(ANTIMEDIA) — Americans calling for gun control in 2018 often argue that a cursory glance at history proves there was never meant to be an unrestrained right to own firearms — that there were always meant to be restrictions on gun ownership. In at least one respect, they are correct: United States history shows there has always been an element of racism underpinning gun control. From the colonial era to the post-civil war era to the 1960s, laws have sought to disempower African Americans by limiting their ability to protect themselves.
Adam Winkler, a UCLA law professor who has written extensively on the history of gun control in America, has explained the long legacy of gun control as it relates to this country’s long legacy of racism (though not all gun control measures were racist in measure, the institutional racism inherent in many policies is indisputable).
“In the colonies before the Revolution and in the states right after, racially discriminatory gun laws were commonplace,” he wrote in an article published by the New Republic in 2013.
“Fearing revolts, lawmakers enacted statutes barring slaves from possessing firearms or other weapons. That ban was often applied equally to free blacks, who otherwise enjoyed most rights, lest they join in an uprising against the slave system. Where blacks were allowed to possess arms, as in Virginia in the early 1800s, they first had to obtain permission from local officials.”
After the civil war, Southern states passed the Black Codes, which banned black Americans from owning guns. Acknowledging that gun control laws are not always effective, Winkler explained:
“You can draw up any law you like, but people don’t necessarily comply. To enforce these laws, racists began to form posses that would go out at night in large groups, generally wearing disguises, and terrorize black homes, seizing every gun they could find. These groups took different names depending on locale: the Black Cavalry in Alabama, the Knights of the White Camellia in Louisiana, the Knights of the Rising Sun in Texas. In time, they all came to be known by the moniker of one such posse begun in Pulaski, Tennessee after the war: the Ku Klux Klan.”
In the 1930s, the NRA catered to anti-immigrant sentiment, recommending a law that would “only allow concealed carry by people with a license” also suggesting that “ those licenses should be restricted to ‘suitable’ people with ‘proper reason for carrying’ a gun in public.” These laws were adopted in a majority of states.
Winkler noted further that “[d]etermining who was ‘suitable’ under these licensing schemes was left to the discretion of local law enforcement. Predictably, racial minorities and disfavored immigrants were usually deemed unsuitable, no matter how serious a threat they faced.” In one example, Martin Luther King Jr. was denied a concealed carry permit after his house was firebombed.
This racism continued into the 1960s when black Americans began to fight more militantly for their rights. The Black Panthers’ original full name was the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense, and they sought to protect themselves from institutionalized racism like police brutality, as well as racism within society at large.
In Oakland, CA, Black Panthers patrolled the streets armed, often confronting police officers who pulled over black motorists. The Panthers yelled out legal advice to those who were stopped. In 1967, Robert Mulford, a conservative lawmaker, proposed gun control legislation intended to disempower the activists. The Mulford Act sought to ban the carrying of firearms in California cities.
In response, two Black Panther leaders, Bobby Seale and Huey Newton took a radical approach. As Winkler summarized in the Atlantic:
“When Newton found out about this, he told Seale, ‘You know what we’re going to do? We’re going to the Capitol.’ Seale was incredulous. ‘The Capitol?’ Newton explained: ‘Mulford’s there, and they’re trying to pass a law against our guns, and we’re going to the Capitol steps.’ Newton’s plan was to take a select group of Panthers ‘loaded down to the gills,’ to send a message to California lawmakers about the group’s opposition to any new gun control.”
Twenty-four men and six women entered the capitol building, guns in hand, as Seale read the following statement:
“The American people in general and the black people in particular must take careful note of the racist California legislature aimed at keeping the black people disarmed and powerless. Black people have begged, prayed, petitioned, demonstrated, and everything else to get the racist power structure of America to right the wrongs which have historically been perpetuated against black people. The time has come for black people to arm themselves against this terror before it is too late.”
Unsurprisingly, this action catalyzed passage of Mulford’s legislation. Winkler explained:
“The day of their statehouse protest, lawmakers said the incident would speed enactment of Mulford’s gun-control proposal. Mulford himself pledged to make his bill even tougher, and he added a provision barring anyone but law enforcement from bringing a loaded firearm into the state capitol.”
Ronald Reagan, a conservative messiah, signed the legislation into law.
That same year, riots among black Americans fed up with institutionalized racism drew heavy police responses and the deployment of the National Guard. After a federal report blamed at least some of the unrest on the “easy availability of guns,” Winkler wrote — and the day after Robert F. Kennedy was shot — Congress passed the 1968 Omnibus Crime Control and Safe Streets Act of 1968.
“Together, these laws greatly expanded the federal licensing system for gun dealers and clarified which people—including anyone previously convicted of a felony, the mentally ill, illegal-drug users, and minors—were not allowed to own firearms. More controversially, the laws restricted importation of “Saturday Night Specials”—the small, cheap, poor-quality handguns so named by Detroit police for their association with urban crime, which spiked on weekends. Because these inexpensive pistols were popular in minority communities, one critic said the new federal gun legislation ‘was passed not to control guns but to control blacks.’” [emphasis added]
The law was later expanded and amended.
Winkler, who has meticulously documented the racist history of many gun control measures, still advocates enacting certain legislation to restrain guns. He argues that just because some laws were racist at one time does not mean any attempt to regulate firearms is invalid.
However, the 1968 gun control act provides a perfect example of how the system as a whole can restrain the rights of minorities in the modern era. As he notes, “illegal drug users” and felons were subject to extra scrutiny and control. In 2018, many of the same people advocating for harsher gun laws will be quick to admit there are still many racist laws on the books — and that African Americans are far more likely to be convicted of drug crimes and crimes in general. If gun laws are expanded to make it more difficult for “criminals” to get guns, which demographic will have their rights affected most?
The shockingly disparate impact of federal gun laws.
How would even more stringent gun laws affect their ability to defend themselves in an era of widespread sentiment that the president is racist — in the era of Charlottesville and protesters marching in the streets? If this is the current paradigm, if Donald Trump’s presidency is quickly cascading into a dictatorship, and if the country itself remains racist, what right do gun control proponents have to call for restrictions on weapons some people may need to defend themselves both against violence from law enforcement and racist Americans?
As journalist Justin King recently said of calls to ban assault weapons:
“You say it’s not necessary for self-defense, I would imagine that those who have been confronted by multiple klan members or gays who are about to get bashed would severely disagree. I would really appreciate it if you would stop trying to sign away the rights of minorities. Simply because you don’t need it to protect yourself doesn’t mean others don’t.”
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