The Second Amendment and racism

The Second Amendment continues to provide cover for racism just as its original intent was to protect slavery.

As clearly demonstrated by Prof. Carl T. Bogus in his remarkable article, “The Hidden History of the Second Amendment,” in the Univ. of California Davis Law Review in 1998, James Madison wrote the Amendment after narrowly winning support for the Constitution in Virginia’s ratification convention.

The Constitution was a compromise that Southern states would only support if the federal government was denied power to end slavery, but the proposed document had a provision giving Congress authority to arm and control state militia. The slave owners, outnumbered and living in constant fear of slave revolts, depended on being able to muster and mobilize militia composed of all free white males. Others, led by Patrick Henry, vigorously opposed ratifying the Constitution fearing Congress could disarm state militia as a way to abolish slavery.

Madison led the fight at the Virginia convention to endorse the Constitution. His resolution, adopted by a vote of 89-79, also set up a committee to write a proposed bill of rights including a provision to let states continue to be able to arm militia on their own. That is exactly what the ultimately adopted Second Amendment does in asserting the necessity of a “well-regulated militia to secure a free state” and denying federal infringement of the “right to bear arms.”

Like the Third Amendment prohibiting quartering soldiers in homes without the owner’s permission, the Second Amendment is an anachronism. Its purpose ended with the abolition of slavery.

But what hasn’t ended is racism. In 1977 the National Rifle Association was taken over in a coup by an extremist right wing group led by former U.S. Border Patrol Chief Harlon Carter. Carter had been convicted as a teenager of murdering a Mexican boy he believed helped steal the family car. The conviction was overturned on appeal on grounds the jury had not considered a self-defense argument.

According to Adam Winkler, a Second Amendment scholar at U.C.L.A. Law School, in his 2011 book, “Gunfight: The Battle Over The Right To Bear Arms In America,” Carter’s top deputy, Neal Knox, believed Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy were killed by the government as “part of a plot to advance gun control.” The same claim has been repeatedly made by NRA fanatics about the massacres in Newtown and Aurora.

In “Bowling for Columbine,” Michael Moore’s documentary on gun violence, NRA Pres. Charlton Heston states the Second Amendment “was passed on to me by those wise old dead white guys that invented this country” and claimed the high level of gun violence in the U.S. is due to the fact that “we have a problem of more mixed ethnicity than other countries….We had enough problems with civil rights.”

This irrational racist fear of African Americans and other minorities goes far to explain the clearly defined political divide over gun control. Republican leaders who seek to suppress the vote of minorities, use code language about food stamps, and “takers” and “makers,” oppose immigration reform and have treated the first African American president with unprecedented disrespect, are the same people promoting unrestricted gun ownership.

It also explains the startling finding by the 2010 Univ. of Chicago General Social Survey that most gun owners are Republicans. In fact, 50% of Republicans own guns, but only 22% of Democrats. Assuming the Democrats are not hostile to the Obama Administration, it would seem they primarily own guns for hunting, sport and legitimate self-defense. If the same proportion of Republicans own guns for those reasons, that leaves 28% of Republicans who amass weapons out of political reasons and racist fears.

This is the tea party base of the GOP. It shows why the fight to end gun violence is not only an urgent matter of public safety but is also key to the fight against racism and essential to secure American democracy from right wing extremism.



Rick Nagin
Rick Nagin

Rick Nagin has written for People's World and its predecessors since 1970. He has been active for many years in Cleveland politics and the labor movement.