot Back: Armed Resistance in the Mississippi Freedom Movement.