I usually try to ignore the day to day news stories that come out of the Beltway for the sake of my personal sanity. Issues that inflame controversy among politicos usually bore me, and vice versa. As I see it, nothing substantial is bound to change anytime soon in the way business is done in Washington, so there is very little benefit to watching White House press briefings and conferences; I’m not a masochist.
However, I am a historian, and often history can help clarify or reframe contemporary images in a way that makes it an indispensable part of the debate. Today, President Obama pledged to use “whatever weight this office holds” to achieve gun control measures in the United States, including bans on assault weapons, ammunition clips, and instituting universal layers of pre-purchase background checks. Critics of President Obama’s plan will immediately recite the text of the Second Amendment that prohibits Congress from infringing upon the people’s right to bear arms – a technicality that Obama may try to dodge, as evidenced by his pledge to use the weight of the executive, not the legislative branch to accomplish his plan.
But it is not the specific historical context of the 2nd Amendment or the founding of the United States by citizen-soldiers that I want to discuss here, but rather, a lesser-known concurrent history of guns in America that has prompted my entrance into this breathlessly-debated topic. I should first issue a disclaimer: I have no experience shooting modern weaponry, nor do I own a gun. However, during the summer of 2011 I worked as a historical interpreter in military programs at the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, portraying a member of the Continental Army. As a result, I daily shot and cleaned a reproduction 1750s Brown Bess musket (the actual type of guns the Founders would have had in mind during the summer of 1787), often walking through the reconstructed colonial town with it slung over my shoulders. This element of my character, however, would provoke much discomfort among the other 18th century interpreters-in-character, not because I was openly walking around with a working gun, but because in the eighteenth century, barring wartime, the sight of a man of color holding a gun was strange, foreboding, and usually illegal.
Contrary to popular opinion, gun control laws are nothing new in the United States; in fact, laws restricting guns have historical precedent going as far back as the seventeenth century. A 1639 law in Virginia banned all Africans from gun ownership, while simultaneously making non-gun ownership punishable by a fine for all Whites. This law is remarkable because it is one of the earliest legal provisions created in British North America that paved the way for a full-fledged, racially-determined system of chattel slavery. Indeed, partus sequitur ventrem, or the legal doctrine of maternally-inherited slave status, did not enter the law books until 1662, some 23 years later (it should be noted that English common law was jettisoned in favor of Roman civil law in order to accomplish this – Hayek would not be very happy!). Evidently, the rationality in Virginia was one of control: African slaves with guns were a lot more ungovernable than slaves without them.
Even free blacks saw their right to bear arms infringed, if not outright denied. An 1819 Virginia law that had authorized justices of the peace and county courts “to grant licenses to free negroes and mulattoes to keep or carry any firelock of any kind, any military weapon, or any powder or lead” was quickly repealed in 1833 following Nat Turner’s Rebellion. In 1840, North Carolina expanded its licensing requirements to include not only free blacks who owned a “shot gun, musket, rifle, [or] pistol,” but also a “sword, dagger or bowie-knife.” When Elijah Newsom, a free black of color, was charged for not having such a license in 1843, his legal defense rested upon his 2nd Amendment rights as well as the provision of the 1776 North Carolina state constitution that equally protected the right to bear arms. North Carolina responded by declaring that the 1840 statute was intended “to preserve the peace and safety of the community from being disturbed by an indiscriminate use, on ordinary occasions, by free men of color, of fire arms or other arms of an offensive character. Self-preservation is the first law of nations, as it is of individuals.” Apparently, black men with guns represented a very real threat to the self-preservation of North Carolina’s slavocracy.
Guns would figure prominently in the Civil Rights battle all the way into the 1970s, with the Black Panthers including gun ownership as the 7th plank of their 1966 and 1972 party platforms:
We believe that the racist and fascist government of the United States uses its domestic enforcement agencies to carry out its program of oppression against Black people, other people of color and poor people inside the United States. We believe it is our right, therefore, to defend ourselves against such armed forces, and that all Black and oppressed people should be armed for self-defense of our homes and communities against these fascist police forces.
For his part, Malcolm X stated, “Article number two of the constitutional amendments provides you and me the right to own a rifle or a shotgun.” This was necessary, he believed, because the government – local and federal alike – was “either unable or unwilling to protect the lives and property” of black people. Even the peace-preaching Martin Luther King applied for a concealed firearms permit in 1956 after his house was firebombed by his political enemies; the state of Alabama denied his request. Nevertheless, armed security guarded the King family day and night, and the King house was described as “an arsenal” by Glen Smiley, one of King’s advisors.
This morning, President Obama declared that “we can’t put this off any longer,” but that’s just a false statement, as it is more than evident that gun control is nothing new in America, and, in fact, gun control laws predate the creation of 6 of the original 13 colonies. President Obama further stated that “our first task as a society” is the safety of our children, adding, “We don’t live in isolation. We live in a society, a government for and by the people. We are responsible for each other.” As a Constitutional legal scholar, perhaps here Obama was referring and concurring with the 1840 North Carolina court ruling; self-preservation is the first law of nations, indeed. And every good, paternalistic nation-preserver knows that nothing safeguards political institutions better than accumulations of centralized power. Now…put down that gun, boy.