The Trace

Black Panthers gather on the Capitol steps in Olympia, Wash. in 1969 to protest a state bill banning open carry.

Categories: Q & A

A Historian’s Revealing Research on Race and Gun Laws

Saul Cornell is a leading authority on the evolution of U.S. firearm regulations. Here's how he views the claim that restrictions on gun rights have racist origins.

In a provocative piece published by ProPublica on November 24, Lois Beckett explores how the debate over gun laws frequently fails to address the disproportionate impact that gun violence has on black men, who make up 6 percent of the U.S. population but roughly half of its gun murder victims. Mass shootings like Newtown and Aurora capture the public’s attention, but “by most counts they represent less than 1 percent of all gun homicides,” she notes. While the calls for reform that come in the wake of such high-profile incidents — like universal background checks and banning assault weapons — address gun violence in general, they don’t specifically tackle the inner city gun violence that kills black men, which is driven largely by crime and street corner feuds.

Focusing on the underfunded Operation Ceasefire, Beckett makes the case that a lack of political will hampers efforts to prevent the murders of black men: as long as the deaths are confined to the inner city, she argues, the problem is viewed as simply an inner city crisis, not a national one.

Beckett’s article provides a kind of companion volume to a spate of recent pieces that have probed the separate but related question of why an ascendent generation of black activists has not made gun reform a priority. Saul Cornell, a professor of history at Fordham University, is very familiar with the shorthand answer that some have given to the second question: Gun control is racist. His research on the history of U.S. gun regulations also shows why that notion is wrong. But before we hear from him, it’s helpful to quickly review where the idea came from.

The argument has been around since at least 1995, when the conservative historian Clayton Cramer published an article titled “The Racist Roots of Gun Control” in the Kansas Journal of Law and Public Policy. His thesis was popularized in 2013 by then-National Rifle Association president David Keene in the wake of the Newtown massacre, when gun-rights advocates sought a way to reframe the gun debate around civil rights just as Congress was considering new gun regulations.

“You know, when you go back in our history, the initial wave of [gun-control laws] was instituted after the Civil War to deny blacks the ability to defend themselves,” Keene told the Daily Caller.

About a month after Keene made those comments, the Center for Urban Renewal and Education, a conservative think tank, ran a popular YouTube video that graphically depicts a lynching. A title card says, “A call for background checks invokes painful memories of Jim Crow and black codes,” laws passed in the South shortly after the Civil War that restricted the freedoms of African-Americans, among them the right to carry firearms.

Two years later, this reading of history has become conventional wisdom in gun rights circles. Here’s how Cornell believes it squares with the actual record.

Let’s get right to the big question. Some gun-rights advocates argue that the initial aim of gun control was to keep firearms away from African-Americans. Is that accurate?

It’s a half-truth. There’s a long history of gun regulation in the United States. Some of the regulations have to do with slavery, but most don’t. Conservatives are taking one strand of history and making it seem like that’s the whole story. In fact, there were a lot of other gun regulations in the 18th and 19th centuries, and they had nothing to do with race or slavery. In general, that’s one of the biggest problems with the debate — the history is so complex, and if you just pick out little bits, you can construct any story you want.

What issues did those earliest gun regulations address?

Well, you have to start with the very definition of what it means to be an incorporated town or locality. In the colonial years, one of the things that defined your existence was your ability to regulate public safety, which meant passing local laws that regulated the storage and sale of gun powder. And then there were a whole variety of neutral regulations that placed prohibitions on firing guns in certain places or on certain days. For instance, there were laws that made it illegal to fire guns on New Year’s, or to have a firearm in a domestic dwelling in the city of Boston. At that time, there were also laws that said you couldn’t sell guns to certain groups, like American Indians, which appears racial but is in fact a little different. They were in a constant state of warfare with the colonists.

What other regulations were in place at that time?

There were loyalty oaths to the new state governments. If you refused to take a loyalty oath, you could be disarmed. And the Founding Fathers supported those laws. Similarly, people who engaged in rebellions, like Shay’s Rebellion [a series of protests in 1786 and 1787, when American farmers pushed back against tax collections], were disarmed, too. There were also laws restricting hunting.

Really, the list goes on and on, and we haven’t even gotten to handguns yet. At the time, the government didn’t care about them because they were too expensive and too inaccurate; they were for rich people to engage in duels.

Which brings up an interesting point that is relevant today. There were these people who believed that if there was no law [prohibiting something], it became a right. But that’s not really true. It’s that there isn’t a law until you have a problem. Modern style gun control laws — laws designed to reduce the number of arms in circulation to control violence — are really a 19th century development. Laws regulating handguns didn’t exist earlier because they weren’t necessary.

I’m guessing those laws became necessary because of technological advancements in firearms.

The culmination of those advances was Samuel Colt, who took advantage of the new technology and pushed the idea that guns are what make you free. It’s no surprise that whenever people start talking about guns, they associate it with frontier democracy — with Davy Crockett. But the Founding Fathers, it’s worth noting, did not live in a frontier society; they lived on the seaboard. The reality is that the 18th century America of James Madison, who drafted the Second Amendment, was not a frontier society, and the rates of interpersonal violence among white Americans of European descent were at their lowest during the period after the Revolution. The idea that the Founding Fathers were thinking about self-defense in the way we think about it now doesn’t really track.

So at what point were gun laws created that targeted African-Americans?

There are examples going back to the colonial period. In 17th century Virginia you have laws about not allowing slaves to have guns. That’s also true of the Antebellum period. But these kinds of laws exist alongside race-neutral regulations, like the ban on firing weapons during New Year’s. In the current gun rights argument, it’s all the same thing, but it’s not. Despite the effort to promote this paranoid ideology that gun control always aligns with racism and tyranny, today’s regulations are all race neutral. They’re public safety laws.

Those who suggest gun control aligns with racism often point back to the Jim Crow era.

In the period after the Civil War, you have Black Codes being enacted to disarm African-Americans. The Fourteenth Amendment was at least partially a consequence of these laws, which makes it illegal to prevent an African-American’s access to guns. But what gets forgotten is, during that time period, the Republicans of the north, who are responsible for the Fourteenth Amendment, are also enacting neutral gun regulations because of violence in the south. After the Civil War, the south was very violent.

What regulations were being enacted?

One was that you couldn’t carry concealed weapons. It was considered a nefarious thing to do. In parts of the south, it was okay to open carry. In parts of the north, however, that was not okay. Two different standards emerged. In the south, there was a pretty general consensus that you could ban concealed carry. Concealed was considered unmanly, devious, and dastardly. Yet in some parts of the region, if you banned concealed you had to allow open. In other parts, the legislature could simply do whatever it wanted in the name of public safety. But in the north, you could only walk around with a gun if you were dealing with an imminent threat.

And what does the pattern look like as we head into the 20th Century?

The general pattern is that gun regulation increases with more neutral restrictions. In the West, it gets to the point where you can ban all public carry within town limits. By the turn of the 20th century, you start to get a regime that looks a lot like our contemporary one. There wasn’t much at the national level, just a patchwork of state regulations. Not surprisingly, you don’t start seeing effective national regulation until the New Deal. That’s when you get a ban on machine guns and sawed off shotguns — gangster weapons.

Decades later, during the late 1960s and early 1970s, California passed gun laws in response to white fear over the Black Panthers. Wasn’t that racist?

Ronald Reagan, who was Governor of California at the time, passed regulation in response to the Panthers asserting their gun rights. But the laws that were passed were still race neutral — they applied to everyone.

Reagan is the hero of modern-day conservatives, and yet he banned the open carrying of loaded firearms in California.

Right. Republicans scream gun control is racist, yet they’re the ones who passed a race-inspired gun control law that still exists today.

[Photo: Courtesy of the State Governor’s Negative Collection, 1949–1979, Washington State Archives]