Did you know that your right to bear arms is racist? That seems to be the message that the editors of Atlantic magazine want you to take away from an article published in late September, “The Slave-State Origins of Modern Gun Rights.” The authors, academics with specialties in American history and law, make the case that “… what (gun-rights) advocates do not acknowledge—and some courts seem not to understand—is that their arguments are grounded in precedent unique to the violent world of the slaveholding South.” The authors of this piece are correct in their sense that our current gun debate has its roots in the 19th-century American South—but they managed to get the true alignment of things completely backwards.
It becomes clear in the second paragraph that the authors are really not addressing gun rights as a whole, but rather the right to carry firearms in public. Examining how legal precedent differs from one region of the United States to another, they conclude that the South alone has a robust tradition of public carry. This tradition, they say, results from both a culture obsessed with the violent defense of one’s honor—the mindset that made duels especially common in the region—and a widespread fear of slave revolts.
At this point you would expect to see some examples from history to bolster this argument. You’d be disappointed. The authors quote a few 19th-century legal opinions to back up the point that the South had different laws on public carry from other parts of the country—a point we’re not looking to dispute—and end abruptly. Presumably readers are supposed to infer that racism is the obvious reason for this regional difference, without exercising any critical thought as to how it happened or why we’re not seeing any evidence of the process.
Yet another leap in logic is required to accept the proposition contained in the article’s headline—that “modern gun rights” as a whole are derived from a system founded on racism and inequality.
The authors of this piece are correct in their sense that our current gun debate has its roots in the 19th-century American South—but they managed to get the true alignment of things completely backwards. It is the modern gun control movement that is absolutely a product of racist legislators trying to deprive black Americans of the ability to defend themselves.
When the Civil War ended and the Reconstruction Amendments freed the slaves and assigned them equal rights under the law, the white landowners at the top of the socio-economic ladder found themselves in a predicament. Not only were they deprived of their resource pool of unfree labor, but they now lived side by side with a black population that outnumbered them—and was about to enjoy equal access to both ballot boxes and firearms. These landowners acted swiftly to defend their dominant position. Encouraging poor whites to cling to a sense of racial identity and despise their black neighbors was part of their strategy. The other part was an explosion of new legislation that spat in the face of the Constitution’s clear intention to guarantee the rights of the former slaves. The connection of gun control to racist motives—and of gun rights to the defense of vulnerable black populations—continues in one unbroken narrative from Reconstruction to the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s and onward.
These were the notorious Black Codes, the first salvo in a barrage of racist legislation that would come to be known as the Jim Crow laws. And while our history books primarily remember them for trampling on the voting rights of black citizens, gun control was at the forefront of their agenda. These were not the first laws in America to target black ownership of firearms, but they now had to be deceitfully crafted to deprive citizens of their constitutional rights without appearing to do so intentionally.
Clayton Cramer, Stephen P. Halbrook and Dave Kopel are among the scholars who have painstakingly documented how the quest for white dominance at the expense of black rights shaped the gun control movement. The connection of gun control to racist motives—and of gun rights to the defense of vulnerable black populations—continues in one unbroken narrative from Reconstruction to the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s and onward. From the Deacons for Defense and Justice to Rosa Parks herself, access to armed self-defense was a crucial corollary to the fight for freedom waged by black activists.
The evidence for why gun rights support racial equality is everywhere—even the items we have cited above are merely the tip of the iceberg. On the other hand, the authors of the Atlantic piece fail to give a single compelling example of how public carry worked to advance the cause of white supremacy. Gun control is a product of “slave-state” racism. Gun rights? Nice try, but those are in the Constitution.