383 Years of Reasons Why Gun Violence Persists
Banned Histories of Race in America
Colonial Virginia acquired its first group of enslaved Africans in 1619, but that “slavery” part wasn’t really spelled out until 1640. That’s when the ruling elites passed a bunch of laws drawing the original red line between what it meant to be a white indentured servant and a Black “slave”. That was the moment that decided this country’s relationship with its Black residents and we’ve been fighting that decision in one way or another ever since.
There was another national relationship established in that moment, because right then, in colonial Virginia of 1640 this land also saw its very first gun laws. These laws were written with a specific purpose of, “prohibiting negroes, slaves and free, from carrying weapons including clubs.” They really wanted to make sure, “That all such free Mulattoes, Negroes and Indians… shall appear without arms.”
This would be despicable enough if these restrictions were just regular ol’ institutionalized race-based community constraints, but in fact, their context made those laws an especially contemptible kind of damnation. This was a time when most work was done off the land which meant persistent confrontations with bobcats, pumas, bears and wolves by the pack. To be disarmed at that time in that place not only meant severely limited employment options, but a significantly higher chance of meeting the most brutal, bloody and vicious death.
As the decades passed Virginia continued writing even more laws specifically disarming Black people. South Carolina followed and eventually the Second Amendment became the first national gun law in 1791. Surprisingly short, it reads, “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.” Nothing about “no negroes” there! All good, right? Well, the following year the Militia Act of 1792 defined that “Militia” as white-only, adjusting the oversight.
From that point until the end of the Civil War there were more than 20 laws passed throughout the country limiting or outright banning Black possession of firearms. Naturally, you might think that losing the Civil War would stop southern states from writing new racist gun laws, but you’d be wrong. Alabama passed one in 1866 not only banning Black ownership of guns, but also declaring it illegal for anyone of any race to give or sell guns to Black people. In 1875 the Supreme Court ruled in U.S. v. Cruikshank that the federal government was just completely powerless to stop the KKK from stealing Black peoples’ guns. In 1893 Alabama passed a law trying to tax guns out of Black peoples’ reach. A nearly identical law was copied in Texas in 1907 and the National Firearms Act of 1934 attempted to do the same thing on the federal level.
The Gun Control Act of 1968 was the most widely known gun control legislation of the 20th century and it’s been called everything from “race based” to “Black control”. The 1994 Assault Weapon Ban was not only part of the wildly racist crime bill of that year, but according to Christopher Koper, the author of the definitive study on the Assault Weapon Ban, “the ban did not appear to effect gun violence during the time it was in effect.”
Now, it would be very easy to look at the points I’ve made here and twist them into the claim that the very idea of gun legislation is racist. It is so easy to do that the NRA does it all the time. That organization’s shocking and well documented racism (including their absolute glee in backing gun control legislation when it benefits white supremacy) should tell you that they don’t say very much without a whole lot of bad faith.
The concept of a law is not inherently racist, but the intention behind them frequently is. You can see that same intention in notoriously racist gun advertising, from magazine ads of old to twitter bots currently advertising guns under racist tweets. That intention was revealed in the frequent gun sale spikes during the Obama administration. Those spikes were so severe the media frequently called him “The Best Gun Salesman in America”.
Whenever the potential of a new gun law arises, it’s the trained reflex of right-wing politicians to gesture manically at the Midwest while screeching “Chicago!” The implication is that despite both Chicago and Illinois having very restrictive gun laws, “certain” people still get their Black hands on firearms. What never gets mentioned is the fact that Chicago borders Indiana, a state so lacking in any type of gun laws, licensing or permits that guns independently on their own could form a tidal wave drown all bordering states. This is left out, of course, because “Chicago” is a racist dog whistle and Indiana is sweet, innocent Mike Pence country.
The question is not about bump stocks or magazine capacity. It’s not about the urban-rural divide or what is or isn’t an assault rifle. The prevalence of gun violence in this country is not due to a lack of participation in the public square nor is it because the arguments just aren’t good enough. The problem is that in the moment when the elites decided Black people were sub-human they also decided guns could only be bad if held by those Black sub-human hands, a decision that has been constantly, continuously, culturally and legally replicated by elites for the nearly four-hundred years since.
We can debate age limits and mental health. We can turn our schools into prisons and fill every spare square foot of this country with cameras and cops. But until we confront just how fundamental white supremacy is to this country we will continue to be a world leader in gun violence. If the entire history of gun laws in this country is any indicator, anyway.