There was a time when the NRA fought for a two-day waiting period on handgun sales and limits on concealed weapons permits. And a time when then–California Governor Ronald Reagan signed legislation forbidding the carrying of loaded firearms in public. Before gun control became a progressive cause, it was a right-wing staple, and it was aimed squarely at the rights of African-Americans nationwide.
The institution of slavery was written into the Constitution, but the rights of African-Americans to defend themselves was most certainly not, and concerns regarding slave revolts increased as the slave population rose. States passed laws forbidding African-Americans from carrying weapons. In South Carolina, slaves — who were "of barbarous, wild savage natures" according to Colony Law — could not have unsupervised access to weapons and could be killed freely, provided the murder wasn’t “wanton.” In Florida, white “citizens patrols” were permitted to search the homes of free African-Americans for guns “and other offensive or improper weapons, and may lawfully seize and take away such arms, weapons, and ammunition.” The message was clear: guns — like the ballot box, marriage, and the right to free assembly — were for white Americans only.
Many resisted, and did so with the very weapons they were forbidden to own. Harriet Tubman rescued more than 300 people from slavery with a gun under her arm. Frederick Douglass wrote in 1854 that a good revolver was critical to staying free: "Every slave hunter who meets a bloody death in his infernal business is an argument in favor of the manhood of our race."
Even after the Civil War, when slavery had ended, so-called "Black Codes" limited the rights of African-Americans in the South, banning them from owning guns (or liquor, for that matter). African-Americans lost the right to vote in many states because of poll taxes and literacy tests, and therefore the right to serve on juries (which was limited to voters). In 1892 alone, 161 African-Americans were lynched* across the country. Self-defense was an absolute necessity. Ida B. Wells, an African-American journalist and civil rights activist, wrote in a pamphlet entitled "Southern Horrors":
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. The more the Afro-American yields and cringes and begs, the more he has to do so, the more he is insulted, outraged and lynched.
That conflict — between the fears of racist whites and the needs of African-Americans to defend themselves — arose again in the late 1960s. The leaders of the Civil Rights Movement recognized that the need for self-defense still existed — in fact, Martin Luther King Jr. applied for (and was denied) a concealed carry permit. Recounting his memories of "Freedom Summer" and the Civil Rights Movement, Charles E. Cobb Jr., former field secretary of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, said, "I know from personal experience and the experiences of others, that guns kept people alive, kept communities safe, and all you have to do to understand this is simply think of black people as human beings and they're gonna respond to terrorism the way anybody else would."
More radical voices, including Malcolm X and leading members of the Black Panthers, believed that “nonviolence” was a lie that would only put more African-Americans at risk. Charles C.W. Cooke, online editor of the National Review, told MTV News, “America had a tyranny in it. It was just not perpetrated against white people. America had a tyranny in the South, and people were lynched. It was institutionalized, organized violence.” Better to be armed and able to defend oneself than to give up one’s rights, the thinking went.
On May 2, 1967, a group of Black Panthers took to the steps of the California Legislature carrying revolvers, shotguns, and pistols and read a statement saying, “The time has come for black people to arm themselves against this terror before it is too late.” In a direct response to the incident, Governor Ronald Reagan signed the Mulford Act, banning the open carry of loaded weapons, barely two months later. Guns were “a ridiculous way to solve problems that have to be solved among people of good will,” he said.
You may be surprised, reading this in 2016, to learn that both the Mulford Act and later the Gun Control Act of 1968 — which required gun sellers to have a federal license and banned the sale of certain kinds of small guns — had the support of the National Rifle Association. Before the 1970s, Cooke explains, the NRA was a “moderate sportsman’s organization” that believed there was no need for concealed weapons. That changed when the organization moved from Washington, D.C., to Fairfax, VA, and began fighting not for sport shooting but for an end to gun control laws altogether. As former NRA president Harlon Carter said in 1975, the use of guns by violent criminals or the mentally ill was simply the "price we pay for freedom." In 1980, the NRA endorsed Ronald Reagan — 13 years after Reagan had signed the first open-carry ban in the country.
But as the NRA and the Republican Party sprinted away from gun control, African-Americans, faced with a rising tide of violence in American cities and the explosion of crack cocaine use, began to embrace it. While black Americans are less likely to own guns today, they are more likely to be killed by them. In 1976, in a 12–1 vote by a majority black city council, the District of Columbia banned residents from owning or carrying handguns (excluding guards, police, and those with already registered handguns). The NAACP voted to support gun control measures in 1989. In 1993, during the peak of gun homicides among African-Americans, 74 percent of the demographic supported gun control.
But more recently, the Black Lives Matter movement hasn’t centered gun control as a priority — not only because of the racist history of gun control, but because gun control regulations, like drug laws, are more likely to be used against African-Americans than whites. In other words: White people may be more likely to carry a gun, but black people are more likely to be jailed for it.
Gun control remains a racially divisive issue. In 2015, 60 percent of African-Americans believed that gun control should be prioritized over gun rights, but 61 percent of whites believed that gun rights should be prioritized over gun control. The racist history of gun control still simmers with some African-Americans, who see the right to bear arms as a civil rights issue. Support for gun control among black Americans has decreased over the last two decades, even after the horrific spate of mass shootings across the country. In fact, since the massacre at the Charleston Emanuel AME Church in 2015, support for gun ownership by black Americans has grown.
Gun control and race — and racism — are inextricably linked. While the debate over what the right to bear arms means and doesn’t mean continues to rage, it is critical to remember that for more than 200 years, black people were denied that right in the first place.
*Lynching typically implies death by hanging, but not always. One man, Henry Smith, was burned alive in front of 10,000 spectators in Paris, Texas.