In this essay, I will make the case that gun rights are a way of reasserting (at least) cultural power over non-white peoples.
In his book The Second Amendment: A Biography, Waldman makes the case that whether one is a textualist, an originalist, or a living constitutionalist (all of which are different ways to view the Constitution), the history and precedent are clear: the second amendment is not what the current climate war thinks it is. For example, Waldman accuses gun rights activists of misconstruing Patrick Henry as saying “The great object is, that every man be armed,” when it was talking of ending up with each man being “‘doubly armed’” by the nation and the state with the new Constitution (Waldman 2015). But for purposes of this case, it is only stronger if we allow Henry to be an advocate for gun rights.
If Patrick Henry is seen as a hero for gun rights in our current cultural moment, the case for separation of gun rights and white rights gets harder. His attitudes toward communities of color were very racist. Notably, his comments include things like “Slavery is detested elsewhere, meaning that the states black men could be called into federal military service, and then freed;” later and more desperately, “They’ll free your n*****s!”
The history of “gun control” legislation is more nuanced than many may think. Though modern-day American liberals argue for an increase in legislation restricting gun purchases, gun control legislation began as a way to deprive African-Americans of any sort of power or ability to fight back. After the Bill of Rights passed, we find a federal law that required “each and every free able-bodied white male citizen” to enroll in a militia and, notably, buy a gun. Much later, we find in the Dred Scott decision that one of the privileges and freedoms that the Court was so afraid of the “negro race” having included “to keep and carry arms wherever they went” (Waldman 2015).
When the slave-holders turned to violence to try to defend themselves, I can’t help but note Rev. Henry Beecher’s statement that “…there is more moral power in [a Sharp’s rifle] so far as the slaveholders of Kansas were concerned, than in a hundred Bibles.”
When the armed African-American freedmen returned to their Southern homes after the Civil War, the southern states passed the Black Codes for the restoration of the slave order. One of the intended effects was to disarm black folks while the white folks retained their guns. This was done in two ways: either explicitly or by banning these guns in a “colorblind” fashion and then impoverishing the freed black folks before allowing guns to be purchased again, guaranteeing that only the wealthier white families would be able to afford them.
Later, after a slaughter of over 100 Republican freedmen (97 black, 3 white) at their local political center, charges were pressed against the hundreds of Democrats that slaughtered them. The State Court only convicted three, but the Supreme Court overturned the conviction of even just those three, out of the hundreds that perpetrated the atrocity in U.S. v. Cruikshank. In the same ruling, the Court stated
“The right to bear arms is not granted by the Constitution; neither is it in any manner dependent upon that instrument for its existence. The Second Amendment means no more than that it shall not be infringed by Congress, and has no other effect than to restrict the powers of the National Government.”
In other words, they ruled that the Second Amendment only applies to Congress (Cruikshank, 92 U.S. 542). The intentions of the mob, of the State Courts, and the Supreme Court were clear: guns were for the white man, for their use, for their power.
During the NRA turnover from a hunting club to a group advocating for individual gun rights, they joined forces with tough-on-crime policies; Reagan and his War on Drugs; and the Moral Right, which consisted of mostly Southern Baptists who have an unfortunate history with racism.1 Their roots spring from a group of Baptist slaveholders who justified slave owning with their biblical interpretations and quotations from the Old and New Testament. Several of its members, including pastor and philosopher of race Lawrence Ware, have resigned or quit the denomination due to racial discrimination just this year (Meyer 2017). This follows the controversy of famed Christian rapper Lecrae leaving the denomination for the very same reasons.2 To have deliberately joined forces with those who, to this day, are infamous for their racism and racist history is no coincidence. They know exactly what they are looking for: support from a group that views gun rights as the white rights of the past, a way to reinstate that cultural power. This bloc voted Reagan into office, author of the War on Drugs that is often thought of as incredibly racist in effect.
The white race easily maintains their cultural power, even in the face of “colorblind” laws. Nothing is more emblematic of this than the case in which Philando Castile was brutally murdered for having a gun on his person. He was shot just after having informed the officer that he was armed when he was pulled over, which isn’t even necessary under the law (Smith 2017). A white man, like my father or father-in-law, both of whom own handguns, would not have been killed in that circumstance. Even though a black man may have the right to own a gun in paper, it is clear that they do not have that right in person.
This is confirmed in another way: imagine a group of hundreds of black nationalists, armed with rifles, shotguns, machetes, riot gear, pepper spray, and body armor. They march while chanting things like “Cleanse the White Race” and “You Will Not Replace Us.” Many of their individuals threaten those in their way or who try to block their path. How long can you imagine this occurring before police cracked down on the protest? Is it possible to imagine them resisting police crackdown without it immediately turning violent?
This was the situation that occurred in reverse at Charlottesville. It was white supremacists who marched into town armed to the teeth. Just comparing the volatility of the two situations should convince one of the cultural lopsidedness of gun rights.
Yet another case of colorblind laws that keep the system safe are the many ways in which the black community is targeted by felony laws. Felons are one of the most freedom-deprived minorities in America, even after their time is served. They are often deprived of voting rights, forbidden from traveling abroad, are ineligible for food stamps, are ineligible for housing benefits and rights, they must inform employers that they are a convicted felon (often preventing them from getting any jobs), are ineligible for parental benefits, and, most importantly for this paper, cannot own firearms (Hirby 2017). This deprivation of rights becomes incredibly suspicious looking if we look at the system that convicts felons. Without summarizing the entirety of Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow, a few statistics that should highlight the point: 75% of people in state prison for drug conviction are people of color despite blacks and whites see and use drugs at roughly the same rate (Center for Law and Justice, 2017). In New York, 94% of those imprisoned for a drug offense are people of color. After the War on Drugs, many of these nonviolent drug offenses are now felonies with huge penalties. It appears that our criminal justice system has been set up such that people of color are, communities being equal, much more likely to end up as felons than their white counterparts.
If the above holds for the prison system as a whole, then we see that the felony system is subjecting people of color to yet another attempt to reinstate white cultural power, and deprivation of firearms are yet again complicit.
The aim of this essay was to draw on the historical sources of support for individual gun rights in America to show that it is often racist in nature and linked to the cultural power that white folks are often tempted to clutch. This is important for a few reasons.
First, context is important in these matters. Due to the Constitution granting the right, it is tempting to assign pre-argumentative weight to the pro-gun rights side. Given the context of how the second amendment has been used, this is at least balanced out, if not now weighted the other way.
The second reason is largely a corollary to the first. People tend to assume that if a right is granted Constitutional status, then that is the end of the discussion, full stop. This is a bad attitude for two reasons: (i) it assumes that rights cannot be abridged in any way, which is false (see fighting words, imminent threats, and anti-libel laws, and so on); (ii) it gives unwarranted moral weight to the right at hand. The Constitution is not a perfect document. It certainly has been a model for great democratic constitutions, but it originally allowed slavery, deprived women of their right to vote, and many other things that have needed to be changed. The second amendment is no different in its status, and has the aforementioned contextual matters to take into account before the true discussion over appropriate gun ownership and usage begins.
To be clear, I am not saying each and every gun owner or gun rights activist is a white supremacist. However, even those innocent of even unconscious malicious intent may find themselves enmeshed in a cultural struggle in which they are on the wrong side. It is possible to think that gun rights are God-given, fundamental, and Constitutional without being on the side of subtle white supremacy, but finding a way to express this while avoiding complicity with the current movement will be hard to do. This historical context will hopefully lay some ground for further discussion, not only for later posts but in any discussion on this topic that the reader may have.
1I note that the NRAs self-described ‘less incendiary’ vice president Charlton Heston, who declared in his famous speech that
“I am not really here to talk about the Second Amendment…Rank-and-file Americans wake up every morning, increasingly bewildered and confused at why their views make them lesser citizens…Heaven help the God-fearing…Caucasian…Evangelical Christian…because not only don’t you count, you’re a downright obstacle to social progress.” We see even here elements of rhetoric against what is perceived as ‘reverse racism.’
For more on this attitude, see Hill’s Nobody.
2Lecrae said in 2016 in regard to the race riots in Ferguson:
“Take a knee…people riot. Take a bullet…people quiet.”
“I spoke out very frequently throughout 2016 in many different ways and it affected me. I went from a show that may have had 3,000 there to 300 but that was the cost…But those 300 people were people who I knew loved Lecrae, the black man, the Christian, all of who Lecrae was, not the caricature that had been drawn up for them.”
See (CBN 2017).
“Why Lecrae Says He’s ‘Divorcing’ White Evangelicalism” CBN, 13 October, 2017.
Hirby, William. “What Rights Do Convicted Felons Lose?” The Law Dictionary. 2017.
Meyer, Holly. “Black minister leaves Southern Baptist Convention to shed light on racism.” Religion News Service, 21 July, 2017.
New Jim Crow Fact Sheet. Center for Law and Justice, 2017.
Smith, Mitch. “Minnesota Officer Acquitted in Killing of Philando Castile” The New York Times, 16 June, 2017.
Waldman, Michael. The Second Amendment: A Biography. Simon & Schuster, 2015.