It’s not at all surprising that Ronald Reagan became a big gun control guy when the Black Panthers were marching on the California state capitol and then became a big gun guy when the NRA became a tool of white backlash and right-wing extremism. It fits the entire history of guns in America. As Carol Anderson, one of our most insightful commenters about the reality in which we face today and how it connects to the past, notes, in America, the obsession over guns goes back to keeping slaves in line.
But “a well-regulated militia” wasn’t, as the story goes, about how valiant and effective the militias were in repelling the British. George Washingtonwas disgusted with their lack of fighting ability and the way the men would just cut and run from battling against a professional army. Nor was the militia reliable as a force to uphold the law. In Shays’ Rebellion, bands of armed white men, who were in the state’s militia, attacked the Massachusetts government because of foreclosures and debt seizures, demonstrating, again, how unreliable the militia were. Boston merchants had to hire mercenaries to put down the rebellion.
On the other hand, where the militia had been steadfast was in controlling the enslaved Black population. Access to guns for white people was essential for this function.
In 1788, at the constitutional ratification convention in Virginia, a major source of contention was that the draft constitution had placed the training and arming of the states’ militia under federal control. Virginians Patrick Henry and George Mason balked, and raised the specter of a massive slave revolt left unchecked because Congress could not be trusted to summon the forces to protect the plantation owners. Mason warned that if and when Virginia’s enslaved rose up (as they had before), whites would be left “defenseless”. Patrick Henry explained that white plantation owners would be abandoned because “the north detests slavery”. In short, Black people had to be subjugated and contained and state control of the militia was the way to do that.
The sheer brutality of human bondage, where plantation owners were notorious for “barbarities such as scalding, burning, castrating and extracting the tongues or eyes of slaves”, had created an overwhelming fear among whites of the enslaved’s capacity and desire for retribution. A series of revolts in the 1600s and 1700s terrified white residents and led to a slew of laws forbidding Black people from having any weapons, including guns. The militias’ all-important role was to quash those revolts, especially if the uprising was widespread, as in the 1740 Stono Rebellion in South Carolina.
This function of the militias was so important during the war of independence that governments such as that in South Carolina devoted the lion’s share of their white manpower to the containment of the enslaved. As a result, the colony did not have enough white men to join the Continental Army and repel the British. The calculus was simple: it was more important to the plantation owners in the colonial government to maintain slavery and control Black people than to fight for American independence.
In other words, concerns about keeping enslaved Black people in check are the context and background to the second amendment. The same holds true for today.
In May 2000, NRA president Charlton Heston invoked the constitution and then asserted, as he held a 19th-century-era rifle over his head, that the only way that Al Gore and other liberals would take his gun would be “from my cold dead hands”. That unyielding statement was a response to his people supposedly being under attack. Three years earlier Heston had declared: “Heaven help the God-fearing, law-abiding, Caucasian, middle-class, Protestant or – even worse – admitted heterosexual, gun-owning or – even worse – NRA-card-carrying, average working stiff.”
The story of Chuck Heston going from March on Washington attending, civil rights supporting Hollywood liberal to right-wing extremist is interesting in its own right. But that’s a digression. The point remains that the root of American gun culture is keeping Black people in line and the fear mongering among whites today that spurs gun sales is just another version of that.