Second Amendment poll taxes and acceptable liberal bigotry

AP Photo/Andrew Selsky, File

The Bruen decision that struck down New York’s “may issue” laws has had a galvanizing effect on the anti-gun movement in this country, which can be seen not just in the defiant moves by Democrats in state legislatures to enact a number of new “sensitive places” where concealed carry is prohibited and adopt sweeping bans on so-called “assault weapons” and “large capacity” magazines, but by the increasing willingness to publicly adopt positions that are strikingly similar to those expressed by the most malignant abusers of civil rights back in the 1950s and 60s.


Take Boston University political science professor emeritus Walter Clemens, who believes it’s time for Congress to impose a poll tax of sorts on the exercise of our Second Amendment rights.

The Second Amendment does not prohibit private ownership of guns — but neither does it create an absolute barrier to any kind of government regulation. Some say the amendment bars limits on the capacity or caliber of individual weapons and background checks on gun purchasers. But aren’t governments expected to place reasonable regulations on what citizens do? The Constitution’s Article 1.8 empowers Congress to “make all Laws which shall be necessary and proper for carrying into Execution the foregoing Powers.” So, we have many rules — set by local, state and federal authorities. For example, drivers are tested, licensed and taxed; so are autos.

Given America’s epidemic of gun violence, perhaps we should test, license and tax owners of weapons and the weapons themselves. As the Supreme Court in the Heller case noted in passing, the right to arms “is not unlimited and does not preclude the existence of certain longstanding prohibitions” such as those forbidding “the possession of firearms by felons and the mentally ill” or restrictions on “the carrying of dangerous and unusual weapons.”

It’s a heckuva reach from “some people can lose their right to keep and bear arms” and “not every weapon is protected by the Second Amendment” to imposing a test and taxing the exercise of a fundamental civil right. You’d think a political science professor and good liberal like Clemens (who’s also the author of the book “The Republican Virus in the Body Politic: How to Reboot America”) would recognize that this idea has been tried before, when it was deployed throughout the south from the 1870s until the 1960s in order to prevent black citizens from voting. It was a practice abhorrent to the Constitution then, and his idea is just as loathsome today applied to Second Amendment rights.


Of course, the Jim Crow era had its share of gun control laws as well, and some of them remain on the books today. North Carolina’s permit-to-purchase law, established more than a century ago, is still very much the law of the land (though the subject of a current legal challenge as well) despite the fact that research shows black applicants are still routinely denied far more frequently than their white counterparts. And in northern states, gun control laws like New York’s Sullivan Act were originally put in place with an eye towards disarming immigrants and other “undesirables.”

Even today, when these statutes are supposedly applied in a racially neutral fashion, minorities can suffer disproportionate effects. And practically speaking, Clemens’ bold idea does absolutely nothing to prevent violent criminals from carrying out their malicious acts. Massachusetts, where Clemens teaches, has had a licensing law (which also requires passing a firearms course) in place for decades, and yet year after year it remains New England’s most violent state. The strict gun laws may help liberals like Clemens sleep better at night, but they’re certainly no hindrance to violent predators in places like Springfield and Boston’s Dorchester neighborhood. Not only that, they actively harm the good people living in bad neighborhoods by making it difficult if not impossible for them to protect themselves.

But even though there is ample evidence that turning the right to keep and bear arms into a neverending series of non-violent and possessory criminal offenses causes disproportionate harm to black Americans and other racial minorities, white liberals like Clemens can still engage their most paternalistic instincts without fear of offending their peers. This same phenomenon was at work in Minnesota on Friday, where a House subcommittee heard a number of bills that would create non-violent crimes like transferring a firearm without a background check. Among those testifying in opposition was Sarah Cade of the Minnesota Gun Owners Caucus, who delivered a heartfelt plea to lawmakers to consider who, exactly, will bear the brunt of the law’s enforcement.


Though I’m sure that all the Democrats on the subcommittee would swear that they’re gravely concerned about police misconduct and are deeply committed to criminal justice and policing reforms, each and every one of them voted in favor of “universal” background checks, along with establishing a “red flag” law and a storage mandate that requires firearms to be locked up and unloaded… unless you’re a police officer or a concealed carry holder, at which point you’d be allowed to have a loaded firearm in your locked safe.

Well-intended or not, this bill would make it more difficult for those on the lower end of the economic spectrum to protect themselves in their own homes. The poverty rate for white Minnesotans is 7.8%, but for black residents it’s 28.6% (and 31.3% for Native Americans). Yes, Minnesotans of all races, colors, and creeds would be impacted by this terrible idea, but the harm would disproportionately fall on the state’s minority residents.


I’ve been thinking quite a bit lately about the Massive Resistance to integrating public schools and how it played out in my own stomping grounds of Prince Edward County, Virginia; which was not only a part of Brown v. Board of Education (the cases filed by parents of black Prince Edward County students were consolidated into the challenge to the policies in Topeka, Kansas) but a follow up decision by the Court 11 years later that declared the county’s attempt to prevent integration by completely shutting down the public schools violated the Fourteenth Amendment rights of black students.

This wasn’t all that long ago, all things considered. I’ve met men and women who lived through this first-hand; being taught math and reading in a church basement or a friend’s living room as a kid because the school buildings had all been closed. I’ve been to the black high school where students led by Barbara Johns walked out in protest of their classroom conditions in 1951, which has now been turned into the Robert Russa Moton Museum, and if you visit you might have the opportunity to talk with some of those men and women for yourself.

The white folks in charge in Prince Edward County back then, however, have long since passed away, and I can’t help but wonder how many of them ever had a change of heart? How many accepted, however reluctantly, that the way things had always been wasn’t the way things were meant to be? And how many held on to their misguided and outdated belief that the mixing of blacks and whites would be the downfall of civilization until their dying breath?


To be fair, I don’t believe that Walter Clemens harbors the same odious opinions towards race-mixing as those who eagerly joined the White Citizens Councils in the 1950s. Rather than block a specific class of citizens from exercising all of their rights, Clemens and the modern gun prohibitionists want to block all citizens from exercising one specific right, which is an odious belief with a stench all its own. Minorities aren’t the exclusive target of these gun control regimes but they are disproportionately harmed by them, and that’s just fine with most liberals. Not all, of course, but the progressive Second Amendment supporters I know will be the first to acknowledge the prevailing thinking in liberal circles and the uphill battle they face in trying to get the left to acknowledge the fundamental contradiction between things like wanting to end “mass incarceration” and addressing root causes of violence while creating new gun control laws that are punishable by prison every chance they get.

The segregationists lost their battle in Prince Edward County, though more than a decade passed between Barbara Johns leading her classmates out of their dilapidated high school and the first integrated classroom opening its doors to students. You’d never know by looking at the town of Farmville today that it was once Ground Zero for Massive Resistance in Virginia, and I firmly believe that one day we’ll be able to say the same for places like Boston, New York City, Los Angeles, and Minneapolis when it comes to we the people’s right to keep and bear arms.


The anti-gun bigots and Second Amendment deniers like Walter Clemens are going to put up a bitter fight in their defense of the indefensible for as long as they possibly can, but they’re making their stand on a dung hill of restrictions rooted in racism, steeped in paternalism, in contradiction with their stated desire for criminal justice and policing reforms, ineffective at reducing crime, and in violation of a fundamental civil right. Some of them may even be very nice people who believe in gun control for very laudable reasons, but as long as they’re intent on nullifying the right to keep and bear arms they’re standing on the wrong side of history.

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