The Racist History of Our Gun Laws: How We Got Here

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On Dec. 21, 2012 — one week after Adam Lanza shot and killed 26 people at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut — National Rifle Association Executive Vice President Wayne LaPierre announced during a press conference that “the only way to stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.”

That piece of nonsense has become a favorite right-wing cliché.

The idea that the answer to gun violence is more guns is, of course, nonsensical. But if the goal is to destabilize the nation and create a never-ending crisis and constant pain, the idea that we should put a gun in every hand will do it. To begin with, we’ve had lots of gun control laws in our history, but early on, gun laws were mostly about making sure only white men had guns.

It’s another way to get to this:

Part I: The Colonial Era

The source for the laws I am about to cite come from this compilation of laws.

Our first gun control law, in Jamestown, Virginia, in 1633, made it illegal to give guns to Native Americans. The law said:

There were similar laws in other colonies outlawing giving or selling guns to native people.

Enslavers needed laws to keep guns out of the hands of Black Americans. Here are a few examples:

There were also laws requiring white men to be armed, particularly in the South. (I wonder why.) 

Actually, I know why. Early militias were all about keeping enslaved people in line. 

Part II: The Drafting of the Second Amendment

My source for this section is this book:

Also, see the 1619 Project:

Spoiler: The Second Amendment was written by enslavers who were worried that a strong federal government would outlaw local militias (or disarm them).

Virginian leaders met in the Virginia State House to debate whether to ratify the Constitution. The delegates were enslavers worried about whether the federal government would take away their guns.

George Mason was contemplating the fact that the new Constitution gave the federal government the control over armies and militias:

Without armed militias to enforce the enslaved population, these guys knew just what would happen.

Patrick Henry came right out and said what was on everyone’s mind. First, he said that locally controlled militias were their “ultimate safety.” He reminded his audience that slavery was “detested elsewhere” and suggested that because the Constitution gave the federal government the power to call up local militias for service, there was an easy way to end the institution of slavery. The federal government simply call the states’ Black men into military service and then set them free:

Lest there be any doubt about what Patrick Henry was talking about, he said this:

He was the guy who reportedly said, “Give me liberty or give me death.” What he evidently meant was “Give me the liberty to own slaves and the freedom to own guns to keep them in line.”

The Second Amendment was drafted by James Madison, who attended this meeting. Here was what he drafted:

The final wording was done by a group of senators. They changed the order of the clauses and began with “A well-regulated militia. They changed “free country” to “free State.” They added a religious exemption. We have no record of why they made these changes or how they choose the exact wording they did.

Given this history, it’s clear what Madison and the other drafters meant by the final version that was ratified:

The Birth of the NRA as a Gun Safety and Marksmanship Training Organization

For this section, except where otherwise noted, I relied on this book, which I found to be reliable and well-sourced:

The facts in this section can be checked against articles such as this one from BBC News: US Gun Control: What is the NRA and why is it so powerful?

The NRA was founded as a gun safety and marksmanship training organization in 1871 by Gen. George Wingate (a general in the Union Army) and Col. William C. Church (a journalist who volunteered to serve in the Union Army) because they were appalled by the terrible marksmanship of Union soldiers. At the time, there was very little training for soldiers; they were expected to come prepared. Wingate and Church saw themselves as training and preparing future American soldiers.

Particularly dangerous weapons developed for World War I found their way onto the streets of American cities. Congress drafted the National Firearms Act after a series of gangster shootings, including a high-profile shooting reportedly ordered by Al Capone.

The weapon of choice for gangsters (and other outlaws) was the sawed-off shotgun, which was capable of mass shooting and inflicting enormous damage. The idea was to get such dangerous guns off the streets.

Karl Frederick, the spokesman for the NRA, testified before Congress as Congress was considering the act. He said:

When asked his opinion on whether the act violated the Second Amendment, he said he had no opinion.

The NRA was also fine with the Gun Control Act of 1968. In 1968, after Robert Kennedy was assassinated, Sen. Chris Dodd, a Democrat from Connecticut, proposed a law to combat the problem of political assassinations. His proposed law (among other things) would regulate the interstate retail sale of guns, prohibit all sales to juveniles and convicted felons, and stop the import of military firearms.

The NRA supported that act, and in fact, The American Rifleman, the NRA magazine, responded to the 1968 Gun Control Act by telling its readers that the NRA “does not necessarily approve of everything that goes ‘Bang!’ ”

Thus initially the NRA was apolitical and supported the National Firearms Act of 1934 and the Gun Control Act of 1968.

The Civil Rights Movement Changed Everything

The New Deal, civil rights, and the women’s rights movements entirely changed the face of the nation. The changes came about through the expanding power of the federal government.

The New Deal expanded the federal government, giving us regulatory agencies (intended to keep people from cheating) and programs like the VA Bill that allowed a generation to obtain a college education, thereby moving large numbers of Americans into the middle class.

The modern civil rights movement was kicked off by a Supreme Court case, Brown v. Board of Education, which held racial segregation unconstitutional. Brown v. Board empowered the federal government to enforce it. The civil rights movement also resulted in major federal legislation designed to allow women and minorities to participate more fully in public life: The Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act are two examples.

The Confederacy had been based on the idea that states should be able to do as they pleased and the federal government should remain small and powerless. The rapidly expanding federal government gave rise to a strong anti-federal government backlash. Libertarians believed that the new agencies and regulations were an unconstitutional infringement on personal liberty. White Christian nationalists resented the expanding federal government because they wanted the nation governed according to what they held as Christian concepts.

Until this point, members were gun enthusiasts from both parties. Then, a radicalized anti-government, anti-regulation faction grew within the NRA.

Then, in the 1970s, there was a power struggle within the NRA between the “old guard” who were not opposed to sensible gun restrictions, and the radicalized extremists who advanced the entirely new idea that “conservatism” meant unfettered access to guns.

The new NRA leadership spent decades engaged in a propaganda campaign (which grew increasingly well-funded) advancing their view that freedom meant unfettered access to guns. They did grassroots organizing. They lured in members with offers, then blitzed them with propaganda to indoctrinate them. They also worked to elect politicians willing to advance the idea that the Second Amendment protected individual gun rights.

The Republican Party, to attract voters, began outsourcing its voter mobilization to groups like the NRA.

In a nutshell: The NRA turned out voters in exchange for Republican politicians embracing and advancing NRA views. The NRA made sure that moderates were voted out of office and replaced with “purists.” As a result, elected Republicans became more radicalized on these issues. 

By the time SCOTUS decided D.C. v. Heller, a majority of justices had been appointed by presidents who were members of the NRA. In Heller, the Supreme Court held that the Second Amendment protects an individual’s right to own guns (unconnected to a well-regulated militia).

What D.C. v. Heller Actually Said

The decision in D.C. v. Heller was written by Antonin Scalia. His decision frustrated those who wanted strict gun control by saying that the Second Amendment allows for self-defense, effectively ignoring the “well-regulated militia” part. But the decision also frustrated the right-wing NRA kooks by saying that the Second Amendment rights, like all rights, have limits.

The court, though, didn’t fully explain what those limits are. In other words, this right-wing talking point is nonsense and not supported by the Second Amendment:

And this one:

What Matters Is Who Is Holding the Gun

Reagan and the California legislature (back when the state was governed by Republicans) passed the Mulford Act to disarm the Black Panthers, who were trying to make curb police abuse.

Russia Enters the Picture

From Timothy Snyder: When Putin took a close look at the U.S. for weaknesses to exploit, he noticed the uncontrolled gun violence in America.

Putin understood that there was no better way to stoke discord in the U.S. than to pump more guns into the hands of ordinary people. Outsiders (like Russians) understand right away that the idea that “gun ownership equals freedom” is nonsensical.

Russia “beckoned” (Snyder’s word) to America’s far right-wing, presenting Russia as the savior of white majority rule.

In The Road to Unfreedom, Snyder writes that by 2016 Russians including Maria Butina and Alexander Torshin were seeking to infiltrate the NRA. Remember Maria Butina, the Russian agent who was cozy with all those big-shot Republicans and the NRA?

Butina entered the U.S. with a persona perfectly calibrated to appeal to the far right-wing. She told an “irresistible” story of herself: A “scrappy” girl from Siberia fighting for gun rights in Russia.

Russia poured money into the NRA, which in turn channeled money to right-wing political candidates.

The Great Russia, NRA, American Right-Wing Love Affair

Russia has presented itself to America’s right-wing as the savior of White Christianity. Here is a brief timeline:

2013: Russia enacted anti-homosexual legislation

2014: Pat Buchanan noted that Putin was “entering a claim that Moscow is the Godly city of today” and stamping out western evil like easy divorce and homosexuality:

Paul Manafort, GOP operator and later Trump campaign manager, strategized on behalf of the Russian-backed Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych. Manafort also worked on “a plan to increase Russian influence in the U.S.” (Source for quotation: Snyder, Road to Unfreedom)

2015: “Russian authorities were cooperating with the American gun lobby [NRA].” (Snyder, Road to Unfreedom, pp. 250-251, Kindle version)

Feb. 2016: Maria Butina reported to Torshin from the United States that “Trump (NRA member) is ready for cooperation with Russia.” (Snyder, Road to Unfreedom, pp. 250-251, Kindle version)

May 2016: Torshin met with Donald Trump, Jr., in Kentucky. That same month, the NRA endorsed Trump and eventually gave his campaign $30 million.

After Russia transformed from a Soviet/communist state to a fascist one, the NRA’s official attitude toward Russia changed. (Russia swung from an economy in which the state-owned all the nation’s resources to an economy in which a few wealthy men owned all the resources and the government. This was to the liking of the modern NRA and America’s right-wing.)

From Snyder: “Russia’s support of the NRA resembled its support of right-wing paramilitaries in Hungary, Slovakia, and the Czech Republic. Once Trump was in office, the NRA proclaimed in a video that ‘We’re coming for the New York Times.'”

June 15, 2016: Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) was caught on tape saying, “There’s two people I think Putin pays: [Rep. Dana] Rohrabacher and Trump.” Rep. Paul Ryan immediately stopped the conversation from exploring McCarthy’s assertion and swore the Republicans present to secrecy.

Sept. 9, 2016: Richard Spencer, a leading American white supremacist, called Russia the “sole white power in the world.”

In the Motion for Pre-Trial Detention for Christopher Paul Hasson (the guy planning to mass murder liberals), he is quoted as saying “Looking to Russia with hopeful eyes.”

[Narrator: We see Russia beckoning to America’s far right wing, establishing itself as the savior of the white (Christian) race.]

March 16, 2016: Sen. John McCain accused Sen. Rand Paul of working for Putin.

Modern White Power Militias

Now I’ll talk about the connection between the Second Amendment and modern right-wing militias.

For more information on this, see:

The modern militia movement was born in the early 1990s as a response to President Bill Clinton’s gun control laws and the fatal shootouts at Ruby Ridge, Idaho, and Waco, Texas.

Thomas Jefferson once said that “a little rebellion now and then is a good thing.” The idea is that when governments become too tyrannical, people should rebel.

Modern white power militias embrace this idea. They don’t think the federal government represents them. Therefore, they think it is illegitimate and tyrannical. Therefore, they arm themselves to fight against it.

They embrace what has been called the insurrection theory of the Second Amendment, which says that the Second Amendment protects the unconditional right to bear arms for self-defense and to rebel against a tyrannical government.

According to this theory, when a government turns oppressive, private citizens have a duty to take up arms against the government. 

Remember when Trump said this:

He was talking about the white power militias, which he imagined would act as an anti-government right-wing paramilitary.

A modern white power militia, the Wolverines, formed because they were furious at Gov. Gretchen Witmer’s response to the pandemic. They believed her response and oppressive rules were the very tyranny that the drafters of our Constitution worried about. Trump encouraged them by tweeting, “Liberate Michigan.”

The Proud Boys was the modern militia that helped plan and carry out the attack on the Capitol on January 6.

The Proud Boys and their leaders regularly spout white nationalist memes and maintain affiliations with known extremists. They are known for anti-Muslim and misogynistic rhetoric. Proud Boys have appeared alongside other hate groups at extremist gatherings such as the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. They want guns as “defense” against the government.

We see them on social media today deriding the idea that only the government should have guns:

Destabilization is the Goal

Q: What do America’s radical right-wing, Putin, and the NRA have in common?

A: The desire to destabilize the federal government (which America’s far right-wing sees as illegitimate) and replace it with something else.

This brings us back to where I started: The “everyone should have a gun” position is absurd and is not supported by the Second Amendment (see U.S. v. Heller). But if the goal is to destabilize the nation and create a never-ending crisis and constant pain, a gun in every hand will do it.

“A gun in every hand” is another way to get to this:

This article has been edited and originally appeared on Teri Kanefield’s blog.

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Teri has written novels, short stories, nonfiction for both young readers and adults, and lots of legal briefs. She is currently working on a book on disinformation to be published by Macmillan Publishers. Her political commentary has appeared on the NBC Think Blog and Her articles and essays have appeared in publications as diverse as Education Week, Slate Magazine, and Scope Magazine. Her short fiction has appeared in the American Literary View, The Iowa Review, and others. For twelve years she maintained a private appellate law practice limited to representing indigents on appeal from adverse rulings. She believes with the ACLU that when the rights of society's most vulnerable members are denied, everybody's rights are imperiled. She also believe with John Updike that the purpose of literature is to expand our sympathies. Teri lives with her family on the beautiful central coast in California.

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