The United States has a long and sordid history of oppressing minorities in multiple ways. From the Native Americans during the period of manifest destiny, to the slaves imported from Africa, the Chinese during the construction of the railroad system. The dominant class has routinely used their hegemonic positions to abuse non-dominant races and classes. We’ll focus on the use of gun control and other systematic methods of marginalization to strip power from the African-American community. It will also discuss the changes that have happened over the last 30 years that have started to reverse many of those trends.
The story begins back before the Civil War when plantations were taking full economic advantage of the slave population. The number of slaves to owners was growing to a ratio that would soon become a threat. To stave off the threat of rebellion by the slaves, states started enacting gun control laws. “Starting in 1751, the French Black Code required Louisiana colonists to stop any blacks, and if necessary, beat ‘any black carrying any potential weapon, such as a cane.’ If a black refused to stop on demand and was on horseback, the colonist was authorized to ‘shoot to kill” (ACRU, 2015, p.12). Many people’s fears were confirmed when, during the Nat Turner rebellion, 57 white people were killed:
“Virginia’s response to Turner’s Rebellion prohibited free blacks ‘to keep or carry any firelock of any kind, any military weapon, or any powder or lead…’ The existing laws under which free blacks were occasionally licensed to possess or carry arms were also repealed, making arms possession completely illegal for free blacks” (ACRU, p.13)
This was a turning point that lead to a multitude of states that enacted gun control. Soon Tennessee, North Carolina, Georgia, and others followed suit. It culminated in the Dred Scott decision, which declared that blacks could not qualify for citizenship within the US, and were therefore not entitled to any rights afforded in the Constitution.
The Civil War began in early 1861, and in 1863, President Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, declaring all slaves free. During the war, there were around 178,000 former slaves and free men who fought the south as Union soldiers. The war ended in 1865, and while the 13th Amendment was ratified before then. It may have abolished involuntary servitude, but it did not end the oppression, segregation, discrimination and assaults on the black community at large.
Beginning in the late 1860’s-70’s, there was a large amount of resentment of southern whites towards blacks during the Reconstruction period. In an attempt to extrajudicially oppress the freed men, the first gun control organization was formed; it was called the Ku Klux Klan (ACRU, 2015, p. 15). Some black soldiers and freed men had acquired guns for the purpose of self-defense against attacks by ex-confederates. The KKK would form posses of men at night to go to the houses of former slaves then threaten, disarm, and assault or kill many of them.
The southern leadership, which was sympathetic to the KKK, desired to exert as much control over the newly freed black community as possible, this lead to the adoption of what was called the “Black Codes” (Jim Crow Laws). The first law put in place was the “Army and Navy Law”, which predates but used the same logic of the “Melting Point Laws” that came later in the 20th century. The Army and Navy Law “barred the sale of all handguns except the “Army and Navy” guns that were already owned by ex-confederate soldiers. Since the poor freedmen could not afford these expensive firearms” (Funk, 1995, p. 797).
At the turn of the century, New York began its long history of gun control by passing the Sullivan Act in 1911, which required anyone who wanted to buy a handgun to attain a permit. This was a de facto ban on all minorities and even many white immigrants as it was a ‘may issue’ permitting system, putting the entire authority of issuing permits into the hands of the police, who were notoriously corrupt and bigoted. States with ‘shall issue’ permitting systems are not allowed to discriminate based on ethnicity, religion, or class, so preventing anyone who is not a criminal from the right to carry a firearm is not an option.
Out of the Frying Pan, Into the Fryer
While oppressive laws were being passed in the South, many blacks sought to escape their persecution by moving to the Northeast and Midwest cities. This was called the great migration, and it happened in two parts, from 1910-1930, and then again after the Great Depression from 1940-1970. In total, roughly 7 million blacks moved out of one form of domination and ended up in another.
On paper, black citizens had just as many rights as white citizens, but in reality, the system was weighted in such a way that prevented any economic advantage being given to the black population. This started in the form of federal housing loans. While it was required that loans with favorable interest rates be doled out to war veterans, these loans were often denied to black veterans in good neighborhoods of metropolitan areas (Wilson, 2011, p.11). Even when they were approved, the white families in those neighborhoods would go out of their way to harass black families that were not specifically wealthy (Wilson, p. 12-13).
The denial of loans forced black families to concentrate in lower income areas, which limited employment options as well as any upward mobility. Neighborhoods were further segregated, physically, when city planners purposefully routed highways between white and black neighborhoods (Wilson, p.12). The Federal Housing Act of 1949 was an attempt to bring low cost, public housing to low-income inner city residents, but because politicians prevented ‘projects’ from being built in the wealthier suburbs, the poor become more and more concentrated into smaller and smaller areas. Though there were a number of middle class blacks who lived in the poverty-stricken areas, They gradually moved to more wealthy neighborhoods, taking their tax dollars with them, which were sorely needed to fund public housing, jobs, healthcare and education (Wilson, p. 14).
The 1950’s and 60’s were the age of the Civil Rights movement. Not only was it a time where blacks were fighting against the traditional oppression they had suffered through segregation, but they were also being met with more practices and laws that sought to disarm them. Martin Luther King Jr. was famously denied a concealed carry permit in Alabama after having his life threatened, and his house bombed. This is a case the demonstrates, perfectly, the control that local authorities in the dominant class over who was allowed permits and who wasn’t in ‘may issue’ systems. Though many people credit the assassination of John F. Kennedy as the inspiration for the Gun Control Act of 1968, one journalist, Robert Sherrill remarks:
“…concluded in his book The Saturday Night Special that the object of the Gun Control Act of 1968 was black control rather than gun control. According to Sherrill, Congress was so panicked by the ghetto riots of 1967 and 1968 that it passed the act to ‘shut off weapons access to blacks, and since they (Congress) probably associated cheap guns with ghetto blacks and thought cheapness was peculiarly the characteristic of imported military surplus and the mail-order traffic, they decided to cut off these sources while leaving over-the-counter purchases open to the affluent’” (ACRU, p. 18).
Even the term ‘Saturday Night Special’, as referring to the cheap guns targeted in the melting point laws in the later 1990’s, derives from the racist term ‘N****er-town Saturday Night’ (Funk, p. 800). The melting point laws focused around pistols that were constructed of lower quality materials than standard, more expensive pistols. They are called melting point laws because the material used for the construction of major components like the slide, are made out of a Zinc alloy called Zamak, which has a melting point of 800 degrees Fahrenheit. Most slides are made out of steel, which has a melting point of 2,750 degrees Fahrenheit. While the Zamak material has strength properties that make it safe for use in firearms, if cast correctly, and the benefit is that it is far cheaper to manufacture, those qualities were challenged by politicians who sought to eliminate low-cost firearms from the inner cities, especially during this time period.
In the 1980’s and 90’s there was a huge influx of crime in the inner cities due to the cocaine and crack epidemics, there was an explosion of the AIDS epidemic, and these two factors, alone, placed a huge cost on the health care services in low-income areas (Wilson p. 16). Because the tax dollars weren’t available from lack of adequate jobs and job benefits, the inner cities suffered even more with massive infant mortality rates and lowered life expectancy overall.
Fortunately, the 1990’s marked the end of the largest crime wave in US history. Since 1994, overall homicides and crime have dropped dramatically (Cohn, 2013). This has happened during a period where the number of guns and gun owners has increased, dramatically, while gun laws across the US have relaxed. Even the Department of Justice admitted that the 1994 Assault Weapon Ban had no appreciable effect on firearm-related crime (Roth, 1999). So it’s safe to say that there is little to no correlation between the number of guns/gun ownership and crime. There are also some plans, programs, and social changes currently underway that seek to drive the crime and poverty rates even lower.
In a report released by The American Federation of Teachers, William Wilson points out a number of goals that would help to reduce poverty, increase jobs, and healthcare these include: “Combating racial discrimination in employment…revitalizing poor urban neighborhoods…promoting job training programs…improving public education…and strengthening unions” (p. 23). There are, in fact, some studies that draw correlations between poverty and violent crime (Hsieh, 1993)
One fascinating program, called Cure Violence, uses a pathology approach to treating violence as a disease and implementing preventative measures that intervene with those most likely seeking to commit violence and then mediating a peaceful solution. This program and others like it use Cognitive behavioral therapy to help those in contention learn problem-solving behavioral techniques that teach them to avoid conflict. The success rates are extremely promising as many communities saw reductions in shootings between 27%-73% with 16%-28% being direct causal relations (Akers, 2013, p. 232-242).
An interesting and promising statistic from the Crime Prevention Research Center shows a large increase in the number of concealed carry permits by various races. The fastest growing demographics tend to be Black, Asian, and American Indian females (Lott, 2015, p.12). Organizations such as the NRA have begun catering to some minority demographics; Colion Noir, a black, well-known youtube personality is now their primary spokesperson. He is joined by Gabby Franco, a Venezuelan, and Chris Cheng, a gay male of Asian descent.
There is a shift that is ongoing in American society. While it is clear that there are still many serious racial and cultural clashes that need attention, the manner in which those confrontations are dealt with needs to change. There are still some states whose concealed carry permitting system is so expensive and time intensive that it disenfranchises minorities and lower classes. There are analogs to the melting point laws such as California’s ‘Unsafe’ pistol roster that prevent lower cost pistols from being available. All these prohibitions are done in the name of ‘public safety’, but have not been able to produce any meaningful results. In the past, the methods of the dominant group were meant to strip non-dominant groups of their dignity, their freedoms, and their opportunities. As we learn more about the human condition, psychology, science, and justice, policies that seek to empower non-dominant groups instead of dismissing them must be addressed. That is the key to having a just and equal society.
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Cohn, D., Taylor, P., Lopez, M., Gallagher, C., Parker, K., & Maas, K. (2013, May 7).
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Funk, T. (1995). Gun control and economic discrimination: The melting-point
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Hsieh, C., & Pugh, M. (1993). Poverty, Income Inequality, and Violent Crime: A Meta-Analysis of Recent Aggregate Data Studies. Criminal Justice Review, 182-202.
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Roth, J., & Koper, C. (1999). Impacts of the 1994 Assault Weapons Ban: 1994–96. National Institute of Justice Research Brief. Retrieved September 30, 2015, from https://www.ncjrs.gov/pdffiles1/173405.pdf