In her harrowing 1892 treatise on the horrors of lynching in the post-bellum American South, the journalist, suffragist, and civil-rights champion Ida B. Wells established for her readers the value of bearing arms. “Of the many inhuman outrages of this present year,” Wells recorded, “the only case where the proposed lynching did not occur, was where the men armed themselves.” She went on to proffer some advice: “The only times an Afro-American who was assaulted got away has been when he had a gun and used it in self-defense. The lesson this teaches, and which every Afro-American should ponder well, 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.”
Conservatives are fond of employing foreign examples of the cruelty and terror that governments may inflict on a people that has been systematically deprived of its weaponry. Among them are the Third Reich’s exclusion of Jews from the ranks of the armed, Joseph Stalin’s anti-gun edicts of 1929, and the prohibitive firearms rules that the Communist party introduced into China between 1933 and 1949. To varying degrees, these do help to make the case. And yet, ugly as all of these developments were, there is in fact no need for our augurs of oppression to roam so far afield for their illustrations of tyranny. Instead, they might look to their own history.
“Do you really think that it could happen here?” remains a favorite refrain of the modern gun-control movement. Alas, the answer should be a resounding “Yes.” For most of America’s story, an entire class of people was, as a matter of course, enslaved, beaten, lynched, subjected to the most egregious miscarriages of justice, and excluded either explicitly or practically from the body politic. We prefer today to reserve the word “tyranny” for its original target, King George III, or to apply it to foreign despots. But what other characterization can be reasonably applied to the governments that, ignoring the words of the Declaration of Independence, enacted and enforced the Fugitive Slave Act? How else can we see the men who crushed Reconstruction? How might we view the recalcitrant American South in the early 20th century? “It” did “happen here.” And “it” was achieved — in part, at least — because its victims were denied the very right to self-protection that during the Revolution had been recognized as the unalienable prerogative of “all men.”
When, in 1857, Chief Justice Roger B. Taney buttoned his Dred Scott v. Sandford opinion with the panicked warning that if free blacks were permitted to become American citizens they might begin “to keep and carry arms wherever they went,” he was signaling his support for a disgraceful status quo within which suppression of the right to bear arms was depressingly quotidian. Indeed, until the late 1970s, the history of American gun control was largely inextricable from the history of American racism. Long before Louisiana was a glint in Thomas Jefferson’s eye, the French “Black Codes” mandated that any black person found with a “potential weapon” be not only deprived of that weapon but also beaten for his audacity. British colonies, both slaveholding and free, tended to restrict gun ownership to whites, with even the settlements at Massachusetts and Plymouth prohibiting Indians from purchasing or owning firearms. Throughout the South, blacks were denied weapons. The intention of these rules was clear: to remove the means by which undesirables might rebel or resist, and to ensure that the majority maintained its prerogatives. In 1834, alarmed by Nat Turner’s rebellion in Virginia, Tennessee amended its state constitution to make this purpose unambiguous, clarifying that the “right to keep and to bear arms” applied not to “the freemen of this State” — as the 1794 version of the document had allowed — but to “the free white men of this State.”
In much of America, this principle would hold for another century, emancipation notwithstanding. As Adam Winkler of UCLA’s law school has noted, a movement comprising the Ku Klux Klan and those Democrats who sought to thwart the gains of the Civil War “began with gun control at the very top of its agenda.” In theory, by mandating that “no State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States,” the 14th Amendment would bring an end to Dixie’s confiscatory schemes; in reality, its passage provoked white supremacists in the states of the former Confederacy to achieve their aims in a more subtle manner. Nowhere in Tennessee’s illustrative “Army and Navy” law (1879) was race so much as hinted at. Instead, the measure limited residents of that state to a few expensive firearms, thereby outlawing the small derringers and low-caliber revolvers that impoverished blacks could afford. Like the poll taxes and literacy tests that went along with them, such laws achieved their aims without telegraphing their intent.