I suppose it takes a true radical these days to question the progressive’s sacred cow: Ronald Reagan. You read that right. This paradigm of modern conservatism was one of the most important American champions of gun control in recent decades, and so he has become a convenient talking point for liberals who want to argue that even Ronald Reagan favored strict gun laws.
And indeed, he did—all throughout his political career. As president he used executive order to ban the importation of certain shotguns, and later he threw his weight behind the Brady Bill and 1994 Assault Weapons Ban.
As governor of California, Reagan signed the Mulford Act into law in 1967. Written by Republican Assemblyman Don Mulford, the legislation was the most sweeping state edict in all the country, prohibiting the more or less free carrying of firearms in public. It went along with the rest of his heavy-handed entire law-and-order agenda and inspired an avalanche of new gun laws nationwide.
The purpose of the law was to disarm the Black Panthers, a radical leftist group that openly carried firearms, kept an eye out on the police, and even took their rifles to the state Capitol to protest what they decried as racist legislation.
In the late 1960s, the racism of gun control was fresh on many Civil Rights thinkers’ minds. Upholding gun rights for freed slaves was a primary motive behind the Fourteenth Amendment. State-level gun control became instrumental in suppressing blacks.
The history of American gun control is a history of racism and prejudice. In the early 20th century, the Sullivan Act in New York, banning the carrying of small arms, was likely aimed at Italian Immigrants. But for most of modern history, the major target was blacks.
David T. Beito and Linda Royster Beito explained the general dynamic in their book Black Maverick: T.R.M. Howard’s Fight for Civil Rights and Economic Power (Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2009), 103–4:
As black assertiveness [in Mississippi] increased, whites came forward with proposals for tougher gun control. The sponsors did not hide the centrality of race in their concerns. White concerns about gun control for blacks was not new. During the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, several southern states had enacted gun control laws that restricted access of cheap handguns to blacks. The term ‘Saturday night special’ may have originated during that period as a racial slur. In early 1954 an editorial in the Clarion-Ledger had stressed the dangers posed by .22 caliber pistols and rifles. Focusing on the example of an ‘allegedly “crazed” Negro’ who killed three white men, it lamented that these ‘weapons are easily obtained and ammunition for them can be bought anywhere.’ If this problem persisted, the editorial continued, laws should be enacted [for] ‘control of the sale of weapons and ammunition or the keeping of records on all such sales.’
In September 1954, a more ambitious proposal “to require registration of all firearms and records on all sales of ammunition” came close to becoming law. The backers explicitly promoted the bill as part of a package of “segregation-supporting” legislation and linked it to the crackdown on civil rights.
After racists bombed his home, Martin Luther King, Jr., generally an advocate for non-violence, procured weapons and attempted to get a concealed carry permit, but was rejected. The first major gun confiscations targeted blacks, who couldn’t rely on the police to protect them because the police were their enemies. Groups like the Deacons for Justice and Defense fought off the Klan and protected innocent blacks in the Jim Crow South.
Elaine Brown, head of the Black Panther Party in the 1970s, recently explained:
The position of the Black Panther Party was that black people live in communities occupied by police forces that are armed and dangerous and represent the frontline of forces keeping us oppressed. We did not promote guns, but rather, the right to defend ourselves against a state that was oppressing us — with guns. There were innumerable incidents in which police agents kicked in our doors or shot our brothers and sisters in what we called red-light trials, where the policeman was the judge, the jury and the executioner. We called for an immediate end to this brutality, and advocated for our right to self-defense. Today, the brutal police murders of Sean Bell in New York and Oscar Grant in Oakland are just two examples of how little has changed. The gun-control discussion could result in policies that further criminalize and target black people.
Conservatives, at their most radical, have made this connection: Condoleezza Rice and Ann Coulter have also argued that blacks should arm themselves if they want to protect themselves against racial violence. But not only rightwingers hone in on this: Ice-T argues that the right to keep and bear arms is to resist tyranny and “to protect yourself from the police.”
When Reagan and Nixon and the other Republicans in the 1960s advanced gun control, they were at least in part pandering to law-and-order conservatives who wanted police to have yet more power to protect them from minorities and the poor. If racism was not in the intent, it was definitely part of the effect.
Even today, gun laws are much like drug laws in that they are disproportionately used against minorities. Gun control is the chief impetus behind New York City’s Stop-and-Frisk program, which in 2011 ensnared young black men more times than there are young black men in the city, and targets minorities by a ratio of nine to one. Conservatives who defend this program are defending gun control at its most invasive—the wholesale profiling and searching of people in the attempt to procure guns, which conservatives claim people have a natural and constitutional right to carry in the first place. Liberals opposed to this program should recognize that to violate gun rights, government must violate other rights.
In the federal prison system, almost half of those convicted for gun control violations are black and a quarter are Hispanic. Because of mandatory minimums for gun violation, the average convicted gun offender—usually someone who never hurt anyone with the weapon—rots in prison for longer than the average convicted rapist.
Some on the left have begun rediscovering the racist roots of gun control. Adam Winkler’s Gunfight: The Battle Over the Right to Bear Arms in America—reviewed here by Thaddeus Russell—tells the story of gun confiscations committed by racist police working with the KKK. Adam Winkler’s Gunfight: The Battle Over the Right to Bear Arms in America also gives a perspective unusual among modern liberals. Craig Whitney discovers the intractable culture war in the debate in Living with Guns: A Liberal’s Case for the Second Amendment. Don Kates’s Restricting Handguns: The Liberal Skeptics Speak Out is a compilation from years ago. Yet the anti-gun control scholarship on the left remains thin.
There are left-friendly arguments for gun rights, but unfortunately we rarely hear them. Gun control is like the drug war, in that it empowers the police with a possession crime, which necessarily means violations of privacy rights, using snitches and dubious informants, and disproportionately high prison sentences for the non-violent act of illegal gun ownership. According to the Department of Justice, the average federal conviction for weapons violations resulted in 87 months in prison compared to 82 months for drug offenses and 28 months for property crimes.
It is impossible to keep criminals, of all people, from getting firearms—and if this wasn’t true ten years go, it will be in the age of 3-D printing. But in the quest to disarm the rabble, the police state can flex its power over the most vulnerable and marginalized people in society.