Gun Control’s Racist Origins

Nicholas Johnson in Library of Law and Liberty, December 07, 2012

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Article written by Professor Nicholas Johnson.

Generally there is no need to respond to absurdities. Ignore them and they wither away.  The temptation is to dismiss Jason Whitlock’s comment that the NRA is the new KKK as just such a thing. If you have not been following this, Whitlock’s wisdom on firearms policy was invoked by Bob Costas and that has given him a platform to share more of his deeply flawed insights.

The worry is that it takes a certain amount of cultural literacy to recognize an absurdity, especially when it is given a veneer of legitimacy in print and on the airwaves. This is a particular concern on issues of firearms policy where, as I demonstrated in my last post, many people hold wildly inaccurate views of the basic facts.

Presumably the suggested equivalency between the NRA and the KKK is a commentary on the view that the Second Amendment protects a substantive individual right to arms and that owning firearms is a rational choice and legitimate exercise of personal autonomy within our political system. The implication is that this choice should be no more appealing to Blacks than membership in the Klan. (Actually it’s even worse, as Whitlock seems to suggest the NRA, or some unnamed co-conspirator, is also responsible for the illegal drug trade)

Perhaps Whitlock truly believes what he says and is unreachable. But for his enablers, who should know better, here are some basic data.

Even the roughest cut at the question shows that substantial swath of the Black community would reject Whitlock’s thesis. National polling by the Pew Research Center recently asked,  “What do you think is more important – to protect the right of Americans to own guns, or to control gun ownership?” Fifty-four percent of whites and 30 percent of Blacks said it was more important to protect gun rights. Respondents were also asked “Should States and Localities be able to pass laws banning handguns?” 64 percent of Blacks said yes and 30 percent said no.  Based on these results, Whitlock must conclude that a third of the Black community are Klan sympathizers.  And that actually is the least absurd implication of his “analysis.”

Pressing further into the details the tables actually turn dramatically against the Whitlock hypothesis. More finely grained studies caution skepticism about findings (like the Pew survey) based on national data, because the size of the Black sample is usually very small. It turns out that when asked a series of more specific questions, in targeted surveys, Blacks evince support for self-defense and gun rights, that rivals and sometimes exceeds that of whites.

Early work by Paula McClain examined perceptions of risk, patterns of gun ownership and attitudes toward gun regulation between Blacks and whites at the neighborhood rather than the national level.  Notably this work was conducted during a period where overall support for banning handguns was much higher than it is today. McClain surveyed Blacks and whites in distinct neighborhoods categorized by race and risk factors. She found the rate of reported gun ownership between whites and Blacks relatively the same. More Black Klan members I suppose Whitlock would say.

With regard to differential Black and white attitudes about gun regulation, McClain found that the number of questions and specificity of the questions made important differences. The responses to those questions suggest that Whitlock’s may be a quite marginal viewpoint.  Here are some examples:

    The policy option with the least support among the groups was the confiscation of all weapons except for those of the police.  The support for confiscation ranged from high of 26% among blacks in a high risk area to a low of 10.16 among blacks in a low risk area.” …

    Support for having the government sell firearms through a government owned stores, much like liquor is sold in states like Pennsylvania’s, also varied substantially.  Blacks in high risk neighborhoods are again the least supportive – 19.4%

    The indication that the supportive responses vary depending on the policy option is a significant finding. It is significant because previous studies, which have primarily asked about support for laws requiring permitting, have consistently found that a majority of people support gun control. … The variability in the responses to the other questions however, clearly calls into question the reliability of a one-item indicator as a measure of gun control attitudes.

Other detailed studies show that a significant cohort of Blacks favor prohibition or other strong limits on the criminal micro-culture but disfavor blanket prohibition that would impede self-defense by trustworthy people. A study by Brennan and Lizotte, found that Blacks actually disfavored gun bans at higher levels than whites, even though they favored measures like permits and registration at levels higher than whites.

Whitlock’s commentary is also problematic at another level that I elaborate in detail in my forthcoming article, Firearms Law and The Black Community:An Assessment Of The Modern Orthodoxy (Connecticut Law Review) and a forthcoming book based on that research, “Negros with Guns: The Dual Tradition of Non-Violent Social Change and Individual Self-Defense (Prometheus).  This work explains that the basic premise of the modern gun control movement – that people should rely on government for personal security- is wildly at odds with the Black experience in America. No group in the nation has better reason to doubt the competency and benevolence of the state. For most of the Black experience in America, the state has been an overt menace.

So it is no surprise that for most of our history, the Black community from the leadership to the grassroots has explicitly and aggressively endorsed the right of armed self-defense and firearms ownership. Kentucky firebrand Ida B. Wells urged that “the Winchester rifle deserved a place of honor in every Negro home.” The first generation of legal battles by the NAACP were centered on defending Blacks who had used firearms in self-defense – e.g., hiring Clarence Darrow to defend Dr.  Ossian Sweet who was mobbed for attempting move into a white neighborhood.

In every generation armed Black folk have used guns in self-defense both prosaically and heroically. And since at least the middle of the 19th century Blacks have embraced a dual policy of nonviolent social change concurrent with a clear endorsement of individual self-defense. This approach is vividly illustrated in Martin Luther King’s commentary during one of the high profile debates about the implications of the approach. After affirming the strategy of nonviolence in pursuit of group goals King says this:

    Violence exercised merely in self-defense, all societies, from the most primitive to the most cultured and civilized, accept as moral and legal.  The principle of self-defense, even involving weapons and bloodshed, has never been condemned, even by Gandhi … . When the Negro uses force in self-defense, he does not forfeit support he may even win it, by the courage and self-respect it reflects.

King plainly condemned political violence.  At the same time he and most everyone else recognized, that armed self-defense was a crucial private resource for Blacks(as it is for anyone who faces imminent violent threats).

This dichotomy is reflected continuously in the practice and policy of the leadership and the grassroots since the era of Frederick Douglass (who recommended “a good revolver as the best response to the slave catcher”).  This view prevailed unobscured  into the 1970’s, when the political class, rising on the wave of a coalition that included the newly emerging national gun control movement, embraced supply side gun control theory as the answer to the crime problem plaguing their new domains.  But as we see from the polling, even though Blacks vote reliably democratic, and the Democrat platform advances supply side gun control, many Black folk at the grass roots (and some public officials) depart from the political orthodoxy and carry forward the strong black tradition of arms, rooted in a robust and justified skepticism about the ability of the state to protect them from imminent violent threats.

It is no accident that the two seminal Second Amendment cases of our age were led by Black plaintiffs.  The concerns of people like Shelly Parker and Otis McDonald, have long driven the robust Black tradition of arms.   The benefit of arms in the hands of good people like this, for example reductions in hot burglaries and a general disincentive to criminals, are arguably more important in Black neighborhoods than elsewhere.  Moreover the fundamental justification for self-defense – the structural limits on the state’s ability to interdict imminent threats – is more pervasive in Black communities than in other places. Police response is slower. Personal threats are more common. Public resources are spread more thinly.

The only possible foundation for comments like Whitlock’s is the erroneous assumption that personal firearms render no benefits. That is demonstrably false as summarized in my previous post and illustrated extensively in my other work.   And there is no indication that the benefits of firearms ownership and use discriminate on the basis of race.

Finally, one wonders whether Whitlock even appreciates that the history of supply-side gun control in America is rooted in racism. As described in detail in my book Firearms law and the Second Amendment, the first generation of supply-side gun controls were explicitly racist. Ironically, these laws worked hand-in-hand with oppressive state regimes and terrorist organizations like the KKK. On this score Whitlock’s invocation of the KKK is ironic and perverse.

By invoking the specter of racism, Whitlock appropriates and exploits a public good that has been paid for in the sweat and blood of countless Black folk both here and gone. His cavalier deployment of this resource degrades those people and their sacrifice.  Whitlock makes hay by presuming to speak for Black people as a group.  Through the grossest invective he smears those who would disagree with him. I have to believe that he does not realize that this includes millions of lawful Black gun owners who reject the demonstrably flawed approach of relying on the state for their personal security.

Whitlock seems pervasively ignorant of the basic moving parts of the gun issue and yet his “analysis” has been elevated in our conversation as if it constitutes a serious policy critique. It is an indictment of our culture and bodes ill for the Republic, that this is the nature of our public debates.