The Secret History of Firearms
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The eighth-grade students gathering on the west lawn of the state capitol in Sacramento were planning to lunch on fried chicken with California's new governor, Ronald Reagan, and then tour the granite building constructed a century earlier to resemble the nation's Capitol. But the festivities were interrupted by the arrival of 30 young black men and women carrying .357 Magnums, 12-gauge shotguns, and .45-caliber pistols.
The 24 men and six women climbed the capitol steps, and one man, Bobby Seale, began to read from a prepared statement. "The American people in general and the black people in particular," he announced, must Seale then turned to the others. "All right, brothers, come on. We're going inside." He opened the door, and the radicals walked straight into the state's most important government building, loaded guns in hand. No metal detectors stood in their way.
It was May 2, 1967, and the Black Panthers' invasion of the California statehouse launched the modern gun-rights movement.
The text of the Second Amendment is maddeningly ambiguous. It merely says, "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." Yet to each side in the gun debate, those words are absolutely clear.
Gun-rights supporters believe the amendment guarantees an individual the right to bear arms and outlaws most gun control. Hard-line gun-rights advocates portray even modest gun laws as infringements on that right and oppose widely popular proposals-such as background checks for all gun purchasers-on the ground that any gun-control measure, no matter how seemingly reasonable, puts us on the slippery slope toward total civilian disarmament.
This attitude was displayed on the side of the National Rifle Association's former headquarters: THE RIGHT OF THE PEOPLE TO KEEP AND BEAR ARMS SHALL NOT BE INFRINGED. The first clause of the Second Amendment, the part about "a well regulated Militia," was conveniently omitted. To the gun lobby, the Second Amendment is all rights and no regulation.
Although decades of electoral defeats have moderated the gun-control movement's stated goals, advocates still deny that individual Americans have any constitutional right to own guns. The Second Amendment, in their view, protects only state militias. Too politically weak to force disarmament on the nation, gun-control hard-liners support any new law that has a chance to be enacted, however unlikely that law is to reduce gun violence. For them, the Second Amendment is all regulation and no rights.
While the two sides disagree on the meaning of the Second Amendment, they share a similar view of the right to bear arms: both see such a right as fundamentally inconsistent with gun control, and believe we must choose one or the other. Gun rights and gun control, however, have lived together since the birth of the country. Americans have always had the right to keep and bear arms as a matter of state constitutional law. Today, 43 of the 50 state constitutions clearly protect an individual's right to own guns, apart from militia service.
Yet we've also always had gun control. The Founding Fathers instituted gun laws so intrusive that, were they running for office today, the NRA would not endorse them. While they did not care to completely disarm the citizenry, the founding generation denied gun ownership to many people: not only slaves and free blacks, but law-abiding white men who refused to swear loyalty to the Revolution.
For those men who were allowed to own guns, the Founders had their own version of the "individual mandate" that has proved so controversial in President Obama's health-care-reform law: they required the purchase of guns. A 1792 federal law mandated every eligible man to purchase a military-style gun and ammunition for his service in the citizen militia. Such men had to report for frequent musters-where their guns would be inspected and, yes, registered on public rolls.
Opposition to gun control was what drove the black militants to visit the California capitol with loaded weapons in hand. The Black Panther Party had been formed six months earlier, in Oakland, by Huey Newton and Bobby Seale. Like many young African Americans, Newton and Seale were frustrated with the failed promise of the civil-rights movement. Brown v. Board of Education, the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 were legal landmarks, but they had yet to deliver equal opportunity. In Newton and Seale's view, the only tangible outcome of the civil-rights movement had been more violence and oppression, much of it committed by the very entity meant to protect and serve the public: the police.
Inspired by the teachings of Malcolm X, Newton and Seale decided to fight back. Before he was assassinated in 1965, Malcolm X had preached against Martin Luther King Jr.'s brand of nonviolent resistance. Because the government was "either unable or unwilling to protect the lives and property" of blacks, he said, they had to defend themselves "by whatever means necessary." Malcolm X illustrated the idea for Ebony magazine by posing for photographs in suit and tie, peering out a window with an M-1 carbine semiautomatic in hand. Malcolm X and the Panthers described their right to use guns in self-defense in constitutional terms. "Article number two of the constitutional amendments," Malcolm X argued, "provides you and me the right to own a rifle or a shotgun."
Guns became central to the Panthers' identity, as they taught their early recruits that "the gun is the only thing that will free us-gain us our liberation." They bought some of their first guns with earnings from selling copies of Mao Zedong's Little Red Book to students at the University of California at Berkeley. In time, the Panther arsenal included machine guns; an assortment of rifles, handguns, explosives, and grenade launchers; and "boxes and boxes of ammunition," recalled Elaine Brown, one of the party's first female members, in her 1992 memoir. Some of this mat?riel came from the federal government: one member claimed he had connections at Camp Pendleton, in Southern California, who would sell the Panthers anything for the right price. One Panther bragged that, if they wanted, they could have bought an M48 tank and driven it right up the freeway.
Along with providing classes on black nationalism and socialism, Newton made sure recruits learned how to clean, handle, and shoot guns. Their instructors were sympathetic black veterans, recently home from Vietnam. For their "righteous revolutionary struggle," the Panthers were trained, as well as armed, however indirectly, by the U.S. government.
Civil-rights activists, even those committed to nonviolent resistance, had long appreciated the value of guns for self-protection. Martin Luther King Jr. applied for a permit to carry a concealed firearm in 1956, after his house was bombed. His application was denied, but from then on, armed supporters guarded his home. One adviser, Glenn Smiley, described the King home as "an arsenal." William Worthy, a black reporter who covered the civil-rights movement, almost sat on a loaded weapon
in a living-room armchair during a stop simply by at King's parsonage.
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