Gun control in the U.S.has historically been a racist’s weapon of choice against revolting slaves and Black militias. Growing public consciousness about police brutality has boosted Black opinion on the need to own a gun for protection, according to a Pew study comparing numbers in 2012 and 2014.
From the country’s founding, the pro gun-control camp and pro gun-rights camp had adherents strictly cast along racial lines, shedding light on today's debate.
Gun Control Camp
Slaves’ possession of guns was intensely regulated, with some states allowing slave owners to raid and confiscate weapons from slaves and shoot if they resisted. White citizens' patrols monitoring slaves were often armed, leading many scholars to directly link the right to gun ownership to the right to own a slave. Slave rebellions were also regularly followed by spikes in gun sales.
Several legislatures banned free Black men from owning guns in response to their militias for self-defense. Others banned them from armed positions, forced them to apply for licenses and even denied them self-defense classes like fencing. Growing Mexican and Chinese immigration was also motivation for passing stricter gun control in the late 1960’s in California.
The Ku Klux Klan
The KKK was founded on a platform of disarming Black people and other marginalized groups, who they feared had become dangerous after pre-Civil War restrictions were lifted.
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As governor of California, Ronald Reagan passed the Mulford Act—prohibiting the carrying of loaded guns in public—two months after the Black Panthers directly targeted the California Legislature in 1967.
National Rifle Association
In the 1920’s and 1930’s, the NRA lobbied hard for gun control. Its president helped draft Pennsylvania’s Uniform Firearms Act and promoted its application nationally.
New York Police Department
The stop-and-frisk policy of searching anyone for guns without probable cause—criticized for racially-profiling people of color—was passed as a major gun control measure for the NYPD. Firearm possession is often an excuse to arrest immigrants, which may lead to deportation.
Gun Rights Camp
The Underground Railroad, which freed hundreds of slaves, could arguably not have functioned without Harriet Tubman carrying a weapon. Tubman also lead an armed assault by Black Union soldiers during the Civil War.
The iconic voice of Black emancipation and equality said that, “Every slave hunter who meets a bloody death in his infernal business is an argument in favor of the manhood of our race.”
Martin Luther King, Jr.
While standing for non-violence, the civil rights movement leader was said to keep an arsenal in his home and armed guards in front of his house due to repeated death threats. One reporter said that he almost sat on a loaded gun during an interview in his house.
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Black Panther Party and the Nation of Islam
The Black Panther Party led the gun rights movement in the late 1960’s, founding armed “citizens patrols”—a concept reappropriated from slave owners—to monitor police officers. They held that gun ownership is key to protection from brutality from cops and racists, a position shared by the Nation of Islam, founded in 1930 but popularized in the 1960's by Malcolm X.
The radical Chicano organization did not support gun rights as openly as the Black Panthers, but several of its members proudly owned guns, including Carlos Montes, who was one of many raided by the FBI on grounds of firearm possession.