While many are clamoring for more gun control laws to try and slow violent crime in the country, some have taken the time to look back at gun control’s complex history.
In an opinion piece published by The Hill, David Kopel and Joseph Greenlee argue that the origins of gun control laws were fueled by racism and protected white supremacists from the people they oppressed.
After the Confederacy surrendered in 1865, Frederick Douglass called for federal action that would prohibit all state and local governments from infringing on the right to bear arms. Unfortunately, as found in the Special Report of the Paris Anti-Slavery Conference of 1867, many freedmen in some southern states were not allowed to own firearms and were left defenseless to white supremacists’ violent threats.
Congress did make some progress with the Freedmen’s Bureau Bill of 1865, Civil Rights Act of 1866, Civil Rights Act of 1870, and most importantly the 14th Amendment, which was ratified in 1868 and said the Second Amendment should be applicable to all states.
Gun control laws were supposed to be racially neutral, due to the 14th Amendment, but some southern states, such as Tennessee and Arkansas, found ways around this by enacting laws that banned lower-priced firearms freedmen could afford while allowing higher-priced “Army & Navy” handguns that ex-Confederate officers already possessed.
Other inherently racist gun control laws spread throughout the south, and as lynchings increased during the 1880s, leaders such as John R. Mitchell, Jr., and Ida B. Wells started urging black people to purchase Winchester rifles to protect themselves and their families. Wells wrote in her Southern Horrors pamphlet about an armed group that had fended off a lynch mob.
“The lesson this teaches,” Wells wrote, “is that a Winchester rifle should have a place of honor in every black home, and it should be used for that protection which the law refuses to give.”
From the race riots in the early 20th century to the tumultuous civil rights movement of the 1950s and 60s, Kopel and Greenlee document atrocities they argue would have been worse if some black people would not have been armed to fend off racist attackers.