I’m not a huge fan of Bill Maher, though I do respect his willingness to buck liberal conventional wisdom on occasion. But while Maher isn’t afraid to challenge progressive orthodoxy, an exchange with actor Bryan Cranston on Maher’s podcast shows the host and pundit could use a refresher course on how and why our right to keep and bear arms came to be enshrined in the Constitution.
Maher’s comments came during a discussion about critical race theory and teaching it in public schools; an idea that Cranston supports but Maher finds problematic.
“Critical race theory, I mean, it’s just one of these catch-all terms,” according to Maher. “If you mean we should honestly teach our past, of course; if you mean more what the 1619 book says, which is that it’s just the essence of America and that we are irredeemable, that’s just wrong.”
“I agree with that,” Cranston said before maintaining that the nation needs to “teach our past” and “be honest.”
“Most schools are doing that,” Maher said.
“In Florida, they want to do away with critical race theory, and a lot of other states,” according to Cranston.
“Because sometimes it veers off into things that are really not appropriate in schools,” Maher retorted. “Introducing ideas about race that are inappropriate for kids that age who can’t understand it … telling 5-year-olds that you’re either an oppressor or someone who was oppressed.”
Cranston conceded that there might be topics inappropriate for schools.
“OK,” he said. “So, common sense would govern that.”
“Common sense is what’s lacking in this country,” Maher said.
Up to that point in the exchange, I was with Maher, but he lost me when he continued on.
Maher said he needed merit behind the idea of systemic racism, and he used the Second Amendment as an example.
“It’s like, for example, why the Second Amendment really has to do with, in a country where you were keeping a hostile people in chains, you needed guns to keep the lid on that,” he said. “So, that’s a lot to do with why other countries don’t have a Second Amendment the way we do.”
The notion that the only reason the Second Amendment was adopted was to protect the right of slaveowners to posses human beings as property is one that anti-gun activists have been promoting for several decades; most recently with the publication of historian Carol Anderson’s book “The Second”, which posits that the right to keep and bear arms was “written in the blood of enslaved black people,” to quote New Yorker writer Jelani Cobb.
As Fordham University professor Nicholas Johnson, author of Negroes and the Gun: The Black Tradition of Arms, laid out in a brief rebuttal to Anderson shortly after her book debuted, however, Anderson’s analysis is fundamentally flawed in its reading of history.
Anderson, chair of African American Studies at Emory University, presents the Second Amendment as a proxy for the much more textured American right to arms. This approach allows her to focus on a narrow slice of the federal constitution’s story. She ignores the lessons from the American Revolution, including British attempts to disarm colonists as the rebellion came to a boil. Those conflicts provided plenty of reasons for the framing generation to think about and advocate a robust private right to arms, separate from concerns about slavery.
The Second also does not acknowledge the right-to-arms story in the places where most government action on guns has always occurred: the states, which unlike the federal government have broad police powers. The first federal gun control law did not appear until the 1920s. Gun regulation prior to that point was a function of state and local law.
The Second does not address the independent protections of the right to arms established in 44 of 50 state constitutions. Anderson expurgates the history of the federal right in order to damn the Second Amendment as rooted in slave control. But the broader right to arms enshrined in the state constitutions contradicts that portrayal.
Many of the state arms guarantees were first enacted in the 20th century. The most recent such guarantee, Wisconsin’s 1998 constitutional amendment, was a direct response to municipal efforts to ban handguns. Another cohort of 20th and 21st century amendments were designed to underscore the individual nature of earlier provisions. These had nothing to do with slave control. Fourteen arms guarantees appear in the constitutions of states that were admitted to the union after the Civil War. These also were not motivated by the fear of slave insurrections.
As Johnson details, Anderson’s analysis (and Maher’s perspective, I would add) “gives short shrift to the transformative right-to-arms conversation surrounding the 14th Amendment,” which in large part was meant to ensure that race-based gun control laws in the former confederate states could not be used to deprive newly-freed black citizens of their right to armed self-defense.
Anderson concludes that the right to arms as developed in the post–Civil War period was still structurally infected by racism and was as a practical matter ultimately useless to blacks.
The rebuttal to this is in the words and actions of black folk who actually lived through those nightmares. Contrary to Anderson’s claim that there is no promise in the right to arms, the history of the freedom movement spills over with black people using arms to fight off deadly threats and embracing arms as a crucial resource in the face of state failure, neglect, and overt hostility.
There is a considerable body of writing from black people who experienced the terror that Anderson recounts, and it is at odds with her idea that blacks should abjure armed self-defense.
“Of the many inhuman outrages of this present year,” Ida B. Wells wrote in her 1892 pamphlet Southern Horrors: Lynch Law in All Its Phases, “the only case where the proposed lynching did not occur, was where the men armed themselves in Jacksonville, Fla., and Paducah, Ky, and prevented it. The only times an Afro-American who was assaulted got away has been when he had a gun and used it in self-defense.” Her conclusion: “The lesson this teaches and which every Afro-American should ponder well, is 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. When the white man who is always the aggressor knows he runs as great a risk of biting the dust every time his Afro-American victim does, he will have greater respect for Afro-American life.”
Maher gets his history backwards. It wasn’t the Second Amendment that was meant to protect slaveholders. Instead, it was the first gun control laws in the nation that were designed for that specific purpose; depriving slaves and even free men in some cases of their inherent rights. As for the why other countries don’t have a Second Amendment like we do, I suggest Maher pick up a copy of The Federalist Papers and thumb over to Madison’s Federalist 46 for another history lesson.
Besides the advantage of being armed, which the Americans possess over the people of almost every other nation, the existence of subordinate governments, to which the people are attached, and by which the militia officers are appointed, forms a barrier against the enterprises of ambition, more insurmountable than any which a simple government of any form can admit of. Notwithstanding the military establishments in the several kingdoms of Europe, which are carried as far as the public resources will bear, the governments are afraid to trust the people with arms.
Fear was the driving force behind the racist roots of gun control in the 18th century, and it’s still one of the main tools deployed by the gun control lobby today as they try to strip we the people of one of our most fundamental liberties. If Bill Maher doesn’t believe me, he should invite Nicholas Johnson on to his show for an invaluable history lesson on the right to keep and bear arms. I think Maher’s open-minded enough to actually learn a thing or two, and I’m sure much of his audience would benefit from Johnson’s insight as well.