Did you know that a number of gun control ideas and laws have their roots in racism and discriminatory practices? With racial tensions running high and white supremacists in the forefront of the daily news, there are some important lessons we can learn about how guns and the Second Amendment have allowed people to defend themselves against hate when nobody else would.
According to this op-ed piece from thehill.com written by David Kopel and Joseph Greenlee, the subterfuge and tricky wording of modern gun control laws that appear to be minor concessions or reasonable requirements for permitting or gun registration go all the way back to the Civil War.
One month after the Confederacy surrendered to the Union in 1865, the story says Frederick Douglass urged federal action to stop state and local infringement of the right to bear arms. Douglass said that until such a thing was accomplished, “the work of the abolitionists is not finished.”
The story says that, according to the Special report of the Paris Anti-Slavery Conference of 1867, freedmen in some southern states “were forbidden to own or bear firearms, and thus were rendered defenseless against assault.”
Black residents could therefore easily be controlled through threats of violence and violent acts, against which they had no viable defense.
These laws were nixed by Congress through several pieces of legislation passed in the late 1800s and the 14th Amendment, ratified in 1868, which made the Second Amendment applicable to all states.
So, to get around all that, some southern states passed laws that, on the surface, had nothing to do with freed slaves owning firearms—but that’s precisely what they were about. Sound familiar?
“Because of the 14th Amendment, gun control laws now had to be racially neutral. But states quickly learned to draft neutrally-worded laws for discriminatory application. Tennessee and Arkansas prohibited handguns that freedmen could afford, while allowing expensive ‘Army & Navy’ handguns, which ex-Confederate officers already owned.”
“The South Carolina law against concealed carry put blacks in chain gangs (if they violated it), but whites only paid a small fine, if anything. In the early 20th century, such laws began to spread beyond the ex-Confederacy. An Ohio Supreme Court Justice acknowledged that such statutes reflected ‘a decisive purpose to entirely disarm the Negro.’”
When lynchings increased in the 1880s, many black Americans in southern states were encouraged to buy rifles to defend themselves, the story says.
Ida B. Wells, a journalist of the era, wrote in a widely circulated pamphlet Southern Horrors about cases in Kentucky and Florida “where the men armed themselves” and fended off lynch mobs. “The lesson this teaches,” Wells wrote, “is that a Winchester rifle should have a place of honor in every black home, and it should be used for that protection which the law refuses to give.”
After that, the Florida state legislature enacted a law requiring a license to possess “a pistol, Winchester rifle or other repeating rifle.”
The story says a Supreme Court Justice in Florida later said of the law: “The Act was passed for the purpose of disarming the negro laborers” and “was never intended to apply to the white population and in practice has never been so applied.”
There have been a number of instances where minorities have used firearms to defend themselves and their communities against racist attacks, including during government-ordered riots that claimed hundreds of lives in the early 1900s, the story says.
When the Ku Klux Klan targeted the Lumbee Indians in North Carolina in 1958 because of their “race mixing,” the Lumbee drove off the Klan in an armed confrontation known as the Battle of Hayes Pond.
In more modern times, former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice became a self-described “Second Amendment absolutist,” because of her experiences growing up in Birmingham, Alabama. She once recalled the bombings that occurred in the summer of 1963 and how her father helped guard the streets at night, the story says. She argued that if civil rights wokers’ guns had been registered, they could have been confiscated, leaving the community defenseless.
In 2010, Justice Clarence Thomas wrote that the right to bear arms is not only necessary to guard against a potentially hostile government, but also to serve as the last line of defense when the government fails to secure public safety. He was referencing present-day Chicago.
“Self-defense is an inherent human right. The 14th Amendment is America’s promise that no law-abiding person will be deprived of that right, regardless of color.”