Are the origins of the Second Amendment rooted in racism? Is the way to racial equality paved with restrictions on the right to keep and bear arms? According to columnist Clyde Ford at the website Crosscut, the answer to both of those questions is a resounding “yes”. In a new piece, Ford chastises new black gun owners and black Second Amendment activists like Maj Toure and Phillip Cook, the founder of the National African American Gun Association, for embracing their Second Amendment rights.
But the reason all Americans, including these armed Black groups, should reject gun ownership goes far beyond the statistics on gun deaths or the superficial arguments asserting a Second Amendment right to bear arms. When I hear Black Guns Matter members proudly proclaim that, “All Gun Control Is Racist,” or the National Rifle Association suggest that more teachers should be armed to prevent school violence, I also hear Sam Cooke crooning, “Don’t know much about history.”
The Second Amendment is deeply rooted in America’s racist past, and fundamentally connected to the killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and others. But to make this connection, one must be a “strict constructionist,” someone who looks beyond the Constitution’s written word to the underlying motives of the founders.
Patrick Henry, a Virginia slaveholder, opposed ratifying the Constitution, fearing it would cede state control of slave patrols (politely called “militias” by the founders) to the federal government. James Madison, favoring ratification, said in a debate with Henry, “If the country be invaded, a state may go to war, but cannot suppress insurrection. If there should happen an insurrection of slaves, the country cannot be said to be invaded. They cannot, therefore, suppress it without the interposition of Congress.”
Take either side, Henry’s or Madison’s, local or federal, and the same fundamental issue remained: preserve slavery at all costs.
When the NRA, white militia groups and Black gun organizations use the Second Amendment as the basis for claiming their right to bear arms, they are also affirming the racism from which this amendment emerged.
With all due respect to Mr. Ford, this is a rather one-sided view of the debate over the right to keep and bear arms. Ford ignores the support for the right in states where slavery wasn’t widespread like New Hampshire and Vermont, as well as the backing of the right to keep and bear arms by ardent abolitionists. Even in the state of Virginia, free blacks possessed the right to keep and bear arms, at least until the aftermath of the Nat Turner revolt in the 1830s, when the state responded by rejecting the Second Amendment rights of free blacks, but the rest of their civil rights as well. That wasn’t a pro-Second Amendment move. It was the precursor to the Jim Crow laws that viewed black Americans as inherently unequal and undeserving of equal rights.
As part of his “racial equity” legislative package, Inslee implicitly acknowledges this history when he seeks to curb the excessive use of force by the police, which has origins in the slave patrols of the 18th and 19th century. Likewise, the governor is taking on a similar history, with help from Insurance Commissioner Mike Kreidler, in his efforts to dismantle systemic racism in the insurance industry.
In both examples, Inslee is rightfully responding to public protests and clarion calls for an end to racial inequity. He should do the same with gun control legislation, like that proposed in the three Senate bills now up for consideration, by including them in his “racial equity” legislative package as well. Modern-day policing and the excessive use of force against communities of color are a direct result of the Second Amendment, an outgrowth of the early American desire to maintain slavery at all costs. Excessive use of force and reliance on the Second Amendment as a right to bear arms are both examples of systemic racism.
Here’s the crux of the problem. If overpolicing is the issue, then more gun control laws are going to exacerbate the problem, not fix it. Throughout our nation’s history it’s been gun control that has been used to deny minorities the exercise of their right to keep and bear arms, not the Second Amendment.
Frederick Douglass understood the reality of the racism inherent in gun control when he was asked how fugitive slaves could avoid capture by slave-catchers. “A good revolver, a steady hand, and a determination to shoot,” was his reply.
Ida Wells also understood that the need for armed self-defense in the depths of the Jim Crow era in the south, when she proclaimed 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.”
In the 20th century, civil rights activists like Fannie Lou Hamer depended on their Second Amendment rights to keep racist night riders at bay, famously saying “I keep a shotgun in every corner of my bedroom, and the first cracker even look like he wants to throw some dynamite on my porch won’t write his mama again.”
If Ford is to get the gun control laws that he’s demanding, he’s going to be bitterly disappointed with the results. We already see a disproportionate number of young black men being arrested for non-violent, possessory firearms offenses in places like New York City, Chicago, and Baltimore, where restrictive gun control laws limit the ability of the average citizen to lawfully carry for self-defense. The more gun control laws on the books, the worse the problem will become. In order for real equality to take place, the right of the people to keep and bear arms must apply to all of the people. That’s what we should be working towards; not trying to ban guns in the name of racial equity.
For more information, and some truly important history, check out Nicholas Johnson’s excellent book “Negroes & The Gun: The Black Tradition of Arms” and Charles Cobb’s “This Non-Violent Stuff Will Get You Killed: How Guns Made The Civil Rights Movement Possible“, which is an great look at the Second Amendment and armed self-defense in the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s.