The Racist History of Gun Control in America
Not many people realize how entwined the histories of gun control and racial discrimination are. I recently found an eye-opening article, originally published in the Kansas Journal of Law and Public Policy and reproduced online with permission, that exposes the sordid truth. I feel it really pulled together a great deal of disparate facts on the issue to paint a very well-supported picture of gun control as a tool of racial oppression, both in the past as well as today.
It’s pretty astonishing to see just how blatant the racism used to be. Before the Civil War, for example, Southern states had been able to get away with pretty much anything if it deprived blacks of rights, including their rights to bear arms. There are a number of startlingly, overtly, outrageously racist laws that more or less explicitly stated, “negroes cannot own firearms”. The article gives several examples, so I encourage you to read the whole thing.
Many of these laws operated under the tortured logic that blacks (even free blacks!) were not and could never become citizens of the United States, so therefore they could not count on the constitutional rights that whites could. In an attempt to nullify these and other racist laws, the 14th amendment was ratified in 1866 following the end of the Civil War, and codified a very broad definition of citizenship:
All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside. No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.
But motivated humans are tricky. The South wasn’t ready to give up its racism, hate, or bitterness just yet, and so Southern lawmakers sought ways to continue to curtail blacks’ rights even in light of the 14th amendment. And one of the most often-curtailed rights was the right to bear arms; after all, it would be terribly bothersome to lynch an black man who was capable of defending himself. In fact, some of the worst laws were written specifically following instances of blacks using guns to protect themselves from klansmen or lynch mobs.
After the War
It was in the period after the war that gun control became less overtly racist and more recognizable from a modern perspective, hiding the racist overtones in legalese and doublespeak. The new laws were written so as to satisfy the technicalities of the 14th amendment; they could no longer explicitly prevent blacks from exercising their rights, but instead a common approach was to specify the necessity of obtaining the consent of a city, county, or state official for the exercise of the right in question, and some of the first ones to be rewritten concerned guns. The South, terrified of the possibility that blacks would take bloody retribution for centuries of forced enslavement, worked hastily to disarm them by mandating that they appeal to white officials for licenses to possess weapons. Not surprisingly, the newly-freed blacks were turned down, while whites somehow had no difficulty obtaining the licenses.
The true racism underlying provisions that mandated the consent of government officials would be shockingly revealed in the following century by the racist Justice Buford of a Florida court, who presided over the 1941 case of white man charged with unlawfully carrying a concealed weapon in the glove box of his car:
“I know something of the history of this legislation. The original Act of 1893 was passed when there was a great influx of negro laborers in this State drawn here for the purpose of working in turpentine and lumber camps. The same condition existed when the Act was amended in 1901 and the Act was passed for the purpose of disarming the negro laborers and to thereby reduce the unlawful homicides that were prevalent in turpentine and saw-mill camps 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.”
The judge was even only telling half of the truth. The original 1893 law was written in response to a black town using lever-action rifles and revolvers to shoot the daylights out of a bunch of klansmen who were attacking the town; the law cracked down on black ownership of just those weapons. Buford was dead right when he said that it had never been enforced against whites who broke it, though. And back to the present, the white man who ran afoul of this antique law in 1941 was found not guilty, blood-boilingly enough. Today, this sort of predatory and discriminatory system is known as “may issue” licensing and is defended vehemently by advocates of gun control, who claim that the oversight of government officials works to cut down on criminals and madmen wishing to acquire guns.
The transition to modernity
Sadly, the reality today contradicts this assertion. Though racism is slackening with time, it is very much alive in localities with “may issue” systems, which routinely deny licenses to those who have the misfortune not to be white. For example, in 1995, the names of all of Fresno county’s approximately 2500 concealed weapon license holders were published in a local newspaper (article reproduced here); 3% of them had hispanic names; 44% of Fresno residents are hispanic. By contrast, in the 35 states that must issue licenses to anyone applying who meets the legal requirements (“shall issue” states), the racial makeup of licensees closely matches that of the population at large.
As a “may issue” state, the rest of California has similarly racist tendencies in the issuance of concealed carry licenses; the counties that have fewer blacks than the state average (6.7%) have on average five times more license holders than the “blacker” counties. Coincidence? No, just legally-sanctioned racism.
Then there’s New York City, home to 18 million and which requires a license to even possess any type of firearm at all, where only 4450 ordinary citizens are licensed to carry concealed weapons. The “may issue” NYPD is famously discriminatory about the issuance of licenses, leading to the opening of law firms whose sole area of expertise is the navigation of New York City’s gun laws. Does a poor person have any chance to navigate such a restrictive system? Who can afford such a lawyer but the rich? This system goes beyond race to discriminate against the poor as well!
Sure enough, at the same time that ordinary citizens are routinely denied permits, politicians and celebrities make up a large proportion of those so licensed, including Donald Trump, Robert De Niro, and, outrageously enough, the famously anti-gun New York State senator Chuck Schumer. Isn’t it nice to be rich, white, famous, and politically connected?
In practice, allowing local law enforcement to determine who does and who does not get to exercise a right leads to gross abuses against poor people and racial minorities. Even the vocabulary used by modern gun-control advocates is racist in origin. Ever wonder about the origin of “Saturday night special” — the term used to describe cheap, low-quality firearms that were once typically used by urban criminals? I did too. It turns out the term originated among racist police officers of the late 19th century who would ignore cries of help from impoverished black neighborhoods where crime was rampant, sneering, “just another niggertown Saturday night!” I find it totally shocking and coldly ironic that such racially offensive slang is now common parlance among the modern Left’s more anti-gun elements.
I think most of them don’t know the racist history of the laws they’re proposing and defending. I sure as hell didn’t when I was one of them. I think it’s important to know the history of what you advocate, and adding racism to the long list of problems I now find with gun control just makes me more ashamed that I ever supported it.