Preface: I was raised to be against guns. My parents hated guns, and believed that they only lead to crime and accidental shootings.
I was raised in a blue state, and I have long been deeply influenced by leading voices for non-violence, such as Gandhi and King. So – until recently – I was pro gun-control.
As such, I was stunned to learn about the historical background behind gun control campaigns.
The Real History of Gun Control
UCLA Constitutional law professor Adam Winkler – whose commentary has been featured on CNN, The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, The Wall Street Journal, The New Republic, and numerous other outlets, and who is a contributor to The Daily Beast and The Huffington Post – notes (via the Wall Street Journal):
[The history of gun control in America] was a constant pressure among white racists to keep guns out of the hands of African-Americans, because they would rise up and revolt.
The KKK began as a gun-control organization. Before the Civil War, blacks were never allowed to own guns. During the Civil War, blacks kept guns for the first time – either they served in the Union army and they were allowed to keep their guns, or they buy guns on the open market where for the first time there’s hundreds of thousands of guns flooding the marketplace after the war ends. So they arm up because they know who they’re dealing with in the South. White racists do things like pass laws to disarm them, but that’s not really going to work. So they form these racist posses all over the South to go out at night in large groups to terrorize blacks and take those guns away. If blacks were disarmed, they couldn’t fight back.
Brendan O’Neill notes at the Guardian:
For years – for two centuries, in fact – gun control was a largely Right-wing, reactionary campaign issue, not a Left-wing one. The fact that it has now been adopted by Leftists is very revealing indeed.
Before the 1980s, Right-wingers and racists were the most vocal in demanding that the states in America should strictly circumscribe gun ownership. Where the revolutionary government of 1791 made the second amendment to the US Constitution, which insisted on the right of the citizenry to bear arms as a safeguard against tyrannical government, successive legislators and campaigners who were freaked out by the prospect of former slaves getting hold of guns called for a rethink of this fundamental liberty. So after the Nat Turner rebellion of 1831, when a band of black rebels shot at white slave owners and freed their slaves, the state of Tennessee altered its constitution. Where once it had guaranteed that “the freemen of this state have a right to keep and to bear arms for their common defence”, post-Nat Turner it said “the free white men of this state have a right to keep and to bear arms for their common defence”.
Throughout the 1800s, states passed gun-control laws that were fundamentally racist. So, panicked by the prospect of more black rebellions against white landowners, the North Carolina Supreme Court passed a statute in 1840 that said: “If any free negro, mulatto, or free person of colour shall wear or carry about his or her person, or keep in his or her house, any shotgun, musket, rifle, pistol, sword, dagger or bowie-knife… he or she shall be guilty of a misdemanour, and may be indicted therefore.”
In the 1890s, Florida also passed race-specific gun-control laws. Then, in 1941, a judge in Florida’s Supreme Court called the laws into question when he overturned the conviction of a black man for carrying a handgun without a permit. He overturned the conviction, he said, because this law “was passed for the purpose of disarming the negro labourers … and to give the white citizens in sparsely settled areas a better feeling of security. The statute was never intended to be applied to the white population and in practice has never been so applied.”
In the modern period, too, there was a hugely reactionary bent to gun-control campaigns. In the early 20th century new laws, such as the 1911 Sullivan Law in New York City, were passed to prevent the huge influx of immigrants from southern and eastern Europe from getting their hands on guns. As Gary Kleck puts it in his book Point Blank: Guns and Violence in America, gun control was anything but a liberal cause: “In the 19th and early 20th century, gun-control laws were often targeted at blacks in the south and the foreign-born in the north.”
Whatever you think of the National Rifle Association, it is hard to disagree with its observation that: “The historical purpose of gun-control laws in America has been one of discrimination and disenfranchisement of blacks, immigrants and other minorities”.
And avid gun control advocate Robert Sherrill notes in his book, The Saturday Night Special:
The Gun Control Act of 1968 was passed not to control guns but to control blacks, and inasmuch as a majority of Congress did not want to do the former but were ashamed to show that their goal was the latter, the result was that they did neither. Indeed, this law, the first gun-control law passed by Congress in thirty years, was one of the grand jokes of our time.