Birth of a gun control nation: America’s first racist gun control laws

There’s an old precept that says, “You don’t know where you’re going until you know where you’ve been.” This quote – a normalized sentiment perhaps most eloquently articulated by Edmund Burke – alludes to the profundity of the backward glance. As with many things, a backward glance at the American gun discussion can yield interesting, and even surprising results.

Contention and gridlock have long colored the gun control debate in America. Some say more regulation is imperative, while others, like the NRA, point to the need to enforce the 20,000-plus laws already on the books.  In the spaces in between these two extremes falls a whole cast of characters, rounding out what is essentially America’s greatest three-ring circus, complete with lion-tamers, clowns, ringmasters and political acrobats.

But as is so often the case, a backwards glance at of the origins of American gun control quickly erases the sheen and dazzle of the hot-button issue. Talking points, talking heads, and Hollywood visages quickly fade away, leaving in their place a more sinister chronicle of racism, inequality, and fear. Although a backward glance at the first gun control laws is a journey through a darker time – and one that inevitably dredges a range of sharp emotions – it is a story that bears examination.

Current arguments often assert that gun control laws target minorities. Although there is debate over this notion, there is no debate that the first gun control laws were entirely motivated by race. Fueled by the anxiety of white landowners and the governing class, overtly discriminatory and racist slave codes were instituted in the colonies long before the American Revolution. For example, a statute passed in 1640 in the Commonwealth of Virginia forbade non-whites from carrying guns or weapons of any kind. A rash of like “codes” were adopted in a number of colonies prior to the Revolutionary War.

Although the next 150 years included a Revolution, the forming of a new nation, and the drafting and ratification of a Constitution, little changed with regard to gun control. In fact, leading up to the ratification of the Bill of Rights in 1791, ownership or possession of guns by non-whites was forbidden with increasing fervor, formality, and ubiquity.

And adherence to the Bill of Rights would logically have provided an opportunity to right this unfortunate trend.  By the 1864s, the 2nd Amendment guaranteed a right to bear arms and the 13th Amendment would abolish slavery. However, in reaction to approaching Emancipation, as early as the 1830s, progressively began to adopt a set of pseudo-laws known as the Black Codes.

These “laws” represented America’s first post-Emancipation attempts to control firearms. However, the main goal of these edicts dealt more with controlling marginalized freedmen whose status as citizens was yet unclear. Based on this legal loophole, the Black Codes were a last ditch effort to maintain the role of minorities and freed slaves as second-class citizens, denying them access to arms, voting, and the general political opportunity structure. Although there was state-to-state variation among the Black Codes, their thinly-veiled aim with regard to firearms was universal: keep guns in the hands of the ruling class, and out of the hands of everyone else.

The Black Codes were repealed by the 39th Congress with the passing of the Civil Rights Act of 1866. Soon after, in 1868, the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was adopted, bestowing citizenship to “all persons born or naturalized in the United States.” Furthermore, the 14th Amendment denied the right of any state to “abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States.” The 14th Amendment marked the end of the Black Codes, and simultaneously asserted the right of the Federal Government to enforce equal protection for all under the law.

Of course, the passing of the 14th Amendment was neither the beginning of racial harmony nor the end of attempts to pass discriminatory gun control laws. Gun control quarrels between State and Federal governments continue today, and are unlikely to subside anytime soon. In addition, many still point to modern gun control laws as harboring undertones of racial prejudice. In the muddy waters of American gun politics, as much is uncertain and debatable today as it was 300 years ago. Attempts to even define America’s first gun laws are fraught with problematic twists and turns. First, we were a colony governed by a remote Monarchy. Then, we were a fledgling nation struggling to negotiate our newfound freedoms and responsibilities. Shortly after, we were a nation divided by a Civil War.

In this case, the backward glance unveils a tragic irony. Sadly, throughout the entire raucous evolution of the United State of America – a nation won by well-armed and trained militias – laws were in put place to deny the rights of the marginalized and oppressed to bear arms. And they were perhaps the ones who needed them most. No sooner had our nation shook off the yoke of the oppressors, than we ourselves adopted their darkest practices.

Edmund Burke stated that “Those who don’t know history are destined to repeat it.” It’s unarguable that America has made great strides since our darkest days. We hope that today’s gun control debates are conversations of logic and substance. As we strive to negotiate disagreements of ideology and philosophy, we would do well to occasionally look over our shoulder and into the past. By respectfully acknowledging the place from which we’ve come, we can forge more wisely, if humbled.

This article originally ran on as “The Birth of a Gun Control Nation: A Look Back at Some of America’s First Gun Control Laws” on May 13, 2011 and has been edited for content.

  • Sommers

    GOOD lost history stuff. Thanks

  • Logan Waltz

    Requiring an ID to vote is racist because Democrats think black people are too stupid to pay $15 and fill out a page of questions to get an ID.

    All gun control must be racist because you must pay $15 and the price of a gun, have an ID, fill out a questionnaire, and not be a criminal. If black people are as stupid as Democrats have always said that they are… Democrats hate black people, the end.

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  • b4k9zp

    Professor Stephen P. Halbrook has written several very good books on this subject, including “That Every Man Be Armed: The Evolution of a Constitutional Right” and “Securing Civil Rights: Freemen, The Fourteenth Amendment, and the Right to Bear Arms, 1866-1876”, “The Founder’s Second Amendment, Origins of the Right to Bear Arms”, and “.The Right to Keep and Bear Arms under the Second and Fourteenth Amendments: The Framers’ Intent and Supreme Court Jurisprudence “

  • Tony

    Blacks were banned by law from owning firearms? Now that was common sense gun control!

    • Kurt Akemann

      Moving past racism opens up whole worlds to you mind.

      You should try it.

      • Tony

        There are no people more racist than blacks hating whites. Or, is that not racism because it’s whites they hate?

  • ernest meyer

    Ways and Means to End Conflict on Gun Control, Reduce Taxes, and Save Lives

    excerpt: “CONCLUSION. This study described an ideal method to reduce gun-violence cost and gathered objections from 1300 responders over 12 months. Overall it can be stated without doubt that each and every American household pays at least $500/year in taxes and medical insurance to pay for gun-violence cost. The specific numbers are actually not relevant to the method described here, but it was found necessary to state them before any significant number of Americans would consider this analysis at all, and then, those responding to the analysis mostly said the data and thought is wrong.

    First, with regard to the other data used in for the numerical deductions, I got so fed up with hearing accusations of bias from both sides, I went to the FBI databases and figured it all out for myself. I found crime only accounts for ~15% of gun deaths. 85% of all homicides are with legal guns. Over half of all homicides are people shooting people they know. Of those, most frequent is men shooting younger girls they know. There are many more accidents to gun owners’ own children than justified cases of self defense. Less than 1 in 30 of all homicides are justified acts of self defense, and just as often as not, people who are defending themselves shoot a child, or a relative by mistake.The presence of a gun in a home doubles the risk of homicide. The presence of a gun locker or other safety measures does not reduce the likelihood of homicide. Two thirds of gun deaths are people shooting themselves. The gun lovers said, suicide isn’t really gun violence, so those deaths aren’t guns’ fault. So I have to add, suicide attempts are 30 times more likely in the presence of a gun, and 10 times more likely to be successful with a gun than by other methods. All these facts were regarded with particular disdain by those desiring to promote gun proliferation, and not one of the 1,3,00 people defending inviolate rights to kill, in arguments over an entire year, said even one kind or sympathetic word for the dead. On the contrary, the most vocal 15% stated all people who were killed unequivocally deserve to die, even blaming accidental deaths on some vapid concept of necessary error, and discompassionately asserting with total conviction that all suicide victims should die without intervention anyway. However, those are only the people driving public opinion by the force of their vehemence, and the majority are totally oblivious to the deaths, believing that all the evidence and responsibility for death only applies to other people. They have no concern for the deaths of others whatsoever, let alone the increased risk to the lives of themselves and their families which the best impartial evidence indicates that they create by keeping firearms in their own homes.

    I am forced to conclude, too many Americans who get guns are just too angry, too stupid, too dangerous, or too insane to trust with firearms, and have no genuine concern for any other human life besides their own whatsoever, not even their own family and friends. If you were to go so far as to ask me how many: it sadly appears, out of the 1,300 choosing to advocate gun rights to me, the abrogation of social responsibility was exclusively predominant for 1,292 of them (99.38%). The majority of their claims are directly and deliberately false, without any ameliorative qualities. Almost all of the gun advocates are sociopathic, and many are purely psychopathic.

    In note of the virtual absence of reasonable conversation and the preponderance of direct hostility peppered with needless insults, the courts should indeed force gun control regardless of the public’s misinformed and uneducated opinions on the nature of the purpose of law. Both sides of the debate manipulate and distort statistics without any interest in truth, but the gun advocates only do so to promote the case for more killing, and to promote more gun sales, without any real consideration whatsoever of the superseding value of human life in ethics, morals, law and the Lockean social contract under which this nation was formed. None of those presented with any information proving their arguments wrong made any concession to the fact and simply proceeded to another objection without acknowledging any flaw in their thinking. Gun lobbyists also exhibit no interest whatsoever in changing public opinion on the value of human life, but simply monger fear, hatred and blame of others for the deaths they cause, challenging every single effort to save lives out of nothing but self interest. The only possible way to create effective gun-control policies is to circumvent the gross abrogation of social responsibility is by forcing gun-control policy against the wishes of a vociferously pathological minority, ideally with the utilitarian method described here by law.”

    • Roger V. Tranfaglia

      Okay soo… Total ban AND confiscation, no more gun stores, dealers annddd gun shows! ERGO: no more weapons manufacturing for the “civilian” market, other than military and law enforcement contracts. Meaning how many people OUT OF WORK?
      a couple of thousand? Hundred thousand? a MILLION? HOW MANY???
      What about the cri-er people who DON’T give a f-HOOT (YES I’m being PC here) will THEY change their ways and OBEY the ” new laws”. HOW will you STOP home-made firearms from being made? (apparently THAT is a BIG problem in Australia right now)………Me thinks your better off affixing some kind of horn on a horse. Some good pictures (and not so good) of such on the net!
      Good luck! You and other “control” advocates will NEED IT.
      Just don’t ask me to hold my breath……………….Cause I WON’T.

      • ernest meyer

        nowhere did I say guns should be banned.