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Selective Disarmament: No Guns For The Poor By David Kopel

Wednesday, October 6, 1999

Shown are typical examples of the small, inexpensive handguns that are often the only affordable means of self-defense for the poor. These guns and many others like them would be banned by Senator Barbara Boxer's "junk guns" bill: Clerke Double-Action .22 LR Revolver. Harrington and Richardson .22 LR Revolver, Phoenix Arms Raven .25 ACP Semi-Automatic, RG 10 .22 LR Revolver, Jennings J-22 .22 LR Semi-Automatic.

When wolves hunt, they pick out the easiest targets at the fringe of the herd. Gun control proponents also specialize in picking the most vulnerable targets, those who are least able to fight back politically. In the United States, the strategy of picking on the most vulnerable targets has often resulted in gun control being aimed at the poor (which generally means minorities, particularly blacks).

A case in point is the ban on small, inexpensive handguns proposed by Senator Barbara Boxer (D-CA). Proponents of the Boxer ban emphasize that they are not targeting expensive hunting rifles but merely want to ban the small guns that they wrongly call "junk guns" or "Saturday Night Specials".

The kind of people who would be disarmed by "junk gun" laws are people like Gina Cushon. A black woman who lives in Colorado Springs, Ms. Cushon used a small, inexpensive Lorcin handgun to defend her family against a large, drunk male neighbor who was breaking down her door and screaming that he would "kick her ass." Although an overzealous prosecutor brought charges against Ms. Cushon, she was acquitted by a jury since her actions were within the scope of Colorado's self-defense laws.

The campaigners against so-called "junk guns" make sanctimonious claims about just wanting guns to be safe and reliable. Yet their proposed bans always contain an exemption allowing the police to possess and carry such guns--as if the police should have unsafe and unreliable firearms. The police exemption shows that the objective of those laws is not getting rid of unreliable guns but rather taking guns away from poor people.

If legal regulations make it impossible for a company to manufacture a $70 handgun, then people who cannot afford more expensive guns are deprived of the practical ability to defend themselves.

After John Hinckley's assassination attempt, Handgun Control, Inc., instigated a lawsuit against the company that had made Hinckley's small gun. (Had Hinckley used a bigger, more expensive gun, James Brady and President Reagan would probably both have been killed.) The federal district court in Washington, D.C., rejected the suit, and noted that laws aimed at so-called "Saturday night specials" have the effect of selectively disarming minorities who, because of their poverty, must live in crime-ridden areas.

As a 1985 study by Professors James Wright and Peter Rossi for the National Institute of Justice concluded: "The people most likely to be deterred from acquiring a handgun by exceptionally high prices or by the non-availability of certain kinds of handguns are not felons intent on arming themselves for criminal purposes (who can, if all else fails, steal the handgun they want), but rather poor people who have decided they need a gun to protect themselves against the felons but who find that the cheapest gun on the market costs more than they can afford to pay."

The Boxer gun ban, and bills like it, are updated versions of the 1870 Tennessee "Army and Navy" law. That law was enacted by a white supremacist legislature intending to disarm the black freedmen after the Civil War. The legislature barred the sale of any handguns except the "Army and Navy model." The ex-Confederate soldiers already had their high-quality "Army and Navy" guns. But cash-poor black freedmen could barely afford lower-cost, simpler firearms not of the "Army and Navy" quality.

Small-caliber handguns have been carried by law enforcement officers for years, often as backups to their primary handguns. These handguns are useful for protective purposes because of their concealability and serve the primary function of backup if a disarming occurs or if you have no time to reload. There is no reason to believe that small-caliber handguns are any less useful for protection when in the hands of other law-abiding citizens."
--James J. Fotis, Executive Director of the 50,000-member Law Enforcement Alliance of America.

Tennessee's law to prevent blacks from arming themselves was hardly unique. For most of American history, gun control laws were primarily directed against blacks.

In 1644, Virginia's first recorded legislation about blacks barred them from owning guns. In the infamous 1857 Dred Scott decision, U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice Roger B. Taney announced that free blacks were not citizens; if they were, he warned, there would be no legal way to deny them firearms.

Immediately after the Civil War, several Southern states enacted "black codes," designed to keep the ex-slaves in de facto slavery and submission. Mississippi's provision was typical: No freedman "shall keep or carry fire-arms of any kind, or any ammunition. . . ."

In areas where the Ku Klux Klan took control, "almost universally the first thing done was to disarm the negroes and leave them defenseless," wrote civil rights attorney Albion Tourge.

While Reconstruction and the Fourteenth Amendment forced Southern states to repeal laws directly forbidding blacks to have guns, most Southern states followed Tennessee's lead, with facially neutral laws banning inexpensive guns, or requiring gun permits. As one Florida judge explained, the laws were "passed for the purpose of disarming the negro laborers...(and) never intended to be applied to the white population."

Disarmed, blacks were vulnerable to rioting white mobs, and in some cases were too demoralized to resist. For example, blacks did not fight back in the East St. Louis riot of 1917. Still, the Missouri legislature thought blacks a threat, and enacted a law requiring a permit to obtain a handgun.

Over half a century later, the St. Louis, Missouri, police continued to enforce the permit law unequally against blacks. According to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), the St. Louis police have conducted over 25,000 illegal searches under the theory that any black driving a late-model car must have a handgun.

In Michigan, the handgun permit law was enacted after a 1925 incident in which the family of Dr. Ossian Sweet, a black physician, shot and killed a person in a mob that was attacking their house because the family had just moved into a white neighborhood. The Detroit police stood nearby, refusing to restrain the violent crowd.

In the 1950s and 1960s, a new civil rights movement began in the South. White supremacist tactics were just as violent as they had been during Reconstruction. Blacks and civil rights workers armed for self-defense.

John Salter, a professor at Tougaloo College and chief organizer of the N.A.A.C.P.'s Jackson Movement during the early 1960s, wrote, "No one knows what kind of massive racist retaliation would have been directed against grass-roots black people had the black community not had a healthy measure of firearms within it." Salter personally had to defend his home and family several times against attacks by night riders. After Salter fired back, the night riders fled.

The unburned Ku Klux Klan cross in the Smithsonian Institution was donated by a civil rights worker whose shotgun blast drove Klansmen away from her driveway.

State or federal assistance sometimes came not when disorder began but when blacks reacted by arming themselves. In North Carolina, Governor Terry Sanford refused to command state police to protect a civil rights march from Klan attacks. When Salter warned Governor Sanford that if there were no police, the marchers would be armed for self-defense, the Governor provided police protection.

Civil rights professionals and the black community generally viewed nonviolence as a useful tactic for certain situations, not as a moral injunction to let oneself be murdered on a deserted road in the middle of the night. As the N.A.A.C.P. national convention resolved, "We do not deny but reaffirm the right of individual and collective self-defense against unlawful assaults."

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., took the same position, contrasting lynchings with violence "exercised in self-defense." King described the latter type "as moral and legal" in all societies, and noted that not even Gandhi condemned it.

Racially motivated violence is not the only threat to which blacks are more vulnerable than whites. A black person in America has a 40 percent greater chance of suffering loss from a burglary and a 100 percent greater chance of being robbed than a white person. Simply put, blacks need to use deadly force in self-defense far more often than whites. In many jurisdictions, the number of lawful self-defense homicides committed by blacks far exceeds the number committed by whites, even though blacks are a much smaller percentage of the population.

Gun control laws are discriminatorily enforced against blacks, even more so than other laws. In Chicago the black-to-white ratio of weapons arrests one year was 7:1 (prostitution, another favorite for discriminatory enforcement, was the only other crime to have such a high race ratio). Black litigants have gone to federal court in Maryland and won permits after proving that a local police department almost never issues permits to blacks.

The model set by Tennessee in 1870 (facially neutral gun laws aimed at blacks) is still working today. The Gun Control Act of 1968 bars the import of guns not "suitable" for sporting or recreational purposes.

According to BATF, casual target shooting ("plinking") is not a recreational activity, whereas formal target matches are. Thus, inexpensive handguns commonly used for plinking are barred from import. The effect is to allow imports of expensive guns favored by wealthy shooters while barring guns affordable by poor people. And the Boxer bill would apply exactly the same criteria to domestically produced handguns.

The ban on so-called "assault weapons" (ordinary guns with politically incorrect aesthetics) was driven by an incessant propaganda campaign from Handgun Control, Inc. (HCI). HCI claimed that the guns were the "weapon of choice" of gangs--in contrast to "sporting" guns.

The subtext, of course, was an effort, ultimately successful, to convince white or middle-class hunters who lived in the suburbs that "their" guns were not at risk. The anti-gunners just wanted to take away guns from "gang members" with darker skins, in the inner cities.

The bait-and-switch worked. Not until after the "assault weapons" ban was enacted did many gun owners realize that their high quality, expensive M1A rifles were now "assault weapons"--and that they would no longer be able to buy new 13- or 15-round magazines for their pistols.

Until blocked by a federal court in 1994, the police in Chicago would enter public housing apartments without a warrant and conduct room-to-room metal detector sweeps for guns. The searchers rummaged through drawers, refrigerators, cabinets, and personal effects, confiscating even lawfully purchased rifles and shotguns. LeRoy Martin, then the Chicago police chief, declared his admiration for Nazi and Communist Chinese police practices.

President Clinton praised the Chicago searches, and pushed for a complete ban on gun possession in all public housing units, in which residents would have been forced to "consent" to warrantless searches of their homes.

The NRA brought suit against a public housing gun ban in Portland, Maine. The Maine Supreme Court ruled that the Portland housing authority had no power to impose the gun ban, since Maine has a preemption statute which specifies that gun laws must be made by the state legislature, not by local governments.

Every family in this country deserves to be able to protect themselves, whether they are rich, poor, or in-between, and regardless of their skin color or ethnic origins. That's what Dr. Ossian Sweet fought for seven decades ago, and that's what the gun control fight is still about today.


Material adapted from:
a) D. Kopel, Trust the People: The Case Against Gun Control, Cato Institute, http://www.cato.org
b) D. Kopel, The Samurai, the Mountie, and the Cowboy: Should America Adopt the Gun Controls of Other Democracies? (Prometheus Books, 1992, (800) 421-0351)
c) "The Second Amendment: Toward an Afro-Americanist Reconsideration," by Robert J. Cottrol and Raymond T. Diamond, Georgetown Law J., Vol. 80, and Ch. 3 in Guns, Who Should Have Them?, D. Kopel, ed. (Prometheus Books, 1995. (800) 421-0351)
d) Chicago Housing Authority (CHA) cases:
Pratt v. CHA, 155 F. R. D. 177 (Northern District of Illinois, 1994), and Pratt v. CHA, 848 F. Supp. 792 (N.D. Ill. 1994).

This article first appered in the August, 1997 American Guardian.
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Established in 1975, the Institute for Legislative Action (ILA) is the "lobbying" arm of the National Rifle Association of America. ILA is responsible for preserving the right of all law-abiding individuals in the legislative, political, and legal arenas, to purchase, possess and use firearms for legitimate purposes as guaranteed by the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.