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Zirpoli: Race has been major factor in history of gun control in US

Who said, “I see no reason why on the street today a citizen should be carrying loaded weapons.”

That would be California Gov. Ronald Reagan in 1964.

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Reagan was responding to black Americans who, tired of being harassed and physically attacked, decided to arm themselves in order to protect themselves and their families. Black leaders at the time reminded their communities that the U.S. Constitution allowed them to purchase guns and that California law allowed them to carry their guns in public. Thus, Reagan’s response.

Reagan, responding to media pictures of black men walking in public with guns, decided that California needed stronger gun control laws.

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Democrats and Republicans in California agreed, gun control laws were passed, and they were very popular at the time.

Historically, gun control laws became popular when black soldiers from the Civil War returned home with their guns and white folks became concerned. They demanded that their politicians pass laws restricting black people from owning guns. And they did.

The Ku Klux Klan, explains Adam Winkler, author of the book, “Gun Fight,” “began as a gun-control organization” to deal with freed blacks coming home with guns after fighting for the Union during the Civil War. Their goal was to “achieve complete black disarmament,” according to Winkler. I found these “disarmament campaigns” interesting given the number of white men today who worry about politicians wanting to take their guns.

Many states passed laws forbidding black Americans from owning guns. When Florida became a state in 1845, one of the state’s first laws gave white people permission to search the homes of black families and remove any guns they found.

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These laws were upheld by the courts, notwithstanding the Second Amendment touted so vigorously today. In Virginia, Tennessee, North Carolina, and the new state of Florida, dozens of laws kept guns out of the hands of black Americans. Even after the passage of the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution which provided equal protection to all Americans, including black Americans, state legislatures and local governments used Black Code laws to keep black Americans from purchasing guns and ammunition. Black Codes were used in many states in 1865 and 1866 in response to the Emancipation Proclamation and the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution which abolished slavery. Local and state governments used these special regulations to maintain control over black Americans even after they were freed. This control included their access to guns.

Reagan ran for president in 1980 with the full support of the NRA.

Interestingly, he no longer wondered or asked why any American would need to walk around in public with loaded weapons. The NRA had grown from a hunting and sporting organization into a lobbying group for gun manufacturers, and they made generous donations to Reagan’s campaign and others, Democrats and Republicans, who became defenders of the Second Amendment.

It is interesting that at one time in our history, for all the wrong reasons, regulating gun ownership was widely accepted as common sense for the common good. Not yet afraid to go up against a strong lobbying powerhouse, politicians were better able to represent the general well-being of their constituents — mostly their white constituents — and not just the interests of the NRA and the gun manufacturers they represent.

With over 255 million guns in our homes, Americans have the highest gun ownership in the world. In 2015 Americans made up under 5 percent of the world’s population, yet owned 42 percent of the world’s privately owned guns. Today, as throughout our history, the overwhelming majority of these guns are owned by white men who also have the highest gun suicide rate of any group in our nation.

Given the number of unarmed black men shot and killed by police in recent years, most folks might understand why it is easier today for a white man to walk into a public place armed than it is for a black man. As it has throughout our history, race has played and continues to play a role in the evolution of gun laws and policies in the United States.

Tom Zirpoli is the program coordinator for the Human Services Management graduate program at McDaniel College. He writes from Westminster. His column appears Wednesdays. Email him at tzirpoli@mcdaniel.edu.

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