Guns, Race, Religion and Ethnicity
This guest author post is by Dr. Anthony D. Cooling, author of Still a Hollow Hope: State Power and the Second Amendment , now available in hardcover, paper and ebook.
Gun control laws have to be understood in the historical context of whose guns they intended to control. Any in-depth study of the issue of guns in America reveals just how deeply the right to keep and bear arms, as expressed in culture and law, reflects America’s complicated web of race relations. Not that we should shy away from this; even grade school level textbooks use religious denominations and racial and ethnic cultural traits as explanatory variables for why states have the cultures and laws that they do. This is even true when speaking about just ethnicities and their cultural traits, and not just race. Ignoring these is a disservice to the social sciences and an understanding of causality. For example, in Illinois, heavy Swedish immigration strengthened the individualistic culture that was already present because the culture of Sweden is individualistic with moralistic streaks. Likewise, the changes wrought by, and wrought to, Black Americans in the process of achieving their full political rights have changed the culture of each state, as they were modified by a large group of new and politically active citizens who are moralistic in outlook but individualist in governing practice.
The right to keep and bear arms in America is inextricably tied to race and the Founding Fathers were restrictive about who they wanted to give the right to keep and bear arms to. After all, Colonial America in times and places denied Catholics the ability to keep and bear arms (Harsanyi 2018). The English Bill of Rights from 1689, the basis from which America drew its inspiration, says; “That the subjects which are Protestants may have arms for their defense suitable to their conditions and as allowed by law” (emphasis added). In 1695 Parliament passed a law aimed at Ireland, and Catholics could only possess or carry arms with a government license (D. Kopel 2015). The English, rightly so, feared Irish rebellion as well as Catholic agitation in an era of religiously motivated wars and insurrections in Europe.
There are perfectly uncontroversial comparisons to be made in the narrative of demographic change and how that plays into the right to keep and bear arms. In American colonial history, the aforementioned anti-Catholic bias is one such example. The Catholic experiment that was Maryland, a place originally of religious toleration, was overwhelmed with Protestant settlers. Ironically, it later had some of the most restrictive anti-Catholic laws of any of the original thirteen colonies, including for a time, the banning of Catholics from keeping and bearing arms. By comparison, many of the first controls on guns were explicitly racist in intent and would seem perfectly normal in that era, in that racial minorities were not given the same rights as the majority. In 1834, the state of Tennessee revised its constitution from, “That the freemen of this State have a right to keep and bear arms for their common defense” to “That the free white men of this State have a right to keep and bear arms for their common defense” (Harsanyi 2018, 241). By 1834, no one was particularly worried about Catholics with guns rebelling against Protestants, but they were still worried about enslaved people and freed Black people with guns. After all, John Brown’s nascent slave rebellion began at Harpers Ferry in West Virginia to obtain the weapons in the military armory located there, and it was quickly put down by armed White citizens: local farmers, shopkeepers, and the militia.
Even as individual rights began being expanded to previously submerged minorities after the Civil War via the promise of the Fourteenth Amendment, they were eventually curtailed by the dominant political majority. Senator Jacob Howard, when he introduced the Fourteenth Amendment, said that it was to protect “the personal rights guaranteed and secured by the first eight amendments to the Constitution” as in the freedom of speech and “the right to bear arms” (Harsanyi 2018, 242). It naturally flows, then, that the political legalese, such as a poll tax or literacy tests, used to keep minorities away and apart from other rights, such as voting, despite the clear language of the Fourteenth Amendment, would also be used to keep minorities from owning firearms under the Second Amendment. The Supreme Court decision in Cruikshank in 1876, which was the first Second Amendment case to come before the Court after the passage of the Fourteenth Amendment, was an essential part of this effort. It held that the Due Process Clause and the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment applies only to state action, not to actions by individual citizens; therefore, citizens had to look to state courts and local governments for protection against violations of their Second Amendment rights, something obviously not forthcoming after the end of Reconstruction in the South.
Despite all this, the genie was out of the bottle and there developed an arms culture among newly freed Black Americans, despite discriminatorily applied laws and successful efforts by the White majority to prevent the Black use of arms as part of a wider political mobilization. What resulted was a Black arms culture geared toward individual self-defense, sometimes against the lynch mob, often in a hopeless last stand situation. The NAACP’s The Crisis journal lauded the bravery of these individuals while simultaneously warning against using guns as part of political mobilization.
A 1921 editorial in the NAACP’s publication The Crisis resonates with this theme:
Lynching and mob violence against the Negro still loom as our most indefensible national crime. Increasingly the Negro…has been forced to give his life in self-defense. No man can do less for his family and people, and it is a cruel campaign of lying that represents this fight for life as organized aggression. Negroes are not fools. Eleven million poor laborers do not seek war on 100 million powerful neighbors. But they cannot and will not die without raising a hand when the nation lets its offscourings and bandits insult, harry, loot, and kill them. (Johnson 2014, 157)
The use of arms for political agitation and violence by 1960s Black radicals such as the Black Panthers, in addition to the urban riots, led to a backlash against the Black use of arms on two fronts: a diminution of the right to keep and bear arms by an expansion of gun control laws that applied to Whites and Blacks at the federal and state level, and from domestic counterintelligence. These 1960s Black radicals undercut the core self-defense/political mobilization distinction that had existed in America since Reconstruction as a compromise position that didn’t threaten the White majority. Writing in Seize the Time, Black Panther co-founder Bobby Seale said, “If I’m talking about self-defense, I’m talking about politics; if I’m talking about politics, I’m talking about self-defense. You cannot separate them” (Seale 1968, 71, 116-117). Seale’s definition of self-defense obliterated the distinctions of earlier generations of Black activists. The Black Panthers’ weekly newspaper was even more adversarial, claiming that “sniping, stabbing, bombing, etc.… can only be defined as self-defense” (Johnson 2014, 287).
The prospect of widespread Black usage of arms for political agitation led FBI director Herbert Hoover to expand the illegal domestic spying and dirty tricks of the agency’s counterintelligence program called COINTELPRO (a portmanteau derived from COunter INTELligence PROgram), as he said that “the Black Panthers, without question, represents the greatest threat to the internal security of the country” (Winkler 2013, 246). Begun in 1956 to disrupt the activities of the Communist Party of the United States, COINTELPRO was expanded to groups such as the KKK, the Socialist Workers Party, and the Black Panthers. The Senate Committee to investigate the program once it came to light, ultimately concluded that “many of the techniques used would be intolerable in a democratic society even if all of the targets had been involved in violent activity, but COINTELPRO went far beyond that.…The Bureau conducted a sophisticated vigilante operation aimed squarely at preventing the exercise of First Amendment rights of speech and association…” (Frederique 2016).
The approach forced Black moderates to make a choice either to defend the radicals who framed their armed militancy as self-defense or to join the growing gun control movement of the 1960s that looked to banning guns as a partial solution to urban violence. Black leadership later ended up joining the gun control movement, even as many Civil Rights leaders like Medgar Evers and MLK used guns, or advocated for guns, for personal self-defense from violent racist reactionaries during the peak of the 1960s Civil Rights movement, and just as desegregation efforts were showing real progress. This shift is most acutely seen in the NAACP itself, which in the era of W. E. B. DuBois and up until the early 1960s advocated for armed Black self-defense, but by 1999 was suing gun manufacturers in tort a litigation wave for selling firearms to “over-saturated communities” (Goldman 1999). It was a majority minority city, Washington, D. C. under Black mayor Walter Washington, that passed a total handgun ban in 1976 later overturned by the Supreme Court in 2008.
The gun control movement of the 1960s found itself an ally in the new Black political class, leading to the modern orthodoxy of more Black people being in support of gun control than White people. According to the PEW Research Center, 73% of Black people prioritize controls on gun ownership over protecting gun rights, while 55% of White people say they consider gun rights more important than gun controls (Mzezewa and DiNapoli 2015, Pew Research Center 2017).
A takeaway is that demography matters, and even more importantly, gun control laws have to be understood in the context of whose guns they intended to control.
Frederique, N. (2016, July 21). Encyclopedia Britannica: COINTELPRO . Retrieved April 14, 2019, from https://www.britannica.com/topic/COINTELPRO#accordion-article-history
Goldman, J. J. (1999, July 13). NAACP Plans Class-Action Suit Against Gun Makers. Los Angeles Times . Retrieved from https://www.latimes.com/archives/la-xpm-1999-jul-13-mn-55507-story.html
Harsanyi, D. (2018). First Freedom: A Ride Through America's Enduring History With the Gun. New York: Simon & Schuster, Inc. .
Johnson, N. (2014). Negroes and the Gun: The Black Tradition of Arms. Amherst: Prometheus Books.
Kopel, D. (2015, November 20). The Second Amendment vs. Anti-Catholicism. Washington Post: The Volokh Conspiracy . Retrieved from https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/volokh-conspiracy/wp/2015/11/20/the-second-amendment-versus-anti-catholicism/?utm_term=.02c0f7224c2d
Mzezewa, T., & Dinapoli, J. (2015, July 15). African-Americans Still Favor Gun Control, but Views are Shifting. Reuters . Retrieved from http://www.reuters.com/article/us-africanamerican-guns-idUSKCN0PP2N320150715
Pew Research Center. (2017). Gun Rights vs. Gun Control. Pew Research Center - U. S. Politics & Policy. Retrieved from http://www.people-press.org/2017/06/22/public-views-about-guns/#race
Seale, B. (1968). Seize the Time: The Story of the Black Panther Party and Huey P. Newton.
Winkler, A. (2013). Gun Fight: The Battle Over the Right to Keep and Bear Arms. New York: W. W. Norton and Company.