One way Americans have long expressed their citizenship is by exercising their right to keep and bear arms. But as guns have become an increasingly common sight at protests and government buildings, it’s clear that carrying them means different things — and presents different risks — for black and white Americans.
In Michigan recently, protesters openly carrying firearms waved American flags, Trump campaign banners and Confederate battle flags during their demonstration against Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s (D) covid-19 restrictions. Days later, black gun owners staged their own armed demonstration, escorting Rep. Sarah Anthony (D), a black state legislator, to her office on the Michigan Capitol grounds. And last Monday, armed members of the Michigan Home Guard — a self-styled “militia” group — assembled outside a barbershop that was reopening in defiance of Whitmer’s orders, intending to block any police officers who tried to shut the salon.
One of these events is not like the others, for reasons that go back to our country’s founding.
After the Revolutionary War, the second Militia Act of 1792 established that “each and every free able-bodied white male citizen” between 18 and 45 could be called up to the militia, where he would be expected to provide his own firearm for the common defense. When Supreme Court Chief Justice Roger Taney wrote that African Americans “had no rights which the white man was bound to respect,” in Dred Scott in 1856, Taney was explicit that those rights included the “the right … to keep and carry arms wherever they went.”