CONVENTIONAL wisdom holds that firearms are the preserve of conservative white men. You would never know this at my local shooting range, which happens to be in a majority African-American area, and has a clientele that reflects that fact. There, as a white man, I’m often in the minority; just one more guy who likes to fire weapons — another person to chat to and share stories with. It is, I’d venture, how things should be.
By rights, the Second Amendment should serve as a totem of African-Americans’ full citizenship and enfranchisement. For centuries, firearms have been indispensable to black liberation: as crucial a defense against tyranny for Frederick Douglass and Martin Luther King Jr. as for Sam Adams and George Washington. Today, however, many black Americans have a decidedly mixed relationship with the right to bear arms.
In August, as the outrage over the police shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., dominated the news, an African-American group calling itself the Huey P. Newton Gun Club took to the streets of Dallas, rifles in hand, to protest. Local businesses were supportive, and the city’s police chief confirmed in a statement that his department “supports the constitutional rights of all.” On Twitter, the hashtag #blackopencarry prompted a warm response from conservatives.
And yet, that same month, a 22-year-old black man named John Crawford III was shot dead by the police in an Ohio Walmart after a white customer claimed excitedly that a man was pointing a gun at his fellow patrons. Later, the store’s security footage revealed that Mr. Crawford had been holding a BB gun that he had picked up in the sporting goods department, and that the caller’s testimony had been wrong. Ohio is an open carry state. That didn’t make much difference for Mr. Crawford.
Until around 1970, the aims of America’s firearms restrictionists and the aims of America’s racists were practically inextricable. In both the colonial and immediate post-Revolutionary periods, the first laws regulating gun ownership were aimed squarely at blacks and Native Americans. In both the Massachusetts and Plymouth colonies, it was illegal for the colonists to sell guns to natives, while Virginia and Tennessee banned gun ownership by free blacks.
In the antebellum period, the chief justice of the United States, Roger B. Taney, wrote a grave warning into the heart of the execrable Dred Scott decision. If blacks were permitted to become citizens, Taney cautioned, they, like whites, would have full liberty to “keep and carry arms wherever they went.”
White Southerners would eventually be forced to accept blacks as their fellow citizens. But old habits died hard. After the Civil War, many Southern states enacted Black Codes to prohibit ownership of guns by blacks. The measures served their purpose. In her remarkable 1892 disquisition on the evils of lynching, the writer Ida B. Wells noted that “the only times an Afro-American who was assaulted got away has been when he had a gun and used it in self-defense.” Wells offered some blunt advice: “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.”
At the height of the civil rights movement, black freedom fighters took Wells’s counsel seriously. Although he was denied a concealed-carry permit, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. had what his adviser Glenn E. Smiley described as a veritable “arsenal” at home.
Far from being a digression from the principle of nonviolence, this willingness to defend oneself was heir to a long, proud tradition. Considering in 1850 what he believed to be the best response to the Fugitive Slave Act, Frederick Douglass proposed: “a good revolver.”
The first major ban on the open carrying of firearms — a Republican-led bill that was drafted after Black Panthers began hanging around the State Legislature in Sacramento with their guns on display — was signed in 1967 by none other than Gov. Ronald Reagan of California. The federal Gun Control Act of 1968 was primarily a reaction to the scourge of “Saturday night specials” — cheap handguns owned by the poor and the black. The National Rifle Association opposed neither law.
So the fact that one of the seminal Second Amendment cases in American history is named for a black plaintiff is a beautiful and moving thing indeed. McDonald v. Chicago, argued in 2010, was brought by Otis McDonald, a 76-year-old black man tired of watching his neighborhood give way to crime and gang warfare. The Supreme Court ruled 5 to 4 that the Second Amendment applied not just to all people, but to the states as well as to the federal government, and that Chicago was therefore not permitted to prohibit Mr. McDonald from keeping a handgun for his defense.
Yet African-American activists typically refrain from involvement in the issue of gun rights. In October 2013, Shaneen Allen, 27, a black single mother of two, was arrested in New Jersey for carrying a firearm without a license (she was under the impression that her Pennsylvania concealed-carry permit was accepted across state lines), and threatened with a prison sentence of up to 11 years for her mistake.
But it was conservative publications, such as my own National Review, and the N.R.A. that came to her defense. The N.A.A.C.P. and the usual champions remained unusually quiet. (There was no news conference featuring the Rev. Al Sharpton.) They have been largely absent, too, from the case of Marissa Alexander, a black Florida woman given a 20-year sentence for firing a warning shot near her abusive husband.
It’s a problem of perception, an assumption that the Second Amendment is the province of whites, that cuts both ways. In 2009, as the first Tea Party rallies swept the country, Contessa Brewer of MSNBC showed a video of a man at an anti-Obamacare rally with a pistol on his hip and suggested that “there are questions about whether this has racial overtones … white people showing up with guns.” Later, it came out that the man in the video was actually black.
At least 15 percent of African-Americans report that they own guns — about the same rate as all other “nonwhites.” But as anybody who has attended an N.R.A. convention can attest, there is a gaping hole in the organization’s membership. Look around the convention center and you will see plenty of women, a good number of Asians and Hispanics, and even a smattering of children. Blacks? Not so much
This is a tremendous shame. It is one thing for the N.R.A. to celebrate black Second Amendment advocates such as its spokesman Colion Noir, and Sheriff David A. Clarke Jr. of Milwaukee County, but it is quite another for Wayne LaPierre to inveigh against “home invaders, drug cartels, carjackers, knockout gamers, and rapers, and haters,” and for the camera to then pan around a sea of white faces clapping in unison.
Malcolm X may have a deservedly mixed reputation, but the famous photograph of him standing at the window, rifle in hand, insisting on black liberation “by any means necessary,” is about as American as it gets. It should be celebrated just like the “Don’t tread on me” Gadsden flag. By not making that connection, the movement is losing touch with one of its greatest triumphs and forsaking a prime illustration of why its cause is so just and so crucial.
If supporters of the right to keep and bear arms want their pleas to be heard in their proper context, they might consider talking a little less about Valley Forge and a little more about Jim Crow — and attempting to fill their ranks with people who have known much more recently what tyranny really looks like.
*Article originally published by the New York Times.
In the wake of the Navy Yard shooting on Monday, I’d like to explore gun ownership. I’m not on either side of the gun-rights argument but I did start wondering whether or not this country would be any safer if more women bought guns.
As of 2011, it has been estimated that the number of women who own guns in this country is up to 23%. That’s about 15-20 million women and that number has surely increased since 2011. There’s a famous quote that goes, “God created all men, but Sam Colt made them equal” so many women feel like it’s empowering to own a gun.
Let’s take a look at some reasons why I think that it’s safer for women to own guns:
As one woman says, “It thrills me that more women are learning how to be their own heroes.”
Below are some websites geared towards women who own guns:
The Girl’s Guide to Guns: www.girlsguidetoguns.com
The Blaze: www.theblaze.com
National Shooting Sports Foundation: www.nssf.org