Was the Second Amendment drafted to preserve slavery, or was gun control invented to deny blacks the right to defend themselves?
In an interview with the Daily Caller, NRA head David Keene said that gun control laws were "racist" and created out of a desire to oppress and harm blacks.
"You know, when you go back in our history … the initial wave of [gun-control laws] was instituted after the Civil War to deny blacks the ability to defend themselves," Keene said.
"It's the reason, for example, that Condoleezza Rice says, as far as the Second Amendment is concerned, 'I'm an absolutist.' Because she remembers her house being surrounded by neighbors with firearms to protect them from a white mob back during the worst days of the civil rights struggle."
Without getting into the fine print, Keene is correct – to a point. The first restrictions on gun ownership in America were placed on black slaves, Native Americans, and other non-white groups.
For example, see the following passage from a 1909 article in Virginia's official university legal review:
Americans must place a "prohibitive tax...on the privilege" of handgun sales and purchases a method of disarming "the son of Ham," whose "cowardly practice of 'toting' guns has been one of the most fruitful sources of crime .... Let a negro board a railroad train with a quart of mean whiskey and a pistol in his grip and the chances are that there will be a murder, or at least a row, before he alights.
Actor Danny Glover would probably dispute Keene's assertion. By his logic, the Second Amendment is actually racist.
"I don't know if you know the genesis of the right to bear arms," Glover said to a group of students at Texas A&M University. "The Second Amendment comes from the right [for white Americans] to protect themselves from slave revolts and from uprisings by Native Americans."
"A revolt from people who were stolen from their land or revolt from people whose land was stolen from, that's what the genesis of the Second Amendment is," he added.
These two arguments aren't necessarily mutually exclusive. In fact, what they indicate are that gun laws – whether gun rights or gun control – have historically been constructed to protect white people against minorities and give them an edge in any dispute where the threat of force is possible.
However, Keene is being very disingenuous by associating current attempts at gun control with state slave codes designed specifically to oppress blacks. It seems a little cynical to associate an organization with a largely white membership and a history of controversial statements on race with the rights of black people. And Keene's incarnation of the NRA would fight for the rights of the people that attacked Rice's property to own guns just as readily as it would her defenders.
Similarly, Glover overlooks other threats to the stability of the nation which the founders might have thought to fight back with state militias – namely, white insurrection like Shay’s Rebellion or the Whiskey Rebellion. It is inaccurate to say the Second Amendment is indisputably racist in intent. Rather, slave rebellions were just one of several threats to the fledgling republic that the Second Amendment was intended to defend against.
And whites actually comprise just 44% of registered gun owners, despite constituting just 72.4% of the population.
But all this is a little irrelevant.
Maybe we should refocus the discussion on how to make sure gun violence in America is reduced in the present, rather than haggle over which side has a historic monopoly on the gun debate — an argument which serves to do little to influence public policy, but simply angers the other side.
And maybe we should pay a little more attention to how our public policy on guns affects non-white Americans.
Furthermore, one would be remiss to fail to mention that while Glover is an actor with limited involvement in politics, Keene is head of "the nation's oldest civil rights organization" and controls discourse on firearm laws with a $300 million budget. Who should be held more accountable for misleading statements and playing the race card?