The book discusses and investigates the black tradition of keeping and bearing arms for self-defense throughout history, starting with the pre-Civil War era and then working through the struggle for independence and equal rights to present day examples of responsible gun owners in the African-American community using firearms to defend their families and communities.
Below is our Q&A about the book and other gun-related issues:
S.H. Blannelberry: Classic Guns.com question, do you own a firearm(s)? Put another way, what’s your favorite gun (for carrying, for home self-defense, hunting, shooting, etc.)?
Prof. Johnson: My parents bought me my first rifle when I was 14. Your readers will appreciate that the favorite gun question is difficult. I recently traded for a Volquartsen Fusion with barrels in .17 HMR and .22 Magnum. That is my current favorite gun for the range. It was an ersatz anniversary present. My wife got a piece of jewelry. If she reads this, she will learn that I got a new rifle.
There are some guns that I would never sell, like that first rifle I built up completely from a stripped receiver. I learned a lot doing it. That kind of knowledge is important if you are going to engage policy questions in a serious way.
But the guns I am most attached to are the ones passed down to me by my grandparents. They are not much to look at but they are treasures. One of these is my grandmother’s nightstand gun, an old Smith & Wesson revolver. Another is a 1907 Winchester that’s close to 100 years old. I sometimes invoke it to complicate things when people make exaggerated claims about modern semiautomatics.
I have a nice Beretta 20 gauge that I like for clays. I would use it for bird hunting if I ever get the chance. Also my Ruger LCP serves very well.
S.H. Blannelberry: You wrote in a recent Volokh Conspiracy article that you chose to use the word “Negroes” in the title of your book because in addition to being an allusion to a memoir “Negroes with Guns” by Robert Williams, it is “evocative of the deep roots of the black tradition of arms which emerged at a time in the American story when most black people had the legal status of mules and would have been gratified to be called Negroes.” Though, one has to also wonder if there is a commercial aspect to the use of that word in that it is, to some extent, eye-catching and controversial. Would you agree?
Prof. Johnson: I go back and forth on this. The debate between Robert Williams and Martin Luther King (detailed in the first chapter) is such a classic rendition of the core theme of the book that it seemed important to acknowledge Williams. I actually proposed to the publisher using precisely the same title as Williams’ book, with a clarifying subtitle.
We will have to see if the title has commercial appeal. I mentioned in a recent blog post that Negro is not a word that I use in conversation. In this sense the title reflects something broader about the book. Some of these things are easier to write about than to talk about. I guess the title is more memorable and eye catching than some of the more abstract alternatives that we considered. I worry a bit that it will put some people off and prevent them from giving the book a chance. But so far the reception seems to be good. Hard to tell though how much that has to do with the title.
S.H. Blannelberry: It appears you make a very strong case in the book that the black struggle for freedom and equality in this country would not be possible without firearms or, at the very least, the journey would have been much more arduous and slow-moving.
Perhaps this is epitomized by the Fannie Lou Hamer quote, you referenced, about segregationists in Mississippi, “Baby you just got to love ’em. Hating just makes you sick and weak.” Though, she qualified that quip by explaining how she defended herself from nighttime attacks, “I’ll tell you why. I keep a shotgun in every corner of my bedroom and the first cracker even look like he wants to throw some dynamite on my porch won’t write his mama again.”
Why do you think that this aspect, the gun-owning aspect, of the abolitionist movement and the civil rights movement (in Hamer’s case) is often deemphasized or outright omitted in the retelling of history?
Prof. Johnson: A couple of things. First, it’s very hard for complex messages to penetrate popular culture. Subtlety is hard to transmit in headlines, sound bites and the few minutes of yelling on TV that passes for debate. Except for specialists, most people walk around with a thin, glib sense of many issues, including this history. This problem is not confined to this topic. I see it in the reporting of other things where my knowledge is deeper than average. Ask anyone who has studied the details of any issue what they think of its coverage within popular culture. They will likely express a similar concern.
Your readers who are versed in the technical details of firearms will appreciate how this plays out in various proposals for gun regulation, where it is evident that even members of congress often are operating with very thin knowledge of things they propose to regulate. It is not uncommon for legislators to make claims about firearms technology that knowledgeable gun owners will dismiss as nonsense. This is just a barrier that one has to try to break through.
Part of the problem is we have way more information now to digest, but people do not really have additional time. So I am not surprised at all that people operating under multiple daily demands have not drilled down through the simplistic popular culture message to discover the story that I chronicle in Negroes and the Gun.
S.H. Blannelberry: Another central theme in your book is the critical distinction between political violence and self-defense violence when discussing gun ownership in the black community. Can you explain why it is important to discern between the two?
Prof. Johnson: Highlighting this distinction is my primary analytical contribution in the book. Some treatments of this issue have cast these self-defense stories as aberrations and therefore do not pursue the thread of armed self-defense that runs through so much of black history . Others have noted the fact of black gun use but have not teased out the philosophical distinction that drives the tradition. What I show here is that very early on, demonstrated vividly in words and deeds of the of the leadership class and people at the grassroots, blacks made a distinction between political violence and self-defense. This was out of practical recognition that political violence was folly; that it could not succeed and that even the attempt would unleash violent backlash. On the other hand, individual self-defense is a universal private interest that kicks in at the boundary where government cannot or will not respond. It was and is a crucial private resource, not just for blacks, but for everyone.
S.H. Blannelberry: Nowadays black leaders in academia, in the media, in politics tend to exhibit an institutional hostility toward firearms even though, statistically speaking, guns are used more frequently to deter crime than they are used to commit crimes. From your vantage point, what accounts for their prejudices against responsible gun ownership and antipathy toward firearms?
Prof. Johnson: In the book I call this embrace of supply side gun controls/gun bans the “modern orthodoxy”. I discuss in chapter 8 how it emerged out of the political turmoil of the 1960’s as a new black political class rose within a progressive coalition that included the newly minted national gun control movement. Of course I cannot speak to the precise motivations of any individual policy-maker. But I do think that the idea of supply controls tempts policy-makers with the promise of a simple solution to a very complex problem. Supply controls conform to simple tests of logic. No guns truly does equal no gun crime. But the zero gun scenario is just a pipe dream in a country that already has 325 million guns held tightly by people who understand that arms possession is a fundamental constitutional right. We also know that fruitless attempts at supply controls ultimately tilt the distribution of firearms toward the worst people in the community, and sacrifice the deterrent benefits of guns in the hands of trustworthy people. We saw this in Washington, D.C. and Chicago before the Heller and McDonald cases struck down gun prohibition in those jurisdictions.
Part of what we see here is simply inertia. Many in the black political class embraced supply side gun control in the mid 1970’s as a sort of experiment. They were wrestling with crime and violence in the inner cities and supply controls were advance by serious people and backed by then current social science theories as the solution to those problems. That approach became an article of faith for many, and that makes it difficult to step back and reassess the experiment in an even handed way. Reassessing the modern orthodoxy will be very uncomfortable for many in the political class because it raises the possibility that part of the solution here may involve private action. This will be especially difficult for progressives, whose political coin is the promise of public solutions.
The other thing to realize here is that people feel and believe things about the gun issue at a visceral level. I teach a firearms law course at my law school. Many of my students acknowledge that the details they learn in the policy sections of the course about the costs and benefits of firearms are very different from the impressions they have picked up from popular culture. But when I get some of their papers at the end of the semester, they often repeat some of these erroneous but deeply held beliefs.
So, I worry that the challenge is not simply having a fair conversation about measurable criteria. In some sense this debate always requires that we make guesses about the future – what policy will be better or worse for us as individuals. These are intensely personal decisions about individual security. I think people do not make these – ultimately life or death decisions – in a fully rational way. For some people the gun only represents a hazard. I have talked with people who have a deep personal revulsion against the gun. I think it is hard for many people to get past that. It weighs heavily on their decision-making and how they react to the data. On the other side of it, people like me who grew up with guns, will have an easier time crediting the empirical work that suggests the benefits of firearms because that comports more with our experience and expectations about the future.
S.H. Blannelberry: Gun-related violence disproportionately effects the black community. There are many theories to explain why this is other than the knee-jerk, “There are too many guns.” For example, some experts argue that sociological factors like growing up without a father, dropping out of high school or growing up in an impoverished neighborhood all increase one’s likelihood of becoming a victim of gun violence. What are your thoughts on these theories and studies? And in your opinion, why is the African American community disproportionately affected by gun violence?
Prof. Johnson: This is one of the toughest questions that the book engages. It is difficult to discuss because many people have strong instincts about the answers, but we cannot talk candidly because it is so easy to give or take offense here. So in some sense, focusing on guns, lets everybody avoid what is otherwise a very, very difficult conversation, whose endpoint is uncertain.
The gun focus also is a powerful draw within the simplistic two-minute discussions that feed popular culture (again that the discussion is a minefield with the ever-present danger of innocently saying something that makes you a national pariah). So the path of least resistance is to do the simplistic “but for” calculation about the gun and jump to the answer of supply controls.
But the simplistic it’s the gun argument falls quickly to the data. We know for example that in the same cohort of young black men homicide rate is far lower in rural areas where there are far more guns and easier access to guns. I discuss this in some detail in the book. We also know that the recent record breaking increases in the firearms supply have corresponded with broad declines in gun crime even among young black men.
Also when one pushes into the social science and engages the causation question seriously, we find broad disagreement. The book discusses many of the studies that try to account for the disproportionally high homicide and victimization rates among young black men. They are all over the map, with something to confirm nearly everyone’s intuitions. The truth is that everyone has instincts about this, but ultimately we don’t know for sure.
One important thing to emphasize here is the scale. In absolute numbers we are talking about a very small number of violent young men. The book emphasizes some of the scholarship treating this as a problem of a “criminal microculture”. The actual numbers bear this out. The carnage here is generally attributable to a small discernible group of young men. Some efforts like the Project Exile program pressed by David Kennedy and others, have focused intensely on these young men with results that are encouraging. As a longer view preventative approach, the work of people like Geffory Canada, who runs the Harlem Children’s Zone is very encouraging.
I argue in the last chapter of the book that stringent supply controls aimed at this criminal microclass really only hurt the people in the community who are afraid to break the law. I think this can’t be a result anyone is really happy with. But it’s surprising how hard people like Shelly Parker and Otis McDonald (black plaintiffs in Heller and McDonald) had to fight to get broader recognition of their basic rights to protect themselves from the looming criminal microclass.
S.H. Blannelberry: What did you learn in writing the book? Did you uncover anything in your research that surprised you?
Prof. Johnson: Well, I have appreciated this general story for a long time. The surprising things were in the details. The story was far richer, the tradition far more pervasive than I first imagined. The research was like mining gold. In many places I proceeded on instinct that another important turn in the broader story might be close. And nearly every time and on a daily basis I would find these nuggets, some episode that just knocked me out of my seat. There were days when these stories just came raining down on me and every place I looked there was another powerful confirmation of the black tradition of arms.
The challenge really was keeping track of it all. I would be in the middle of one source, and veer off to check a footnote; that would lead to something else and on like that until I was juggling a dozen new things that made the story far richer than I expected. But for page limits and the time frame negotiated with the publisher, this could have been a much longer book. But who knows when it would have been finished.
S.H. Blannelberry: Lastly, what do you want your reader to walk away with after finishing the book?
Prof. Johnson: I hope that some of the people chronicled here will get their due within the American story and be recognized as authentic American heroes. I also hope that the perspective offered here about armed self-defense will advance the conversation by giving people a richer insight about the choices people make to own and carry guns for self-defense.