By David Kopel and Joseph Greenlee, opinion contributors|
Guns have historically protected Americans from white supremacists, just as gun control has historically protected white supremacists from the Americans they terrorize.
One month after the Confederate surrender in 1865, Frederick Douglass urged federal action to stop state and local infringement of the right to arms. Until this was accomplished, Douglass argued, “the work of the abolitionists is not finished.”
Indeed, it was not. As the Special Report of the Paris Anti-Slavery Conference of 1867 found, freedmen in some southern states “were forbidden to own or bear firearms, and thus were rendered defenseless against assault.” Thus, white supremacists could continue to control freedmen through threat of violence.
Congress demolished these racist laws. The Freedmen’s Bureau Bill of 1865, Civil Rights Act of 1866, and Civil Rights Act of 1870 each guaranteed all persons equal rights of self-defense. Most importantly, the 14th Amendment, ratified in 1868, made the Second Amendment applicable to the states.
Kansas Senator Samuel Pomeroy extolled the three “indispensable” “safeguards of liberty under our form of government,” the sanctity of the home, the right to vote, and “the right to bear arms.” So “if the cabin door of the freedman is broken open and the intruder enter…then should a well-loaded musket be in the hand of the occupant to send the polluted wretch to another world.”
Because of the 14th Amendment, gun control laws now had to be racially neutral. But states quickly learned to draft neutrally-worded laws for discriminatory application. Tennessee and Arkansas prohibited handguns that freedmen could afford, while allowing expensive “Army & Navy” handguns, which ex-Confederate officers already owned.
The South Carolina law against concealed carry put blacks in chain gangs, but whites only paid a small fine, if anything. In the early 20th century, such laws began to spread beyond the ex-Confederacy. An Ohio Supreme Court Justice acknowledged that such statutes reflected “a decisive purpose to entirely disarm the Negro.”
When lynching increased in the 1880s, the vice-president of the National Colored Press Association, John R. Mitchell, Jr., encouraged blacks to buy Winchesters to protect their families from “the two-legged animals … growling around your home in the dead of night.”
Ida B. Wells, the leading journalist opposing lynching, agreed. In the nationally-circulated pamphlet Southern Horrors, Wells documented cases in Kentucky and Florida, “where the men armed themselves” and fended off lynch mobs. “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.”
After the thwarted lynching in Florida, the state legislature enacted a law requiring a license to possess “a pistol, Winchester rifle or other repeating rifle.” A Florida Supreme Court Justice later explained: “the Act was passed for the purpose of disarming the negro laborers” and “was never intended to apply to the white population and in practice has never been so applied.”