The Second Amendment and Racism
Actor Danny Glover recently stepped outside of his role as an actor and assumed the roles of historian and constitutional scholar:
I don’t know if you know the genesis of the right to bear arms,’ said Glover, well known for his roles in the ‘Lethal Weapon’ franchise. ‘The Second Amendment comes from the right to protect themselves from slave revolts, and from uprisings by Native Americans,’ he said.
Glover should stick to his day job. The main concern of the Founding Fathers in regard to the Second Amendment was to provide the citizenry the ability to resist a tyrannical government. As James Madison noted in Federalist 46:
Besides the advantage of being armed, which the Americans possess over the people of almost every other nation, the existence of subordinate governments, to which the people are attached, and by which the militia officers are appointed, forms a barrier against the enterprises of ambition, more insurmountable than any which a simple government of any form can admit of. Notwithstanding the military establishments in the several kingdoms of Europe, which are carried as far as the public resources will bear, the governments are afraid to trust the people with arms. And it is not certain, that with this aid alone they would not be able to shake off their yokes. But were the people to possess the additional advantages of local governments chosen by themselves, who could collect the national will and direct the national force, and of officers appointed out of the militia, by these governments, and attached both to them and to the militia, it may be affirmed with the greatest assurance, that the throne of every tyranny in Europe would be speedily overturned in spite of the legions which surround it. Let us not insult the free and gallant citizens of America with the suspicion, that they would be less able to defend the rights of which they would be in actual possession, than the debased subjects of arbitrary power would be to rescue theirs from the hands of their oppressors. Let us rather no longer insult them with the supposition that they can ever reduce themselves to the necessity of making the experiment, by a blind and tame submission to the long train of insidious measures which must precede and produce it.
Prior to the Civil War there were laws passed in many of the slave holding states attempting to restrict the right to keep and bear arms to whites. Challenges to these laws by free blacks almost always asserted the second amendment. A passage in the Dred Scott decision indicates what a preoccupation blacks carrying weapons was to slaveholders:
It would give to persons of the negro race, who were recognized as citizens in any one State of the Union, the right to enter every other State whenever they pleased, singly or in companies, without pass or passport, and without obstruction, to sojourn there as long as they pleased, to go where they pleased at every hour of the day or night without molestation, unless they committed some violation of law for which a white man would be punished; and it would give them the full liberty of speech in public and in private upon all subjects upon which its own citizens might speak; to hold public meetings upon political affairs, and to keep and carry arms wherever they went. And all of this would be done in the face of the subject race of the same color, both free and slaves, inevitably producing discontent and insubordination among them, and endangering the peace and safety of the State.
After the Civil War freed blacks set up militias to defend their rights. Eliminating these militias and taking away from blacks their second amendment rights was a key goal of the white supremacist “Redeemer” governments that came to power after Reconstruction.
In the case of Florida v. Stone, 4 So.2d 700 (Fla. 1941), the Florida Supreme Court overturned the conviction of a white man for violating a gun control statute on the grounds that the law violated the second amendment. In his concurring opinion, Justice Rivers Buford explained that the law was never intended to apply to whites:
I know something of the history of this legislation. The original Act of 1893 was passed when there was a great influx of negro laborers in this State drawn here for the purpose of working in turpentine and lumber camps. The same condition existed when the Act was amended in 1901 and the Act was passed for the purpose of disarming the negro laborers and to thereby reduce the unlawful homicides that were prevalent in turpentine and saw-mill camps and to give the white citizens in sparsely settled areas a better feeling of security. The statute was never intended to be applied to the white population and in practice has never been so applied.
Mr. Glover is correct that racism and the second amendment are connected. Racists have been invariably opposed to the granting of a right to keep and bear arms to all Americans.