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Historian Uncovers The Racist Roots Of The 2nd Amendment

Civil rights activists are blocked by National Guard members brandishing bayonets while trying to stage a protest on Beale Street in Memphis, Tenn., in 1968.
Civil rights activists are blocked by National Guard members brandishing bayonets while trying to stage a protest on Beale Street in Memphis, Tenn., in 1968.

Do Black people have full Second Amendment rights?

That's the question historian Carol Anderson set out to answer after Minnesota police killed Philando Castile, a Black man with a license to carry a gun, during a 2016 traffic stop.

"Here was a Black man who was pulled over by the police, and the police officer asked to see his identification. Philando Castile, using the NRA guidelines, alerts to the officer that he has a licensed weapon with him," she says. "[And] the police officer began shooting."

In the 1990s, after the assault on the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas, the National Rifle Association condemned federal authorities as "jackbooted government thugs." But Anderson says the organization "went virtually silent" when it came to Castile's case, issuing a tepid statement that did not mention Castile by name.

In her new book, The Second: Race and Guns in a Fatally Unequal America, Anderson traces racial distinctions in Americans' treatment of gun ownership back to the founding of the country and the Second Amendment, which states:

"A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed."

The language of the amendment, Anderson says, was crafted to ensure that slave owners could quickly crush any rebellion or resistance from those whom they'd enslaved. And she says the right to bear arms, presumably guaranteed to all citizens, has been repeatedly denied to Black people.

"One of the things that I argue throughout this book is that it is just being Black that is the threat. And so when you mix that being Black as the threat with bearing arms, it's an exponential fear," she says. "This isn't an anti-gun or a pro-gun book. This is a book about African Americans' rights."


Interview Highlights

The Second: Race and Guns in a Fatally Unequal America, by Carol Anderson
/ Bloomsbury Publishing

On the crafting of the Second Amendment at the Constitutional Convention

It was in response to the concerns coming out of the Virginia ratification convention for the Constitution, led by Patrick Henry and George Mason, that a militia that was controlled solely by the federal government would not be there to protect the slave owners from an enslaved uprising. And ... James Madison crafted that language in order to mollify the concerns coming out of Virginia and the anti-Federalists, that they would still have full control over their state militias — and those militias were used in order to quell slave revolts. ... The Second Amendment really provided the cover, the assurances that Patrick Henry and George Mason needed, that the militias would not be controlled by the federal government, but that they would be controlled by the states and at the beck and call of the states to be able to put down these uprisings.

On Black people's access to arms after the American Revolution

You saw incredible restrictions being put in place about limiting access to arms. And this is across the board for free Blacks and, particularly, for the enslaved. And with each uprising, the laws became even more strict, even more definitive, about who could and who could not bear arms. And so free Blacks were particularly proscribed. And so we see this, for instance, in Georgia, where Georgia had a law that restricted the carrying of guns.

On the Founding Fathers' fear of a slave revolt, which was stoked by the Haitian Revolution

When Haiti began to overthrow the French colonial masters and were seizing that country for themselves, when Blacks were seizing that country for themselves, the violence of the Haitian Revolution, the existence of the Haitian Revolution, just sent basically an earthquake of fear throughout the United States. You had George Washington lamenting the violence. You had Thomas Jefferson talking about [how] he was fearful that those ideas over there, if they get here, it's going to be fire. You had James Madison worried. ...

Whites ... were fleeing Haiti and were bringing their enslaved populations with them, their enslaved people with them. ... [There was a fear that] the ideas that these Black Haitians would have, that somehow those ideas of revolution, those ideas of racial justice, those ideas of freedom and democracy would just metastasize throughout Virginia's Black enslaved population and cause a revolt. You had that same fear coming out of Baltimore that then began to open up the public armory to whites, saying, "You are justified in being armed because they're bringing too many of these Black Haitians, these enslaved Haitians, up here who have these ideas that Black people can be free."

On how the Black Panthers responded to restrictions on Black people's ability to bear arms in the 1960s

What the Black Panthers were dealing with was massive police brutality. Just beating on Black people, killing Black people at will with impunity. And the Panthers decided that they would police the police. Huey P. Newton, who was the co-founder of the Black Panthers along with Bobby Seale, ... knew the law, and he knew what the law said about being able to open-carry weapons and the types of weapons you were able to openly carry and how far you had to stand away from the police arresting somebody or interrogating somebody. ... And the police did not like having these aggressive Black men and women doing that work of policing the police. And the response was a thing called the Mulford Act, and the Mulford Act set out to ban open carrying of weapons. And it was drafted by a conservative assemblyman in California with the support and help of an NRA representative and eagerly signed by Gov. Ronald Reagan as a way to make illegal what the Panthers were legally doing.

Sam Briger and Kayla Lattimore produced and edited the audio of this interview. Bridget Bentz, Molly Seavy-Nesper and Meghan Sullivan adapted it for the web.

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