National Rifle Association President David Keene stirred controversy Saturday by insisting that gun control’s origins were racist. “You know, when you go back in history,” Keene told the Daily Caller, “the initial wave of [gun laws] was instituted after the Civil War to deny blacks the ability to defend themselves.” Keene’s history is off by at least century—gun control existed in the American colonies and in the founding era—but nonetheless Keene points to an ugly truth about American history: Gun control has historically been used for racist purposes.
And the NRA’s president should know: His organization was intimately involved in this history, promoting gun control laws that were tainted with racism.
Gun control, like many other areas of law in American history, has been shaped by prejudice. In the colonies before the Revolution and in the states right after, racially discriminatory gun laws were commonplace. Fearing revolts, lawmakers enacted statutes barring slaves from possessing firearms or other weapons. That ban was often applied equally to free blacks, who otherwise enjoyed most rights, lest they join in an uprising against the slave system. Where blacks were allowed to possess arms, as in Virginia in the early 1800s, they first had to obtain permission from local officials.
As Keene notes, after the Civil War there was a rash of gun control laws aimed at disarming blacks. Southern blacks who had long been denied access to firearms were finally able to obtain them during the Civil War. Some served in colored units of the Union Army, which allowed soldiers regardless of skin color to take their guns home with them as partial payment of back-due wages. Other blacks purchased guns in the marketplace, which was flooded with the hundreds of thousands of guns produced for the war. Many predicted, accurately, that they might need those weapons to defend themselves against racist whites unhappy with the Confederacy’s defeat.
Within months of the surrender at Appomattox, recalcitrant white racists committed to the reestablishment of white supremacy determined to take those guns away from blacks. States in the South passed the Black Codes, which barred the freedmen from possessing guns. Racists quickly learned, however, why gun control is not always as effective as planned: You can draw up any law you like, but people don’t necessarily comply. To enforce these laws, racists began to form posses that would go out at night in large groups, generally wearing disguises, and terrorize black homes, seizing every gun they could find. These groups took different names depending on locale: the Black Cavalry in Alabama, the Knights of the White Camellia in Louisiana, the Knights of the Rising Sun in Texas. In time, they all came to be known by the moniker of one such posse begun in Pulaski, Tennessee after the war: the Ku Klux Klan.
Like the KKK, the NRA was also formed right after the Civil War. The organization’s first major involvement with promoting gun laws tainted by prejudice was in the 1920s and 30s. In response to urban gun violence often associated with immigrants, especially those from Italy, the NRA’s president, Karl Frederick, helped draft model legislation to restrict concealed carry of firearms in public. States, Frederick’s model law recommended, should only allow concealed carry by people with a license, and those licenses should be restricted to “suitable” people with “proper reason for carrying” a gun in public. Thanks to the NRA’s endorsement, these laws were adopted in the majority of states.
Determining who was “suitable” under these licensing schemes was left to the discretion of local law enforcement. Predictably, racial minorities and disfavored immigrants were usually deemed unsuitable, no matter how serious a threat they faced. In 1956, after his house was firebombed, Martin Luther King Jr. was turned down when he applied for a permit to carry a concealed firearm in Montgomery, Alabama.
The 1960s saw another wave of gun control laws that were, at least in part, motivated by race. After Malcolm X promised to fight for civil rights “by any means necessary” while posing for Ebony magazine with an M1 Carbine rifle in his hand and the Black Panthers took to streets of Oakland with loaded guns, conservatives like Ronald Reagan, then governor of California, began promoting gun control. Black radicals with guns, coupled with the devastating race riots that wiped out whole neighborhoods in Newark and Detroit in 1967, helped persuade Congress to pass the Gun Control Act of 1968. That law barred felons from purchasing firearms, expanded the licensing of gun dealers, and barred imports of “Saturday Night Specials”—cheap, often poorly made guns that were frequently used for crime by urban youth. As one gun control supporter at the time frankly admitted, a close look at that law revealed that it wasn’t really about controlling guns; it was about controlling blacks. And the NRA, in its signature publication,American Rifleman, took credit for the law and extolled its virtues.
Of course, not every gun law in American history was motivated by racism. In fact, some of our earliest gun laws had nothing to do with prejudice. After 1820, for instance, a wave of laws swept through the South and Midwest barring people from carrying concealed weapons. These laws weren’t racist in origin; blacks in many of these states were already prohibited from even owning a gun. The target of concealed carry laws was white people, namely violence-prone men who were a bit too eager to defend their honor by whipping out their guns. These laws, which might be thought of as the first modern gun control laws, had their origin in reducing criminal violence among whites.
Moreover, Keene’s claim that gun control has racist roots is not made to correct the historical record. He uses that history to raise doubts about President Obama’s proposals for background checks and restrictions on high-capacity magazines and assault weapons. Of course, there is no evidence any of these laws are motivated by even the hint of racism. To suggest that we shouldn’t adopt any gun regulations today because our ancestors had racist gun laws is, to be generous, far-fetched. Property law was once profoundly racist, allowing racially restrictive covenants; voting law was once profoundly racist, allowing literacy tests; marriage law was once profoundly racist, allowing no interracial marriage. Does that mean we should never have laws regulating property, voting, or marriage?
In these other areas of law, such a claim would be patently absurd. Yet in the minds of today’s NRA leaders, that’s what passes for logic.
Adam Winkler is a professor at UCLA School of Law and the author of Gunfight: The Battle over the Right to Bear Arms in America.