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The NRA, Gun Control and Black People: A Complicated History

Black people, the NRA and gun control share a complicated history, from the drafting of the Second Amendment and the establishment of the slave patrols, to the organization’s past opposition to arming Black people, to present-day support for stand your ground laws. (Photo: Flickr)

The latest school mass shooting in Florida, and the unfolding debate over gun control and gun violence is a reminder of the complicated, contradictory history of the NRA and gun control as they relate to Black people. Black people own guns and are the victims of gun and white vigilante violence, and while they have used guns for self-defense, neither the laws nor the NRA have had Black people, their rights and their lives in mind.

“America’s gun policies do not make sense until you consider race,” Ajenai Clemmons, a research associate at the Samuel DuBois Cook Center on Social Equity at Duke University, told Atlanta Black Star. “America’s conflicted self-identity as a democracy that promotes life, liberty, and the right to bear arms mirrors the contradictions in a self-identified democracy based on colonization and slavery.”

Looking at the history of guns and Black people in America, the founding of the nation was based on violence against people of African descent. American gun culture is rooted in settler colonialism, the taking of Native American land and the enslavement of African people as memorialized in the Second Amendment, according to author Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz’s account in “Loaded: A Disarming History of the Second Amendment.” The militias institutionalized the violence against Black and indigenous peoples. As professor Carl T. Bogus of the Roger Williams University School of Law argues, the slave patrols — the plantation police force in which most Southern white men were obligated to serve — protected white society against Black insurrection. This, in a region where Blacks outnumbered whites and servile insurrections, were a reality. The Second Amendment assured the slaveholding states that Congress would not disarm their slave patrols, thereby protecting the slavery police state.

“When the 2nd Amendment was written, it was done so specifically for a militia that functions both as a Confederate defense and a Slave-owner’s offense. Despite current rhetoric, the right to bear arms was not given to everyone everywhere at all times for all purposes. It was granted to white citizens of a certain age that were subject to strict regulations and oversight,” Dr. GS Potter, founder of the Strategic Institute of Intersectional Policy — which designs and implements strategies to counter the political obstacles faced by the most brutally targeted communities in the United States — told Atlanta Black Star. She said the Second Amendment served to consolidate white power and arm white men to protect them from the federal government and Black people. Dr. Potter added that Black men were specifically barred from gun ownership, with additional restrictions through the Black Codes and Jim Crow Laws, which allowed the former slave patrols to disarm Black Civil War veterans.

During the civil rights movement, armed Black folks sprang up in places to protect nonviolent protesters and Freedom Riders from Ku Klux Klan violence and domestic terrorism. Groups such as the Deacons for Defense and Justice and the Black Armed Guard — which received a charter from the NRA in the 1950s — are the unsung heroes of the civil rights struggles of the 1950s and 1960s. The Black Panther Party for Self Defense, the pioneers of the modern-day gun rights movement and the original proponents of open carry, faced opposition from the NRA. When the Black nationalist group, which formed to protect their community from police violence, invaded the California capitol building in Sacramento in 1967, then-Governor Ronald Reagan signed the Mulford Act in response, prohibiting open carry of guns in public places. The following year, President Johnson signed the Gun Control Act of 1968, which prohibited “Saturday night specials” and was designed to target handguns and crime in communities of color.

According to Dr. Potter, the NRA has a long history of supporting gun control laws, advocating for a deterioration of gun rights for nonwhite people and an expansion of gun rights for law enforcement — as a leading proponent of the 1938 Gun Control Act, and gun control measures amid the assassinations of President John F. Kennedy, Sen. Robert F. Kennedy and Dr. Martin Luther King in the 1960s. “What speaks volumes here is that in response to the murder of MLK, the NRA chose to advocate for gun control. They did not choose to highlight the fact that MLK had attempted to become an owner of firearms after his home was bombed in 1956 — but he was denied,” she said. “After being denied a firearm for self-defense in his own home, community members began an armed watch outside of his residence. This set the stage for the modern battle between white rights and black rights under the Second Amendment.”

The NRA of today is quite a different animal from what it once was. The organization began to change in 1975, according to Dr. Potter, when it established its Institute for Legislative Action and placed Harlon Carter under its leadership. Carter, the man responsible for the modern-day NRA, shot a Latino teen to death before becoming a border agent and the first head of the U.S. Border Patrol. Under his leadership, the NRA shifted from hunting and sportsmanship to vigilantism, self-protection and opposition to gun control — including a revisionist perspective on unregulated gun ownership, and a focus on lobbying for gun manufacturers, and donating to congressional campaigns.

“Far from its original form, the NRA now serves as a hard-lined lobbying firm that functions to block gun control and advance the manufacture and distribution of weapons designed for hunting, self-defense and military operations,” Potter said. “The radicalization of the NRA can be seen in the same light as the radicalization of today’s Republican Party,” she added, noting that under Carter’s leadership, the NRA “politically weaponized itself” and the Second Amendment to fight liberalism and people of color, and “weaponized hypocrisy” by coining the phrase, “Guns don’t kill people, people do.” The NRA made its first political endorsement in 1980 when it supported Ronald Reagan for president

Gun ownership in America has become a political identity, and the NRA has emerged as a part of the Republican Party coalition. This political identity is intertwined with race and the criminalization of Black people, creating a disaster for the African-American community. One of the noteworthy policies the NRA has promoted are “stand your ground” laws, which allows armed people to use deadly force when they believe someone poses an imminent threat. White men have invoked the laws of self-defense to justify the killing of unarmed Black people.

Clemmons said, “Historically, laws have deputized White citizens relative to Native Americans, Mexican Americans, and African Americans.The state has been an extension of the general White population, and the general White population has been an extension of the state. Stand Your Ground Laws continue that tradition. Statistically, Black folks who use these laws when they feel threatened are not afforded the same protections and liberties as their White counterparts. They go to prison at a far higher rate. So, when you see how the law is enforced, implicitly you know who the law is meant for and whom the law protects.”

A victim of America’s gun culture and vigilante violence, Jordan Davis, was killed in 2012 by Michael Dunn, a white man, at a gas station in Jacksonville, Florida. Dunn fired ten shots into the car in which Jordan and his three friends were seated. His mother, Lucy McBath, has since become active in the movement against gun violence, as faith outreach leader of Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, and now a candidate for the Georgia House of Representatives. “As a Black woman, I understood we were disproportionately affected by gun violence … and we have been dealing with this silently, and I wanted to challenge the system where guns were used against young Black men,” McBath told Atlanta Black Star. “How are the laws that let this happen again and again, and why were representatives not representing our interests? Why weren’t clergy speaking out?” she added.

“I know a lot of people didn’t hear about stand your ground until Trayvon [Martin] was killed, and then Jordan. I decided we have to talk about the NRA — profit over safety — and I wanted to show that [not] only poor Black people die, but, no, all demographics are suffering from this extremist culture,” McBath said, pointing to the prevalence of gun violence in suicides among white men, the killing of women by intimate partners, and the fact that Black people are not committing the school mass shootings.

McBath said the deaths of her own son and Trayvon Martin were the catalysts that made her decide to run for office. Following the 2016 election, she asked God for direction to expand the movement. Trump was making his presence felt in Georgia among pro-NRA lawmakers, and even progressives were voting for dangerous gun legislation, she noted. “I was angry. Who was going to stand up to the legislators that are being pandered to by the NRA?” she asked.

McBath believes the Parkland shooting has become the catalyst for change against an extremist gun culture and the NRA, because of those who are demanding change — young people. “I absolutely do, because of the demographic under assault who are children and millennials, and they are demanding to the White House that they protect them,” she said. “In the civil rights movement, who were on the front lines? The college students and the high school students. It is no different today. This is the whole demographic we needed to stand up, because their bodies had been missing. They have to be engaged they have to be on the front lines.

“Our gun culture is immoral and unethical. We are no longer trusting in God. People are placing far more trust in their gun. We are already self-destructing,” McBath added.

It is because of the racism in the NRA that groups such as the National African Americans Gun Association (NAAGA) have emerged as an alternative, to take a holistic approach to gun rights in the African-American community. “In every way, the NRA should be considered a terrorist organization and the military arm of the far-right. They are organized. They are armed. They are legally and politically protected,” Dr. Potter said. An NRA ad featuring spokeswoman Dana Loesch captures Potter’s sentiment:

Meanwhile, the police continue to murder Black people, and, as Dr. Potter argues, the courts continue to support deadly force against them, reinforcing the notion that there are laws protecting white gun ownership and preventing Black ownership.

“These laws are pushed and supported by the National Fraternal Order of Police and the Republican Party — especially the most conservative gun-toting factions. These standards, though, not only allow for, but direct the use of force against citizens not only for exercising their Second Amendment rights — but for giving the perception that they are exercising their Second Amendment rights,” she said. “In this way, Tamir Rice could be legally gunned down for playing with a toy. In this way a caregiver for an autistic man playing with a toy truck could be shot for posing a ‘reasonable’ threat even though no gun was present. And in the most blatant acts of murder driven hypocrisy, Philando Castile — a teacher legally armed with a weapon — could be shot dead on camera in front of his fiancée and her small child without fear of any legal consequence whatsoever.” Potter believes that if individual gun ownership was a nonpartisan, race-neutral proposition, the NRA would have defended Castile.

Valerie Castile, Philando Castile’s mother, called out NRA head Wayne LaPierre for not standing up for her son, a so-called “good guy with a gun” the group always touts. “If he really cared about the good guys out here, he would have stood up for my son. It’s about money,” Valerie Castile said of LaPierre. “He didn’t say anything because my son was Black,” Valerie Castile argued. “My son went through the same programs as every gun owner. But they started nitpicking, ‘He should have done this, he should have done that.’ The bottom line is that he told the officer he had a weapon, and the officer became a selfish man, only thinking about his own life and family. He chose to shoot my son several times. One of the bullets was 16 inches from that baby in the backseat.”

Gun control, the NRA and Black people make for a complicated history, in a nation where issues of race, guns, violence, money and power are thrown in the mix.

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