The entwined histories of guns and race in America

Gun Rights

The Second. By Carol Anderson. Bloomsbury; 272 pages; $28 and £18.99

A BLACK MAN with a gun has been white America’s nightmare since before the republic was founded. Slave uprisings, black soldiers fighting in the country’s wars, even African-American motorists—all have spurred fear and violence backed by white-supremacist authority. In “The Second”, a compact yet sweeping history of guns and race in America, Carol Anderson argues that the right “to keep and bear arms” has never been about an abstract liberty to carry guns. Its primary role has been “black exclusion and debasement”.

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The Second Amendment, Ms Anderson writes, was born in sin. The word “slavery” never appears in the constitution. Racism is not explicitly inscribed in the Second Amendment. But, she claims, it was at the heart of the guarantee. When the 55 delegates to the Constitutional Convention (of whom 25 were slave-owners) drafted a replacement for the Articles of Confederation in 1787, they knew they needed the assent of southern states. The amendment, Ms Anderson says, was a “bribe to the South using the control of black people as the payoff”. Slave-owners, terrified that their suffering property would rise up, could be sure of arming themselves.

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Other scholars offer more nuanced accounts of the amendment’s origins, but there is little question that its “well-regulated militia” carried a glint of racial dominance. It was buttressed by the Uniform Militia Act of 1792, which required white males aged 18 to 45 to join state militias and buy guns. By contrast, a free black Virginian caught carrying a firearm in 1832 earned 39 lashes. The same punishment applied in Florida and could be enforced by white citizen patrols on the spot. In 1846 Georgia’s Supreme Court found that the Second Amendment protected the “right of the whole people, old and young, men, women and boys…to keep and bear arms of every description”. But it declined to strike down a law barring “any free persons of colour” from owning them. Several other states had similar prohibitions.

This double-barrelled interpretation contributed to centuries of brutality against defenceless black Americans. Ms Anderson recounts a South Carolina militia’s grisly response to a slave uprising in 1739 in which the enslaved were “tortured, shot, hanged and gibbeted alive”. White militias “made Swiss cheese of [black] men’s backs, especially those who had surrendered” during a massacre in Colfax, Louisiana, in 1873. President Theodore Roosevelt ordered the dishonourable discharge of 167 black soldiers in 1906, on the baseless suspicion that some in their ranks had shot whites in Brownsville, Texas.

The emptiness, for black Americans, of the right to bear arms is amply documented in Ms Anderson’s vivid retelling. No landmarks of racial progress—neither Reconstruction in the 19th century, nor the civil-rights movement of the 20th—made a difference. Nor has the National Rifle Association (NRA), the zealous defender of gun rights that came to the fore in the 1960s, targeted this prejudice. In 1967 the NRA helped draft a bill in California to disarm the Black Panthers, a black self-defence organisation that “had broken no firearms laws”. Ms Anderson notes that the association has been slow to respond to police violence against black men in recent years, including in 2016 when an officer shot and killed Philando Castile in St Paul, Minnesota, after Castile disclosed that he was (legally) carrying a gun.

Yet as a contribution to the contemporary debate over gun rights, “The Second” comes up short. The book makes no mention of Justice Clarence Thomas’s long concurrence in McDonald v Chicago (2010), which covers much of the same historical ground. Like Ms Anderson, Justice Thomas, himself African-American, lamented as tragic the white supremacy that has persistently denied gun rights to black citizens. But the right to bear arms, in his eyes, remains key to their salvation. Ms Anderson could have grappled with that reading to hone her contrary view: that the amendment is “so inherently, structurally flawed” that it can “never be a pathway to civil and human rights” for black Americans.

This article appeared in the Books & arts section of the print edition under the headline “Double standard”

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