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The Racist History of Gun Control

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Thanks to Maj Toure, founder of Black Guns Matter, many have heard the phrase: “All Gun Control is Racist.” But is he right? In short, pretty much — however, you can add a splash of nepotism and a whole lotta classism into those laws as well. 

Outright gun bans didn’t exist much in early history. A few exceptions include the ban of wheellocks by Emperor Maximillian I of the Holy Roman Empire in the 1500s as well as Army Navy laws in the post-Civil War South (more on this later). The earliest gun laws rather focused on the concept of who could and couldn’t own firearms. By the 20th century, however, these laws shifted away from overt racism to regulations of guns and their features, such as the National Firearms Act, Hughes Amendment, and assault weapons bans. Yet, in many cases, these “modern” regulations still achieved the same goal as the laws of the past. As a subsequent result, whether consciously or unconsciously, these laws have become a passive-aggressive discriminatory tool that impacts people in many ways, including lower-income families burdened by financial hurdles to gun ownership.

In several episodes of the Cody Firearms Museum podcast, History Unloaded — yes, I just plugged myself — Curator Danny Michael and I discuss these laws and ask the rather insensitive question: Which is worse — a government that doesn’t hide their racism/classism, or one that hides behind feature-based firearms regulation implicitly affecting race, gender, ethnicity, and class? Both crappy choices, I know. Isn’t history fun?

Nepotism and Classism at its Finest — Early Gun Laws

The earliest firearms ignition system was the matchlock, developed around 1400. Because of the exposure of a burning match cord, it was difficult to conceal such a firearm and have it ready to fire quickly. As a result, there was not a lot of concern for criminal activity. Early in Europe, gun permits were issued through royal edicts that restricted ownership to the Crown’s most loyal subjects. Hunting licenses also needed to be issued, since the land was considered the property of the king. The penalty for violating these laws? Death. 

mao tse-tung quote

The rationale for early firearms bans typically surrounded concerns by royalty of insurrection and assassination. The wheellock, developed in the first decade of the 1500s, allowed for a firearm that could be “concealed” — by historic standards — for the first time. It no longer needed an external burning rope. Therefore, it was theorized that the ability to conceal would increase the chance for crime (sound familiar?). Whether this fear was warranted or not is up for debate, because the earliest known assassination with a firearm was 1570 (after the law was passed). Furthermore, it’s unclear whether the murderer used a matchlock or a wheellock. Regardless, during this time, gun ownership generally was limited to royalty and their “ass kissers.” But by the mid-1600s, with an emerging middle class, gun ownership increased.

Not a Good Look — Racism in Colonial & Early America

As the middle class grew in Europe, many flocked to America. And while America was considered a place to reinvent oneself regardless of background, restrictions on gun ownership branched out beyond class into race. 

Many colonies started creating self-defense laws as well as general bans based on race. In 1630, the British Privy Council prohibited firearms trade with Native peoples in America. In Virginia, in 1640, it was ruled: “That all such free Mulattoes, Negroes, and Indians … shall appear without arms.” These types of laws continued to be enacted under the auspices of insurrection prevention. And Virginia was not alone. In 1648, several men were actually sentenced to death for selling firearms to Natives, treated as if they aided enemy combatants; the sentence was later reduced, but still …

Woodcut of Swift Bear, one of Big Foot's (Spotted Elk) braves. Lakota Miniconjou. Killed at Wounded Knee Massacre 1890.
Woodcut of Swift Bear, one of Big Foot's (Spotted Elk) braves. Lakota Miniconjou. Killed at Wounded Knee Massacre 1890.

Even though the colonists were under the rule of others, when Americans got a chance to self-govern, they did the same. In 1791, the Second Amendment — which did not initially apply to all people — was ratified: “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.” Almost immediately, the Uniform Militia Act of 1792 “called for the enrollment of every free, able-bodied white male citizen between the ages of 18 and 45” to be in the militia and “provide himself with a musket or firelock, a bayonet, and ammunition.” So essentially, at a time when free Blacks were banned from owning firearms, white men were required to have them.

By the 1830s, things, while still bleak, were looking better when certain courts, in places like Florida and Delaware, ruled that free Blacks could acquire firearms permits. But just like that, those laws were quickly repealed. Not only were they repealed, but states also went to the trouble of search and seizure of Black homes. Not shockingly, things didn’t improve leading into the years of the Civil War. And in 1857, in the famed Dred v Scott case, the ruling further upheld slavery and enforced that Blacks weren’t U.S. Citizens. Even though many enslaved peoples were sent as proxy soldiers during the American Civil War and free Blacks did fight during the war, things, even after President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, especially in the South didn’t improve. Neither did confiscations out West of Native American firearms.

Discrimination and Violence Erupts — Late 19th Century

As the United States transitioned into a more modern era, discrimination and gun laws continued not just for Black communities, but Native tribal nations, and poor rural Americans. [Note: My apologies in advance if I am leaving a group out, but I’m pretty sure I’m already verging on surpassing my allotted word count.] 

In the post-Civil War South, the Black Codes were a series of laws that basically undid the rights of newly freed enslaved peoples. By 1866, the Black Code of Alabama made it illegal for Blacks to own firearms, or any weapon for that matter, and made it illegal for people to sell to Blacks — sounding eerily similar to laws from the 1640s. These types of laws extended across the South during a time of increasing violence, the development of the Ku Klux Klan, and waves of violent white rebellion.

The U.S. government tried to counteract these state laws immediately. The Civil Rights Act of 1866 attempted to rectify these racist laws in the South, including laws that “prohibit any negro or mulatto from having firearms.” This law led ultimately to the addition of the 14th Amendment, which granted all citizens equal protections.

“Section 1: All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside. No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.” 

wounded knee racist gun control
Firearms confiscation has had tragic outcomes for many Americans throughout history. The Wounded Knee Massacre (1890) has often been called the worst mass shooting in history. Miniconjou chief Spotted Elk (aka Bigfoot) lies dead in the snow after massacre at Wounded Knee. Northwest Photo Co., Chadron, Nebraska, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

After the Civil Rights Act and the 14th Amendment were put in place, the discrimination didn’t stop. States got cleverer in the ways that they regulated, resulting in the shift from banning race to banning types of firearms. Not surprisingly, the guns banned prevented those without deep pockets from owning firearms. The guns that were now legal, coincidentally, were already popular with the wealthy. But before we shift gears into the modern era, let’s look at the horrors happening out West — something that’ll be addressed in-depth in a future article.

Wounded Knee south dakota burial ground
Burying the dead in a common grave at Wounded Knee, South Dakota, in the aftermath of the December 29, 1890, battle. Photo courtesy Library of Congress.

As Americans pushed further West and claimed land as their own, conflicts with Native peoples — who had been on that land prior — arose. As previously stated, early regulations on Natives and guns came with steep punishments. However, that didn’t stop Native peoples from acquiring them. Ironically, a government that was so hell-bent on keeping guns out of Native hands, also sold to tribal nations when it was convenient to them. This often happened when colonials needed Natives to fight against a specific major power. As the percussion era transitioned to metallic cartridges, it became more difficult for Natives to acquire ammunition for these new firearms. The common narrative about Native Americans having better guns than the military arises out of the 19th century. It’s true only in that the military is always slow to adopt better technology. However, it wasn’t easy for Natives to acquire the ammunition needed to operate those guns. Many selling ammunition directly to Natives would charge a lot more than they would a white person. As a result, a lot of tribal nations utilized earlier firearms like flintlocks, because the ammunition and flints were attainable. Native use of modern repeating firearms did help in notable events like the Battle of Greasy Grass (aka Battle of Little Big Horn), however, this wasn’t always the case. Often, Native-owned firearms were confiscated by the government, leading to horrific massacres such as Wounded Knee (1890). Confiscation continued during the reservation era. 

Regulating Guns Not People — Today’s Gun Laws

Right after the 14th Amendment was ratified, the first “Saturday Night Special” laws were passed in places like Tennessee. No longer using overt racism, laws were now phrased as “an act to preserve the peace and prevent homicide,” which banned the sale of specific inexpensive firearms, only allowing the more expensive Army and Navy Models. These firearms were typically already owned by wealthy whites or within their price range. Some Blacks and poor white people couldn’t afford these guns. It’s important to note when outright racist laws start to dissolve as a means to circumvent the 14th Amendment, the laws now also impacted entire classes of people who couldn’t afford firearms. Once again, the classism of Europe rears its ugly head. 

ida b. wells gun control is racist
Ida B. Wells, journalist and activist, was a firearms owner and advocate. Mary Garrity Restored by Adam Cuerden, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

The U.S. government tried to impede further discrimination by proposing anti-KKK bills, but the courts would not uphold them. Notable figures in the Black community did protest this discrimination. One of the most famous quotes, is from Ida B. Wells, journalist, activist, and founding member of the NAACP, who stated 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.” In fact, the late 19th and early 20th centuries were the birthplace of many civil rights organizations and movements. And I’d be remiss, if I didn’t mention the formation of the National Rifle Association in 1871, however, their mission initially focused exclusively on improved marksmanship rather than politics. They didn’t enter the political arena until 1934, and as we already know they have a checkered past on this subject.

In the late 19th century and into the 20th century, states continued to pass bills that limited the types of guns that could be purchased or placed steep taxes to keep guns out of the hands of certain types of people. This continued leading up to the National Firearms Act of 1934. The National Firearms Act is known for the regulation of machine guns, suppressors (silencers per legislation), and short-barreled guns. Initially, handguns and all things concealable were included, but those were taken off the list, thanks to organizations like the NRA. However, instead of actually banning these firearms, they just imposed a hefty $200 tax stamp, which is a lot of money today yet immensely expensive by 1930s standards. 

black panther convention racist gun control
Black Panther convention at Lincoln Memorial, Washington, D.C., 1970. O’Halloran, Thomas J., photographer; Leffler, Warren K., photographer. For U.S. News & World Report, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

The concept of banning types of firearms rather than people from owning them — except for certain criminals — has continued to today. Even states have imposed license fees and proposed increased permit fees, claiming it reduces criminals from getting firearms but implicitly affects lower-income people. Certain statewide laws like the Mulford Act (1968) have clearly been reactionary against certain groups. However, citizens are practically gaslighted by politicians for even suggesting that type of discrimination, claiming that people of good moral character wouldn’t be affected by these laws. But that simply isn’t true in reality. Red-flag laws in the hands of malicious people could prevent those most in need, like domestic violence victims, from getting firearms for protection. By regulating certain features of firearms, it makes firearms less accessible for people of all shapes, sizes, strengths, and abilities. 

Defense: a handbook for radicals, revolutionaries, and easy riders
The following photographs were taken of Firearms & Self-Defense: A Handbook for Radicals, Revolutionaries and Easy Riders. This pamphlet was a part of the International Liberation School in Berkeley, California, and published by the Radical Education Project in December 1969.

The good news? Many of these communities who have been either overtly or subtly discriminated against
are fighting back. For example, the LGBTQ+ community was represented in the Heller Decision (2008), advocating that gun ownership was a matter of life or death in their community. And over the past few years, many people of all backgrounds and beliefs have been showcasing their various needs and rationales for firearms ownership — rejecting discriminatory laws that have been passed for centuries by kings, councils, and sadly some of our forefathers. 

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1 Comment

  • Toulon Rouge says:

    Gun control is racist. I agree. Even Doc King understood self defense and was denied. A gun keeps the KKK away. And if they dare it makes sure a few go to their reward.

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  • Gun control is racist. I agree. Even Doc King understood self defense and was denied. A gun keeps the KKK away. And if they dare it makes sure a few go to their reward.

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