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.

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