Last year, the horrific shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newton, Connecticut put the issue of gun control back at the forefront of public debate in America. Predictably, most celebrities voiced their support of stricter gun control laws as a response to the tragedy. Samuel L. Jackson surprised many when he articulated a different opinion:
“I don't think it's about more gun control. I grew up in the South with guns everywhere and we never shot anyone. This [shooting] is about people who aren't taught the value of life,” the actor told the Los Angeles Times. Jackson’s comments recall a time when blacks could not count on the police to show up to protect their lives and property. The right to bear arms was not an issue of hunting or hobby; it was a matter of survival.
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice echoed similar sentiments in 2005 when she explained her strong support of the Second Amendment to Larry King. “The way I come out of my own personal experience, in which in Birmingham, Alabama, my father and his friends defended our community in 1962 and 1963 against White Knight Riders by going to the head of the community, the head of the cul-de-sac, and sitting there, armed. And so I’m very concerned about any abridgement of the Second Amendment.”
The history of gun control in the United States is steeped in racism. Unsurprisingly, state laws in the Antebellum South prohibited slaves from owning or carrying weapons. But some states forbade free blacks from owning firearms as well; Tennessee actually amended their state constitution to clarify that “That the free white men of this State have a right to keep and to bear arms for their common defence.”
After the Civil War, many southern states went to extensive measures to try to prevent or restrict black gun ownership. Since they could no longer abridge the Second Amendment rights based on race, as with voting, they sought to institute fees and a permit system that would deny blacks the ability to carry a firearm for all practical purposes. In fact, as late as 1941, a justice in the Florida State Supreme Court noted the history of such a gun control law:
“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…The statute was never intended to be applied to the white population and in practice has never been so applied.” (Watson v. Stone)
Bishop Harry Jackson is chairman of the High Impact Leadership Coalition and senior pastor of Hope Christian Church in Beltsville, MD, and co-authored, Personal Faith, Public Policy [FrontLine; March 2008] with Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council.