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  • Alex Horn

The Racist Origins of the Right to Bear Arms

Content Warning: Descriptions of Anti-Black Racism and Gun Violence

On February 2nd at 6:48 am, the Minneapolis Police Department entered a home in the Bolero Flats apartment complex to execute a no-knock warrant, and nine seconds later, 22-year-old Amir Locke was dead. Upon waking up, Locke was holding a gun, and Minneapolis Police cited this gun in justifying his killing, however, Locke’s gun was registered and legally owned. Amir is one example across thousands. Black-Americans have never had the right to bear arms, and this “right” has only ever been used to violently oppress them.

The Second Amendment to the Constitution states “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.” However, this was only meant to protect white people. In 1676, tensions between wealthy white Virginians and the lower class of poor white and enslaved Black people were at a high. So Nathaniel Bacon, a poor white planter, “proclaimed liberty to all Servants and Negroes” and led a united rebellion against the wealthy white class. This rebellion burned down Jamestown, then-capital of Virginia, though Bacon died soon after and the rebellion dissolved. In order to stop future rebellions, the wealthy white class created a systemic division between poor whites and enslaved Blacks. Thus, in 1680, the legislature pardoned the white rebels and punished the Black rebels. To further cement this division, every Virginia county established a militia of poor whites “in case of any sudden eruption of Indians or insurrection of Negroes.” As antiracist scholar Ibram X. Kendi wrote, this sorted poor whites “into their lowly place in slave society–the armed defenders of the planters–a place that would sow bitter animosity between them and enslaved Africans.”

After the founding of the United States and the ratification of the Second Amendment, the government had to swiftly ensure that this right would only protect white people. A year after ratification, Congress clarified that only “free, able-bodied, white male citizen[s]” should enroll in these militias. After this, states across the South, despite the Second Amendment supposedly guaranteeing universality, banned both free and enslaved Black people from owning, possessing, or using a firearm (see map). Even after de jure abolition and the ratification of the 14th Amendment declaring equal protection under the law, former Confederate states reinstated their laws prohibiting Black gun ownership.

However, these laws did not stop Black people from using their constitutional right to keep and bear arms. Black militias were organized throughout the South, and dozens of Black people were murdered by white mobs and the Ku Klux Klan for just owning a gun. In 1873, in Colfax, Louisiana, one of these Black militias, along with local Republican elected officials, occupied the Colfax courthouse over an election dispute. On April 13, the courthouse was surrounded by a mob of 300 armed white men, and the militia inside the courthouse surrendered. However, when the leader of the white mob was accidentally shot by one of his own men, the white mob opened fire, and that night, 150 Black people were killed, while just three of the white attackers were killed. 97 white militiamen were arrested and charged for the massacre, however, they were all eventually released.

A century later, the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense (BPP) was founded in Oakland, California. Originally, BPP’s core practice was ‘cop watching’, in which BPP members, using California’s open carry law, conducted armed patrols of Oakland neighborhoods to protect against police brutality and inform people of their legal rights. The premise of armed Black people again frightened white people, and in 1967, the Mulford Act was filed in the California State Assembly to prohibit open carry. In response to this, BPP staged an armed protest at the California State Capital, where BPP co-founder Bobby Seale declared that the American people must “take careful note of the racist California legislature aimed at keeping the Black people disarmed and powerless.” The Mulford Act was enacted with support from Republicans, Democrats, and even the gun advocacy and lobbyist organization, the National Rifle Association (NRA), and was signed by Republican Governor (and future President) Ronald Regan.

Even today, Black people are excluded from the Second Amendment, and it's still only used to protect white people’s right to bear arms. In 2010, Marissa Alexander, a 29-year-old Black mother from Jacksonville, Florida, had been married to a man who had a record of domestic violence. When he threatened to kill her, she fired a warning shot in self-defense, hurting no one. She was subsequently convicted for aggravated assault and sentenced to 20 years, despite Florida’s Stand Your Ground law. In 2016, 32-year-old Black man Philando Castile was pulled over for a traffic stop in a St. Paul, Minnesota suburb, when Castile informed the officer that he had a gun in the car, which he legally owned. Without ever even seeing the gun, the officer shot Castile five times, killing him, while Castile’s girlfriend and her four-year-old daughter were in the car. The NRA was silent on Alexander’s right to self-defense, and an NRA spokesperson blamed Castile for being murdered. Throughout American history, the constitutional right to keep and bear arms has been denied to Black people, and this right has only ever been used to violently oppress and marginalize Black people.


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