by Ellen Isaacs
From the earliest days of this nation, built on racism, the carrying of arms has meant the suppression of people of color. It was that way in the 1700s, and it is that way today. Like much of the policy laid out by the founders of the U.S., the real point of the second amendment was to protect profits, which at that time meant insuring the survival of slavery. To quote an article in the Guardian on 10/17 by Alan Yuhas, what the second amendment says is:
“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….
Carl Bogus, a law professor at Roger Williams University, has argued that James Madison wrote the second amendment in part to reassure his home state of Virginia, where slave owners were terrified of revolts and wary of northerners who would undermine the system. ‘The militia were at that stage almost exclusively a slave-control tool in the south,’ he said’ You gave Congress the power to arm the militia – if Congress chooses not to arm our militia, well, we all know what happens.’
The federalist Madison’s compromise, according to Bogus, was to promise a bill of rights. After weeks of tense debate, his federalists narrowly won the vote to ratify the constitution. He writes an amendment that gives the states the right to have an armed militia, by the people arming themselves.
A year later, the federal government passed a law requiring every man eligible for his local militia to acquire a gun and register with authorities. (The law was only changed in 1903.)”
In fact, Georgia had passed laws in the 1750s requiring all plantation owners or their male white employees to be members of the Georgia Militia, and to make monthly inspections of the quarters of all slaves in order to watch for any sign of an uprising. This was necessary because, hundreds of substantial slave uprisings had occurred across the South.
During the Revolutionary war, British generals offered freedom to escaped slaves who joined their forces, and other freed slaves served under George Washington. Slave owners and supporters such as James Madison, George Mason and Patrick Henry worried that the new Constitution, which gave the federal government the power to raise an army, could be used as a tool to free slaves. Thus they also saw the states’ rights clause of the amendment as a protection against any federal government attempt to end slavery. (http://www.truth-out.org/news/item/13890-the-second-amendment-was-ratified-to-preserve-slavery)
INDIVIDUAL GUN RIGHTS IS A NEW CONCEPT
In the 1970s, the National Rifle Association was taken over by a group who touted gun ownership as a sacred individual freedom, something not intended by the writers of the Constitution. Only in 2008, for the first time in the country’s history, did the Supreme Court explicitly affirm an individual’s right to keep a weapon at home for self-defense. In fact, there was a British tradition going back to the 14th century that prohibited civilians from going about with arms, which was incorporated into colonial law as early as 1682. (https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2015/09/the-origins-of-public-carry-jurisprudence-in-the-slave-south/407809/)
Although many gun owners use their weapons for purely recreational purposes, such as hunting or target shooting, many also see their weapons as necessary for self-defense. However, studies have shown that neither crime in general or crimes against individuals who own guns are mitigated by gun ownership. (http://fair.org/extra/the-self-defense-self-delusion/). In addition, individual gun ownership remains, two centuries later, correlated with racism. Most gun owners, who are disproportionately white, and who picture themselves as potential victims of individual crime, imagine the criminals to be men of color. Not surprising in our very racist and segregated society (https://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/11/05/gun-ownership-racism_n_4220727.html). When Philando Castile, a law abiding black man, told a cop he had a gun in his car during a traffic stop, he was seen as a threat and murdered.
At times, guns have been used by the oppressed to protect themselves, such as during the civil rights movement. The Deacons for Defense used weapons to keep safe anti-racist marchers, even Martin Luther King, and to fend off murderous bands of the KKK. The response of the FBI was to intimidate and infiltrate the Deacons, not the racist groups they were defending against.
Of course the most heavily armed persons in our society today are the police and the military, who kill thousands of civilians every year at home and abroad, most of whom are non-white. Racism remains the rationalization for these killings, from the cop who shoots an unarmed black man and has little fear of retribution – not one has been convicted of murder- to the soldier who is won to slaughter “gooks” or “ragheads”. However, there are times when the ordinary workers inducted into the armed forces have recognized that they are being asked to fight against other workers and die for a cause against their own interests. One such time was during the Russian revolution when the soldiers turned on the czar instead of the armies of other imperialist nations. In the US, blacks and whites, fought to end slavery in the Civil War, and in Vietnam about 25% of enlisted men refused to fight by the end of the war and even “fragged” their officers.
And so we must think about the question of guns in this society, as about all other questions, by asking who is making laws or using weapons – be it guns or the media or the education system or the police – for what ends? As in all other areas, we see that gun laws are made and enforced so as to protect the wealthy and those who have been won to accept their racist policies. If we choose to learn to use or own a gun, it should be for the day when we will, in concert with others, be called upon to defend against racism and oppression.