The Racist History of Handgun Bans in America

Posted on January 15, 2003

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(Excerpted from the NRA-ILA "War Against Handgun Fact Sheet")

In the United States, the first efforts to prevent the ownership of firearms, in particular, handguns, were aimed at Blacks. The French Black Code (1751) required Louisiana colonists to stop and, "if necessary," beat "any black carrying any potential weapon. . . ." After Nat Turner's rebellion in 1831, the Virginia legislature made it illegal for free blacks "to keep or carry any firelock of any kind, any military weapon, or any powder or lead." In 1834, Tennessee revised Article XI, Section 26 of its Constitution to read "That the free white men of this State have a right to keep and bear arms for their common defense," inserting the words "free white men" to replace "freemen," whose rights were protected when the Constitution was ratified in 1796. (Clayton E. Cramer, "The Racist Roots of Gun Control," Kansas Journal of Law & Public Policy, Winter 1995.)

Mass production techniques lowered the cost of many products, including firearms. After the Civil War, gun prices fell within the budgets of average citizens, including former slaves who, having been freed, were entitled to exercise the right to arms, long considered one of the features distinguishing citizenship from servitude. The Supreme Court had ruled in Dred Scott v. Sanford (19 How. 393, 1857), "It (citizenship) would give to persons of the negro race, who were recognized as citizens in any one State of the Union, the right to enter every other State whenever they pleased. . . and it would give them the full liberty of speech in public and in private upon all subjects upon which its own citizens might speak; to hold public meetings upon political affairs, and to keep and carry arms wherever they went."

To prevent Blacks from arming themselves, southern states enacted the Black Codes, which "fixed the black population in serfdom, denying all political rights, excluding them from virtually any chance at economic or social advancement -- and, of course, forbidding them to own arms." (Don B. Kates, Jr., "Toward a History of Handgun Prohibition in the United States," Restricting Handguns: The Liberal Skeptics Speak Out, Don B. Kates, Jr., Ed., North River Press, Inc, 1979.)

After ratification of the 14th Amendment (1868) and enactment of the Civil Rights Act (1875), several states responded by passing laws which on their face were race-neutral, but which in effect were not. Attorney Robert Dowlut observed, "It does not matter that a law on its face applies to all. A law will be deemed unconstitutional if the 'the reality is that the law's impact falls on the minority.'" ("Bearing Arms in State Bills of Rights, Judicial Interpretation, and Public Housing," St. Thomas Law Review, Vol. 5, Fall 1992.)

Among these laws, the forerunners of so-called "Saturday Night Special" legislation, was Tennessee's "Army and Navy" law (1879), which prohibited the sale of any "belt or pocket pistols, or revolvers, or any other kind of pistols, except army or navy pistol" models, among the most expensive, and largest, handguns of the day. (Such as the Colt Model 1960 Army, Model 1851 Navy, and Model 1861 Navy percussion cap revolvers, or Model 1873 Single-Action Army revolver.) The law thus prohibited small two-shot derringers and low-caliber rimfire revolvers, the handguns that most Blacks could afford.

20th Century Anti-Handgun Efforts in the U.S.

In 1911, New York passed the Sullivan Law, which to this day requires a person to obtain a license, issued at the discretion of police officials, to possess a handgun. The law was aimed at preventing handgun ownership by Italians and Irish immigrants of the period, then considered untrustworthy by New York legislators and police chiefs with different bloodlines. The National Firearms Act (1934), as originally proposed, would have required registration of handguns.

In 1968, Congress passed the Gun Control Act, ostensibly in reaction to the assassinations of President John F. Kennedy, Senator Robert F. Kennedy and the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King. But even supporters of "gun control" have recognized another purpose to the law. Robert Sherrill wrote, "The Gun Control Act of 1968 was passed not to control guns but to control blacks.... Inasmuch as the legislation finally passed in 1968 had nothing to do with the guns used in the assassinations of King and Robert Kennedy, it seems reasonable to assume that the law was directed at that other threat of the 1960s, more omnipresent than the political assassin -- namely, the black rioter....With the horrendous rioting of 1967 and 1968, Congress again was panicked toward passing some law that would shut off weapons access to blacks." (The Saturday Night Special, 1973.) B. Bruce-Briggs similarly noted, "It is difficult to escape the conclusion that the 'Saturday night special' is emphasized because it is cheap and is being sold to a particular class of people. The name is sufficient evidence -- the reference is to 'n-----town Saturday Night.'" ("The Great American Gun War," The Public Interest, Fall 1976.)

More recently, anti-handgun efforts have included laws or legislative proposals for registration, licensing, limits on the frequency of purchases, limits on the capacity of ammunition magazines, bans on both small handguns ("Saturday Night Specials") and large handguns ("assault pistols"), and requirements that handguns (except those of the police) either be externally locked (rendering them useless for protection) or manufactured with non-existent internal devices to prevent the handgun from being used by anyone other than its rightful owner.

Conspicuously, the race-oriented history of "gun control" laws has escaped the attention of many in the civil rights community. Legal scholars Robert J. Cottrol and Raymond T. Diamond have written, "The history of blacks, firearms regulations, and the right to bear arms should cause us to ask new questions regarding the Second Amendment. . . . Perhaps a re-examination of this history can lead us to a modern realization of what the framers of the Second Amendment understood: that it is unwise to place the means of protection totally in the hands of the state, and that self-defense is also a civil right. ("The Second Amendment: Toward an Afro-Americanist Reconsideration," Gun Control and the Constitution: Sources and Explorations on the Second Amendment, ed., Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey, School of Law, 1994.)

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