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A Historian’s Revealing Research on Race and Gun Laws

Historians in the News
tags: guns, gun control, Gun Laws



In a provocative piece published by ProPublica on November 24, Lois Beckett explores how the debate over gun laws frequently fails to address the disproportionate impact that gun violence has on black men, who make up 6 percent of the U.S. population but roughly half of its gun murder victims. Mass shootings like Newtown and Aurora capture the public’s attention, but “by most counts they represent less than 1 percent of all gun homicides,” she notes. While the calls for reform that come in the wake of such high-profile incidents — like universal background checks and banning assault weapons — address gun violence in general, they don’t specifically tackle the inner city gun violence that kills black men, which is driven largely by crime and street corner feuds.

Focusing on the underfunded Operation Ceasefire, Beckett makes the casethat a lack of political will hampers efforts to prevent the murders of black men: as long as the deaths are confined to the inner city, she argues, the problem is viewed as simply an inner city crisis, not a national one. 

Beckett’s article provides a kind of companion volume to a spate of recentpieces that have probed the separate but related question of why an ascendent generation of black activists has not made gun reform a priority. Saul Cornell, a professor of history at Fordham University, is very familiar with the shorthand answer that some have given to the second question: Gun control is racist. His research on the history of U.S. gun regulations also shows why that notion is wrong. But before we hear from him, it’s helpful to quickly review where the idea came from.

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The argument has been around since at least 1995, when the conservative historian Clayton Cramer published an article titled “The Racist Roots of Gun Control” in the Kansas Journal of Law and Public Policy. His thesis was popularized in 2013 by then-National Rifle Association president David Keene in the wake of the Newtown massacre, when gun-rights advocates sought a way to reframe the gun debate around civil rights just as Congress was considering new gun regulations.

“You know, when you go back in our history, the initial wave of [gun-control laws] was instituted after the Civil War to deny blacks the ability to defend themselves,” Keene told the Daily Caller.

About a month after Keene made those comments, the Center for Urban Renewal and Education, a conservative think tank, ran a popular YouTube video that graphically depicts a lynching. A title card says, “A call for background checks invokes painful memories of Jim Crow and black codes,” laws passed in the South shortly after the Civil War that restricted the freedoms of African-Americans, among them the right to carry firearms.

Two years later, this reading of history has become conventional wisdom in gun rights circles. Here’s how Cornell believes it squares with the actual record. 

Let’s get right to the big question. Some gun-rights advocates argue that the initial aim of gun control was to keep firearms away from African-Americans. Is that accurate?

It’s a half-truth. There’s a long history of gun regulation in the United States. Some of the regulations have to do with slavery, but most don’t. Conservatives are taking one strand of history and making it seem like that’s the whole story. In fact, there were a lot of other gun regulations in the 18th and 19th centuries, and they had nothing to do with race or slavery. In general, that’s one of the biggest problems with the debate — the history is so complex, and if you just pick out little bits, you can construct any story you want. ...

Read entire article at The Trace


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