The Racist History of Gun Restrictions

Though many Black people now support handgun bans, there once was a time when Black leaders fought quite hard to have guns in their communities.

Posted: 10/13/2011 05:13 PM EDT

In a Pew Research study from March of last year, a full 64 percent of Black Americans said that state and local governments should be allowed to pass laws restricting handguns. Only 38 percent of whites agree with that statement. Over the years, Blacks have become all too aware of the damage handguns can unleash on communities, which is why they’ve become major proponents of gun laws. But a new book about the history of American gun regulation shows how ironic Black support of widespread gun restriction actually is.

While doing research for Gunfight: The Battle over the Right to Bear Arms in America, UCLA constitutional law professor Adam Winkler discovered that, contrary to modern America, there was a time in U.S. history when African-Americans were actually fighting against gun regulation.

Starting as early as the Dred Scott decision in 1857, the American federal government made a point to keep guns out of African-American hands. When then-Chief Justice Roger Taney wrote his decision that Blacks couldn’t be considered full citizens, he noted that if they were, they would be allowed “full liberty of speech ... to hold public meetings on political affairs, and to keep and carry arms wherever they went.” Taney and others were terrified of a full-scale Black revolt, which meant they were completely in favor of keeping Blacks unarmed.

After the Civil War, the Southern states created so-called “Black Codes,” laws that restricted the rights of newly freed blacks. Can you guess what one of the main oppressions was? Blacks couldn’t own guns. Even when Blacks did get their hands on weapons, the nascent Ku Klux Klan would frequently go on raids of Black homes and take away their weapons, making them even more vulnerable to Klan attacks.

These kinds of arbitrary restrictions on gun ownership traveled all the way to the civil rights era, when the archaic Black Codes continued to prevent African-Americans from arming themselves. Even Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. applied for a gun permit after his house was firebombed. Despite King being a respected community leader and a man of the cloth, the Alabama police denied his request.

Nowadays, things have obviously turned around drastically. Blacks have won the right to own guns, but awful gun violence has also wreaked havoc on Black communities from coast to coast. The Klan was wrong: Rather than attacking them with guns, some African-Americans started attacking each other over gang territory and drug battles. It’s no wonder today’s African-American leaders herald gun restrictions. And one has to consider whether winning the right to carry handguns everywhere was really that wonderful of a victory.

(Photo: REUTERS/Joshua Lott)

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